Singapore needs more experts to fight climate change: Scientist

Neo Chai Chin Today Online 11 Apr 14;

SINGAPORE — It was only after its Nobel Peace Prize gong in 2007 that governments paid more attention to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) assessment report, said the only Singaporean scientist among the authors behind the now-closely-watched report.

Governments “woke up” after the IPCC’s accolade that year, said Dr Wong Poh Poh, noting that for the latest report — of which the second of four parts was released last week — countries sent in “their best negotiators and climate science people to argue on words, words that reflect certain things to their benefit and things like that”.

Final deliberations for the report on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability, including its 44-page Summary for Policymakers went on for five days, often into the wee hours of the morning, he said. More than 100 countries were represented including Singapore.

While greater attention is now being paid to climate change issues, Dr Wong, 68, said the Republic needs an integrated risk management framework, as well as for more Singaporeans to be trained in a wide range of climate-related topics.

The IPCC report released so far has projected sea level rises of 0.26m to 0.82m by the period between 2081 and 2100 — depending on the level of greenhouse gas emissions — and found the world ill-prepared for the risks of climate change in many cases.

Dr Wong, who was a coordinating lead author of the chapter on coastal systems and low-lying areas, said areas that should be of immediate concern to Singapore are: Its coasts in the face of sea level rises, its need to plan carefully as an urban island, sufficiency of its water supply given climate variability and reducing the incidence of floods.

These four areas should form the initial basis of an integrated risk management framework. “It’s not urban planning; you’re planning for risks,” he said.

Many assets here are in low-lying areas and some of Singapore’s reclaimed land is below critical heights of future sea levels, he noted.

There is also the need to train a larger pool of Singaporeans in a wide range of climate-related topics, from modelling and adaptation, to environmental economics and education.

“At a higher level, you may need to negotiate with countries and with regions so you have to train people in negotiation skills,” he added.

Government agencies should have climate change scientists in their ranks to keep abreast of latest research, Dr Wong said.

Dr Wong is satisfied with the broader coverage of the latest report, which now includes oceans and four chapters on adaptation. His hope is that it will be thoroughly read by civil servants and policymakers and contribute to a better universal agreement on climate change next year.

However, having been involved in three assessment reports, Dr Wong is not very optimistic that governments will put in place essential mitigation and adaptation infrastructure — despite the fact that measures, such as planting of mangroves, need not be costly.

“Governments will drag their feet despite what the scientists say,” he said.

Dr Wong was invited to be part of the third assessment report in the late-1990s “partly by accident”, he said. He was never trained in climate change, but the IPCC was looking for someone with expertise in coastal tourism for its small-islands chapter. This, he had in abundance after conducting field work in many countries including Malaysia, Seychelles, Indonesia and the Philippines.

With work on the IPCC report completed, he will take on a UN Environment Programme assignment looking at coastal erosion and mitigation in Thailand and Pakistan.

The avid gardener is also a consultant on the geography syllabus for schools here.

Asked about scientists who dispute the IPCC’s assessments on, say, the risk of food insecurity due to warming or drought, Dr Wong said evidence points to the fact that temperatures have gone up since pre-industrial times, partly due to greenhouse gases caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

In any case, “what is wrong with taking low-regrets or no-regrets measures? These are all good for us. At the end of it, we’re not wasting resources, we’re not polluting the earth”.