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What if Singapore does not have 50 to 100 years to deal with climate change?

I am the only scientist in Singapore to be part of the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) working group that produced a report on the physical science of climate change. There is a phrase “if you knew what I knew”.

What if Singapore does not have 50 to 100 years to deal with climate change?

The Beaufort Sea in the Arctic, a region that is warming rapidly. The author says studies suggest there is a one in 20 chance sea-level rise in Singapore could be in excess of 2.5m by 2100, more more than the 1m forecast commonly cited.

I watched Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s National Day Rally speech on Sunday (Aug 18) night. It was the single most impressive talk about the threat of sea-level rise by a political leader.

In particular, Mr Lee balanced talk of urgency with hopeful and creative ideas to inspire positive change. Mr Lee made it clear that climate change is a matter of life and death for Singapore.

Having studied the issue for 25 years, I am also very worried about sea-level rise and strongly believe that we must urgently act on it. I am the only scientist in Singapore to be part of the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) working group that produced a report on the physical science of climate change. 

There is a phrase “if you knew what I knew”. Mr Lee noted that the UN has projected that sea levels will rise by 1m by the end of this century but that scientists’ estimates have been going up and sea levels may rise higher and faster than that.

I would say that we should be careful about underestimating the risk. Published peer reviewed studies by myself and other members of the IPCC suggest there is a one in 20 chance sea-level rise in Singapore could be in excess of 2.5m by 2100.

With such a grave threat, the PM said a variety of adaptation measures must be sought.

We need to identify the potential solutions that could reduce flood risk from sea-level rise in ways that support the long‐term resilience and sustainability of communities and the environment, and that reduce the economic costs and risks associated with flood damage.

Mr Lee set out a bold vision to respond to rising sea levels by building new islands, dykes or polders. You could say this is an “offensive strategy”, and a reflexive response based on the sporting principle that offence is the best defence.

Singapore is taking inspiration from abroad. Kiribati is negotiating to buy over 2,000 hectares of land in neighbouring Fiji onto which to move its 113,000 citizens if necessary, even though Kiribati’s official government website concedes that national survival is unlikely.

The Marshall Islands face a similarly stark choice: Leave or elevate. The country is looking for ways to reclaim land and build islands that are high enough to withstand rising seas.

And the Maldives — the poster-child victim, if there can be one, of rising sea levels — is attempting to reclaim, fortify and build new islands, and relocate when necessary.

PM Lee specifically cited the Netherlands as an example in dealing with the threat of sea level rise. The Dutch do not view climate change as a threat, but rather as an opportunity to make the country more resilient, more attractive and economically stronger.

Sea-level rise adaptation is a window of opportunity to upgrade infrastructure, increase biodiversity and more meaningfully engage citizens on counter measures. I agree with Mr Lee that this is the mindset Singaporeans should follow.

The way he outlines possible solutions that Singapore can adopt suggests that there is scope for further consultation on the issue between the Government and Singaporeans.

The Dutch are known as an industrious people who have successfully kept the sea at bay for centuries. But importantly, the sea level that they have been fighting for their entire history was not rising.

This situation is now being seriously disrupted by warming seawater and melting glaciers and ice sheets, leading to an accelerating sea-level rise.

In order to keep the seawater at bay in the Netherlands, the dykes will need to be raised. As a result, the polders behind them will become relatively deeper, making them more vulnerable and more expensive to maintain.

In deciding on the path forward, Singapore requires robust and accurate local projection of sea-level rise. Singapore must invest in the science of sea-level rise before it spends S$100 billion or more on adaptation measures. Science should come first, and then responsible, cost-effective adaptation can follow.

If for example, the science shows that sea-level rises are much higher and faster than the projected 1m by 2100, then there will be serious implications for Singapore.

This is because the time to deal with the threat and to implement adaptive measures will be significantly shortened.

Mr Lee had said that if Singapore has only 10 years to solve the problem, it won’t have enough time or resources to do it. “But because this is a 50- to 100-year problem, we can implement a 50- to 100-year solution to this problem,” he said.

Sea-level rise isn’t the only climate threat to Singapore. There are problems associated with heat, rainfall and drought.

By 2045, Singaporeans could face some days of the year when temperatures soar as high as a scorching 40 degrees Celsius. We have already seen evidence of the changing climate. 

2018 was the eighth warmest year on record, with all months except January hotter than average. We had the second warmest December on record. We also saw a number of extreme weather events including cooling in January, flooding, heavy rainfall, winds, hailstones.

In 2019, we have had record-breaking heat and drought. This was something I predicted in a Straits Times Article last year.

The Meteorological Service Singapore said that July was the second warmest and single driest July on record. The hot, dry weather led to a sharp increase in the number of vegetation fires in the first six months of this year, reaching a three-year high.

So what can we in Singapore do to stop contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and delaying climate change? 

We must meet the Paris Agreement on climate change and global emissions to keep the rate of sea-level rise manageable. This is urgent.

Climate scientists, such as myself, have warned there are only 11 years for global warming to be kept to a maximum of 1.5°C above preindustrial levels (as the PM Lee said, we are already 1°C warmer), beyond which even half a degree will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and sea-level rise.

A rise beyond 1.5°C means sea-level rise will not be a 50- to 100-year problem that we can solve.

To meet the goal of limiting global warming, we must live sustainably.

Because of the magnitude and scope of the problem, sustainability is one of those rare issues that if we don’t get it right, we may not be able to reverse, we may not be able to adapt sufficiently.

So in summary, we have only a small window to get it right or we risk facing terrible consequences. 



Professor Benjamin Horton is Chair of the Asian School of the Environment, Nanyang Technological University.

Related topics

climate change rising sea levels sustainability environment

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