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Nowhere to run in hot red dot

Coffee With Howard Shaw, Executive Director of the Singapore Environment Council
Sheralyn Tay sheralyn@mediacorp.com.sg
9 Feb 2007 (TODAY)

Last week, you--yes, you--were found guilty by a jury for stubbornly, persistently, causing damage to public property.

But you probably don't know that yet. After all, that pronouncement of guilt took place half a globe away in Paris.

The jury was the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the public property is Mother Earth.

It may sound alien to you. But here in Singapore, one man--with a small group of people who care--wants to hold you by the shoulders and say, "Wake up and do your part!"

Mr Howard Shaw, executive director of the Singapore Environment Council, dissects the IPCC report to tell Sheralyn Tay why it's time Singaporeans take heed.

The verdict is in: The recent IPCC has said humans are "very likely" the ones responsible for climate change. How significant is the finding?

I still find it too conservative. I would say it's 100 per cent human activity (in scientific terms, "very likely" means more than 90 per cent). I'd grab the bull by the horns. I think the sea level rise they estimated as between 18cm and 59cm does not take into account the melting of ice-caps which will be another 20cm.

I see it as conservative because that's just the global average, but it'll be worse in certain areas, such as the tropics and during the wet season. Jakarta now is under something like 4m of water.

It's stated that we've got a buffer of 40cm--that's insufficient. The way a flood wall works, the minute you breach it, even by half a cm, the whole thing goes.

We have to draw on these IPCC findings and communicate that to people. How can this verdict--with its predictions of devastating natural disasters--be made relevant to the regular Singaporean living on this little red dot?

The fact that we are a tiny little red dot makes us even more vulnerable. We have no place to run. Mount Faber doesn't count!

So, do you think the unusual and extreme weather conditions over the past few months in Singapore and Johor made more people see the connection between their actions and climate change?

I think that there's been an increase in the number of people who have realised and are willing to act because of the extreme weather patterns. They are seeing the connection.

I think that there will be a larger number, however, who will only see it now and forget about it, like with the haze.

But unlike the haze, we can actually do something about climate change. We need to continue making the link between climate change and what's already happening.

People want to do something about climate change, but most can manage only small steps--are these enough, given the damage we've done over the years? Must we not in fact do much more than take everyday measures to repair the harm?

People have limited abilities to do a lot more. If you gave every car buyer an extra $30,000 then maybe they'd buy a hybrid car.

Everyday tips are something you can do, and it's going to save you money, not cost more.

But yes, we have to be bolder in what our action proposal to the public is; to include the small and the big, the simple actions with the complex. But we don't always need expensive solutions.

But people find even some of the small actions, such as not using the air-conditioner at full blast and using one's own shopping bags, too inconvenient.

You've hit the nail on the head. We're a convenient nation, unable to tackle an inconvenient truth.

Like: I'll drive to work even if there's an MRT station right outside my home and workplace, because it's more convenient.

Is it frustrating for you? Does it feel like you're banging your head against a wall sometimes?

It'd be easy to get frustrated; the task of promoting an alternative lifestyle must seem like a frustrating kind of job because we're not going to see the change in this lifetime. I'm quite realistic about that. But it'll be a start.

Economics always seems to have a big part to play and though to some it seems like a cop-out, it appears the most effective way. Your views?

In terms of industry, we look at everything as a business model. Like it or not, the world is starting to move on green technology, and even if we're several steps behind, we're walking in the same direction.

The challenge is the individual, because our society is one of instant gratification. When we walk into an air-con shop and see a zero-tick air-con for $1,000 and a four-tick one with higher energy efficiency for $2,000, our instant gratification instinct will mean we buy the cheaper one.

We do not consider that the other one saves $200 a year so you're looking at a return in five years or less, and saving money after year five.

We have to get people to think long-term not only for the environment, but preserving wealth and capital and providing security for their children.

Your Everyday Superhero campaign tries to get people to take small steps--such as turning off a light when not in use. How is it catching on?

That does not necessarily reach out to the heartlands. The large group that are set in their ways, the older generation that is very traditional, they still eat shark's fin because they think it's good for them.

This campaign is for the young. Our intention was to make climate change a more upfront and fashionable issue to tackle; the concept is that everyone wants to be a superhero and everyone has a little bit of superhero in them.

If you look at the younger generation, one group does not think about it. They may be aware, but it's a problem that's too big for them to even bother about.

And that's where the Everyday Superhero message can lock in the message that they can make a difference.

There is a small group that's more educated and has a fair amount of western influence and through this influence moved forward on this message quicker. This is made up of concerned individuals, think tanks, NGOs--so they may not reach out to everyone.

Despite all the campaigns, do you think the average Singaporean understands the impact of their actions?

It often appears that the message has yet to sink in, particularly for the heartlanders, the older folk and those people whom such messages just don't reach.

The older generation--our grandparents, even our parents--are more set in their ways. Sadly, I must say that mandating certain things is in fact the most effective way to reach out to these people.

To really pick things up, we have to buckle down and strengthen political will. We've done it with telling people how many children they can have; we've had these mechanisms in place and we've achieved outcomes.

So much so that we've overcompensated. To reach out to the masses, we've got to have a carrot-and-stick approach. We also need much more innovative campaigning methods.

Coffee With Howard Shaw, 36, Executive Director of the Singapore Environment Council

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