“What do we want?” “Climate justice!” “When do we want it?” “Now!” It was electrifying, being able to chant the response along with (almost) 2,000 other people at Hong Lim Park, this time last year. This was Singapore’s first-ever climate rally. People all around me were raising signs, while shouting in solidarity—a sight I never thought I’d see in stifled, apathetic Singapore.
Some memorable signs at last year’s climate rally included: “If not us… then who? If not now… then when?” “Call the firetrucks, our home is burning!” “Why are you not panicking?” (See also, my personal favourite: “Yes, O Levels are soon, so is this irreversible climate crisis!”)
I remember feeling like we were really going to see change. And that was what the organisers wanted. “Online petitions and social media posts can only go so far,” said Komal Lad, one of its organisers. “If we want […] the government to take bold action […], we have to show a critical mass of in-person support.”
SG Climate Rally had three calls to action, with the overarching goal of getting Singapore’s emissions to “peak by 2020, halve by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050”. It wanted the government to first, “Face the Truth”: declare a national climate emergency and acknowledge the threats. Second, “Combat the Crisis”: create and execute a climate mitigation master plan, addressing decarbonisation and divestment. Third, “Engage the People”: educate Singaporeans on the climate crisis and involve them in achieving its goals.
A year later, while the government has made some progress, has the government delivered on all three counts?
We can’t have it both ways
When it comes to facing the truth, the government does acknowledge the facts. But only under certain circumstances. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, for example, emphasised that Singapore needs to protect itself against rising sea levels at the National Day Rally last year. He then announced that Singapore would be spending over $100 billion on adaptation measures. In April this year, the Singapore Food Agency highlighted Singapore’s food security challenge posed by climate change. It then announced the launch of a $30 million grant to help farmers intensify local food production. No doubt these are significant, necessary, and hence sensible climate policies—it’s not like we don’t need them.
But the spirit behind a climate emergency is this: there’s so much more we don’t know. What about political and social destabilisation, which has been said to be the “greatest and least predictable risk incurred by rapid climate change”? What about tipping points? What about climate refugees? All this is to say: we can’t only talk about threats when we have a plan for them, and ignore the ones we don’t. We can’t have it both ways.
The elephant(s) in the room
The government has acknowledged the importance of climate action. PM Lee said it himself: climate change is one of the “gravest challenges facing mankind”. And the government’s actions do complement his words, to some extent. The renaming of the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources to the Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment in July, for example, was the government putting sustainability on the national agenda. Newly-appointed Minister Grace Fu added last month that the government “will promote green growth, ride on opportunities from decarbonisation and grow green industries such as carbon services and climate science.”
But does this climate action remain performative? Do these truly commensurate with the scale of the climate challenge? As climate activist Ho Xiang Tian pointed out in his speech during the climate rally: “we ignore the fact that we are the world’s fifth largest refinery export hub, or that the fuel we provide to ships and planes emit almost 3 times of our own national emissions. We don’t talk about emissions in other countries for the imported products we consume, or from the investments we make.”
The biggest elephant in the room? Singapore’s relationship with fossil fuels. Activists and scientists abroad and at home agree that the future is fossil-free. Yet, Singapore’s oil and gas industries remain “major recipients of government subsidies”. And to Singapore, instead of being recognised for what they are—two of the 100 companies responsible for 71% of global emissions—ExxonMobil is a “choice partner”, and Shell? A top employer.
This relationship runs so deep that the Asia head of ExxonMobil was one of the 15 industry leaders selected to be in the Emerging Stronger Taskforce—put together to rethink the post-Covid economy. Which failed to include any stakeholders focused on the climate. This brings us to the final point…
Engaging the people means going beyond focus group discussions
Citizen engagement is often couched in terms of focused group discussions on non-contentious topics, such as waste. (Again, citizen engagement is crucial towards crafting good climate policy, and can be incredibly insightful if the right citizens are involved: think the lower-income communities, who will be inevitably, and disproportionately affected by climate change. But that’s not the point here.) As Melissa Low, research fellow at the NUS Energy Studies Institute, points out, citizens “remain restricted by parameters set by the ministry or agency hosting the discussion.”
So if the government’s climate ambition is limited to sustainable growth (more energy-efficient buildings, electrifying Singapore’s vehicle fleet, green financing—à la “ethical capitalism”) without questioning the growth paradigm that’s a big reason why we’re in this mess, the people’s imagination will be limited too.
And on educating the people? While countries like New Zealand and Italy are integrating the climate crisis into national curricula, crude oil features in GCSE chemistry syllabi—depoliticised, of course. Meanwhile, students who criticise oil companies on social media are questioned for testing Singapore’s protest laws.
They just have to do it
Has the government delivered on all three calls to action that SG Climate Rally outlined a year ago? You decide. Anyway, that’s not where this conversation ends.
The more important question is: what now? Acknowledging that the climate crisis is not something we can geo-engineer, or pay, our way out of is a start. Addressing Singapore’s relationship with the fossil fuel industry, and outlining a concrete plan for transitioning beyond it would certainly help. And of course, it needs to start consulting stakeholders who actually care about sustainability.
Most importantly, however, it needs to ask itself to what extent will (unfettered) economic growth be its end goal. The pursuit of such a goal is certainly—at least one of the main reasons—why Singapore has grown so fast in the short five decades since its independence. But as many are now realising, this obsession with growth needs to end if we want a habitable planet.
But the government knows all this. As Ho concluded in his speech last year: “The government doesn’t need reminders of what should be done. They just have to do it.”
This year, we couldn’t have a climate rally because of the global pandemic. But I hope that we don’t have to wait another year, for another climate rally, to see the government walk the talk on climate action. (PS: in the mean time, have you checked out SG Climate Rally’s latest #TakeBack2050 campaign?)
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What's your 2050 vision? Submit it at https://www.sgclimaterally.com/takeback2050 — #TakeBack2050 is a new campaign seeking to represent diverse visions of a post-carbon Singapore, crowd-sourced from everyday humans who call Singapore home. This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that we have to start reimagining and changing our current ways of life, and our organisational systems. The visions contributed in #TakeBack2050 will be hugely important to help us build our new Calls To Action, a roadmap for climate justice and action in Singapore. Let's #TakeBack2050! — feat. @chloe.anima @lepakinsg @anthea.ong @raeesahfaridkhan @kristianmarc @attttiya @awaresingapore @nivaa.sh @alfiansaat @ang_moh_snowball @cari_on_please @oonshuan Videography by Nydia (www.nydia-hartono.com; @nydia.jpg)
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