As an island nation, Singapore is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. According to the National Climate Change Secretariat (NCCS), the annual mean temperature has increased from 26.9°C to 28.0°C over the past 40 years, while mean sea level in the Straits of Singapore has also increased at the rate of 1.2mm to 1.7mm per year between 1975 to 2009. These changes will affect our biodiversity, greenery and public health if left unchecked.
Climate change at large has also adversely affected our food security. As we currently import 90 percent of our food supplies, droughts and floods in other parts of the world can affect global food supply, and ultimately, our own.
And because, as an island nation, we’re surrounded by water, the most pressing concerns for Singapore are rising sea levels and ocean conservation.
The truth is that a lot of damage has been done to our oceans, but just as true is the fact that there’s a lot we can do to save our oceans, and many Singaporeans are doing their part in the fight against climate change. We spoke to two Singaporeans at the frontlines of this battle – Dr. Toh Tai Chong and Mathilda D’Silva on the harsh realities of climate change, especially to the oceans around Singapore, and what can be done to counter some of the adverse effects of climate change.
The Numbers Man – Dr. Toh Tai Chong
Dr. Toh Tai Chong is a marine biologist and co-founder of Our Singapore Reefs, a marine activism group comprising of divers, academics and marine life enthusiasts (some of their members are all three). Outside of activism, Dr. Toh is the Academic Director at the College of Alice and Peter Tan in the National University of Singapore and a Council member in the Singapore Institute of Biology.
AM: How vulnerable are the seas and oceans around Singapore and our region?
Southeast Asia (SEA) is extremely vulnerable to climate change. Our waters teem with extraordinary biodiversity, but this ecosystem is already being impacted by climate change. While the link may not be explicit, this has severe knock-on effects in our day-to-day lives. Let’s use coral reefs as an example. Coral reefs underpin ocean biodiversity and provide important economic, social, recreational and cultural benefits. In total, they benefit an estimated 1 billion people, both directly and indirectly.
Southeast Asia hosts more than one quarter of the world’s coral reefs alone, despite only occupying a mere 2.5% of the global ocean. There is a very diverse marine life in a very small area, which means reefs account for 10-12% of the fish caught in tropical countries, and 20-25% of the fish caught by developing nations. But, increased heat and carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere have driven up coral bleaching events with increasingly shorter intervals between each event. Based on historical data, bleaching occurred in 1998, followed by 2010 and again in 2016. These events could ultimately lead to coral death, and it is predicted that even if global warming is maintained at 1.5 degree celsius, up to 90% of coral reefs may disappear by 2050 due to prolonged ocean heatwaves.
So what will these coral deaths mean?
This threat on coral reefs also impacts the region’s primary source of daily animal protein as well as regional food security and tourism, which puts our livelihoods at stake. Estimates show that the 70,000 square kilometres of reefs in the region provide tangible benefits of US$10.6 billion annually to the region’s economy, and tourism benefits represent almost 55% of this value, with fisheries representing the remainder.
While not representative in the GDP, coral reefs also confer important coastal protection from rising sea levels, storms and flooding events. Without coastal protection, the effects of sea-level rise will be felt more strongly in densely populated low-lying areas. Countries such as Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand are home to the most people on land that is projected to be below average annual coastal flood levels by 2050.
As a society, how do you think our culture, traditions and norms limit us in terms of dealing with climate change?
Culturally, we are used to prioritising effectiveness and efficiency in our lives, in that we’re always attracted by high-return short-term gains rather than long-term gains that are more sustainable in terms of resource use. Additionally, the price and opportunity cost of living sustainably is higher than the status quo of a consumption-driven one. This traditional mindset limits us, and we often neglect systemic but important lifestyle changes that can benefit our environment as a result of this.
Furthermore, the link between ocean and climate has been overlooked. Only 0.56% of all philanthropic funding is channelled to the ocean, making the ocean the least funded Sustainable Development Goal.
Do you feel things are changing?
Things have been changing in recent years though, at least in Singapore. Young Singaporeans, Gen Zs and Millennials, hold climate change as a top concern, and Baby Boomers in Singapore have also started leading the change into more sustainable lifestyles due to greater awareness accumulated over time.
Singapore has had a groundswell of vibrant and active community groups championing the conservation movement. The period from 2000 to 2010 was arguably a golden age of the environmental movement in Singapore with the founding of multiple environmental NGOs such as ACRES, Waterways Watch and Ground-Up Initiative. After 2010, there were multiple international environmental NGOs setting up in Singapore such as Marine Stewardship Council, Earth Hour and WWF. In the last five years, there have been informal movements led by youth in Singapore. They have been leveraging the power of social media to educate the masses on environmental concerns and self-organising themselves into groups to champion grassroots green activism such as SG Climate Rally.
How about further up in the leadership chain?
The Singapore government now has a comprehensive environmental mandate with the launch of the Singapore Green Plan 2030 – a plan aimed to strengthen the country’s climate and resource resilience through the collaboration of five ministries.
As a community, we are concerned about the well-being of others and are willing to support the climate change movement. While things have been changing for the good – the question is whether we are changing strong-impact environmental behaviour fast enough before the climate clock ticks closer to the 1.5 degree celsius threshold.
The Changemaker – Mathilda D’Silva
Mathilda D’Silva is the Founder/CEO of Ocean Purpose Project, a tech-driven with three pillars to drive change. The first is Plastic to Fuel, which seeks to transform ocean waste into low-sulphur fuel, hydrogen, carbon black and carbon nanotubes through the development of nimble, deployable pyrolysis machines. The second is Bioplastics, in which Ocean Purpose Project seeks to develop single-use plastic alternatives from seaweed and mussels. Finally, the organization seeks to encourage Behaviour Change by mobilising corporates and communities through offline projects such as beach clean-ups, Blue Carbon projects based in Singapore and Bali, and social media campaigns.
How vulnerable is Singapore and our region to climate change?
As someone who lives in front of the beaches of Pasir Ris, sea level rise and coastal erosion are not a ‘maybe’, but a definite. Initial research predicted that the mean sea level around Singapore would be projected to rise by up to 1m by 2100. However, this did not take equatorial water expansion into account, and various other factors around a mass change and volume change of the oceans. This could lead to sea levels rising up to 4m or 5m if we take into account the compounding effects. That covers the 1-2 story bungalows surrounding our beaches of Pasir Ris.
We are doing our part to get fish farms in Pasir Ris to grow seaweed and mussels that sequester carbon, and to also remove ocean plastics that release hydrocarbons at sea to be turned into hydrogen that produces energy and water. It is vital that our town is protected by solutions engineered by Pasir Ris residents with science at the core.
Do you think we are doing enough to protect our oceans?
Singaporeans, compared to other parts of Asia, are still taking time to accept the problems with fossil fuel based energy, ocean pollution and the role of blue carbon. It’s not enough to do a beach clean up, post it on instagram and say, “Wow we are saving the earth” and go back to drinking bubble tea in single use plastic – that’s a box ticking exercise which panders to our very Singaporean need for convenience.
What are you doing about this?
At Ocean Purpose Project, we spend a lot of time consulting with leading researchers such as the Earth Observatory Singapore at NTU, as well as the indigenous Orang Laut and residents of Kampung Pasir Ris, who shared with us more about the seagrasses and seaweeds that used to grow in the area. Our aim is to democratise the knowledge around our blue carbon resources, especially the role of Pasir Ris kelong and fish farms and their purpose as beacons of blue carbon for our beach town, along with other coastal ecosystems around South East Asia.
Doing what we do is painstakingly time consuming, expensive and requires a lot of relationships, but even though we need more support, we believe the answers to climate change requires us to mobilise all who are facing the threat of rising sea levels, especially those in poor coastal communities.