There is little doubt that the range of global phenomena referred to as climate change, once dismissed by US President Donald Trump as “just the weather”, is making warm days hotter, rainfall both scant and severe, and floods and cyclones more powerful. About 250 million people worldwide are affected by natural disasters every year, a lot of it caused by climate change. Asia is particularly vulnerable because developing countries account for 99 per cent of the deaths and 90 per cent of the economic losses, according to estimates by the World Economic Forum in Geneva. In parts of the continent, it is not uncommon to have droughts and floods simultaneously.
Regardless of whether you believe in climate change or are a climate-sceptic, there is no denying some facts. For instance, the atmosphere today is recorded as holding 4 per cent more water vapour than it did 40 years ago, because of rising temperatures. This has unquestionably raised the risk of extreme rainfall.
How then is the world to cope with the inevitable? Undeniably, better governance would make the costs from all this lighter, even if the natural human attachment to hearth and home also contributes to deaths. Some of the 31 deaths that occurred in the Florida Keys in the wake of Hurricane Irma could probably have been avoided if people had heeded warnings and evacuated in time.
Hegel famously wrote that the owl of Minerva takes flight with the falling of dusk. And indeed, wisdom too often does come late. Yet, there should be no embarrassment here, provided the right lessons are learnt. This holds across the spectrum – tackling the after-effects (the slogan “build back better” is now widely accepted), coping with crises as they unfold, and staying ahead of the curve with correct and forward-thinking policy. In studying disaster mitigation in America, for example, it has been seen how a federal flood insurance programme was perversely encouraging people to build in flood-prone areas. Such lessons hold equally true in flood-prone metropolises such as Jakarta and Mumbai as well.
What of Singapore? Is it too tiny a spot on the map to count in this debate? Not at all. While it cannot contribute much to countering weather-change patterns, it has a role to play as a policy exemplar. The island’s success in reducing temperatures by sustained tree planting over decades, its thrust towards building “green” buildings and its determined effort to harvest the rainwater runoff, are hugely creditable achievements in climate mitigation. Yet, there is more to be done: Reducing water wastage, pushing public transportation and electric-car use, and turning the temperature gauge up a notch in the home and office air-conditioning are small steps for the Singapore man that could add up to a lot for mankind.