Keep climate change in the news

Global warming is not about environment only; it cuts across economic, social issues.

It was a strange confluence of events. Last Sunday, I was in Budapest, Hungary, participating in a journalists’ seminar organised by the Asia-Europe Foundation (Asef) on climate change and the media’s role in furthering the debate.

It seemed fitting as it was also World Environment Day. And on that day, Mother Nature seemed intent on reminding Singapore of the unpredictable force that she is - Singapore experienced its worst floods this year, which ruined the retail shops in the basement of Tanglin Mall and caused Bukit Timah Road’s canals to overflow and flood the roads.

This came on the heels of recent tragic news that an Indonesian boy had drowned in a flash-flood incident, when he fell into a drain in the Moulmein area concealed by the high water levels.

Singaporeans were instantly abuzz about the floods. Not again, they complained. Last year, Singapore had also experienced heavy flooding in June and, in particular, parts of Orchard Road such as Liat Towers were flooded, among other areas, destroying millions of dollars’ worth of goods. A review of our flood-prevention systems then led to flood levees being installed in Orchard Road, and plans were made to enlarge and widen drains.

But it looks like it was not enough. Tough questions are now being asked: What has changed such that our drainage system, which worked for the best part of the last three decades, is no longer adequate?

A few reasons have emerged: rubbish choking our drains, overbuilding in certain areas that results in water hitting concrete with no place to go, and alert systems that failed.

But there’s one other important factor - one we cannot control - which is that Singapore’s climate patterns have changed, likely permanently, and our low-lying island is set to see heavier precipitation from now on.

Inevitably, climate change has been mentioned in the news coverage of the floods. Environment and Water Resources Minister Vivian Balakrishnan acknowledged the ‘very high probability that our weather patterns have changed’, and that Singapore’s planning norms and building codes must be reviewed in the light of this development.

Although weather events cannot be specifically pinned on climate change, there is an emerging consensus that the increase in the incidence of extreme weather events across the globe is due to unpredictable and changing climate patterns.

The public, who on a normal sunny day do not give two hoots about the environment, have suddenly sat up and taken notice.

Are Singaporeans finally feeling the impact?

Across the world, we are seeing trends of nations being awakened to this new reality. Climate stories were but page-fillers in Pakistan, for example, until the country experienced massive floods that claimed many lives, then they were given the same top coverage as terrorism, governance and the economy.

But the challenge is sustaining the momentum.

When the floods subside, and the sun shines again, will Singaporeans forget?

How do media practitioners bring home to the average person that the choices he makes today, the government policies he supports or rejects, will ultimately have an impact on his daily life in the near future?

At the 6th Asia-Europe Journalists’ Seminar, this was a question that 30 journalists across Asia and Europe grappled with.

Following the high-profile United Nations climate change summit in Copenhagen in 2009, media coverage of climate change dropped drastically, back to 2005 levels, according to

Similar trends were found in studies by other institutions such as the University of Colorado and Oxford University. Earth Journalism Network executive director James Fahn, who spoke at the seminar, noted that this was also partly due to ‘climate fatigue’. People have grown tired of phrases such as ‘climate change’ and ‘environment’.

This is partly because stories on the climate and environment often involve bad news: floods, loss of lives, melting glaciers, rising food and energy prices, and so on.

So what can we do?

The seminar threw up a set of recommendations (full details can be found on Asef’s website, which remind media practitioners that, to borrow Mr Fahn’s words, climate change is not just an environment story.

It is not just an environment story because it cuts across economic, policy and social issues. It has become the important context with which to view global developments.

It challenges certain fundamental and conventional notions, for example, on economic growth and its definitions. Already we are beginning to see interesting debates on whether there are alternative models that could redefine growth in the next century. Policies are also being made with climate change at their heart - from Germany’s energy policy to trade negotiations at multilateral meetings.

Then there’s the good news: There are unparalleled opportunities offered by this global challenge, whether it is finding the next renewable energy technology, or inventing a flood-proof system to implement in flood-prone areas - stories that have largely been

under-reported compared with the negative stories on the consequences of climate change.

The seminar also noted that while writers should be careful not to provide ‘false balance’ in stories, such as by including misleading or inaccurate statements from climate-change sceptics, they should also strive to be objective and reflect any new developments in climate science - even if they challenge the current consensus.

This helps climate change reporting, as a whole, gain credibility.

Most importantly, stories on climate change need to speak directly to readers, to help them understand their role in this global challenge.

The stories on the floods in Singapore are a good example of how climate change can affect the man in the street.

People may ask: Why should we care? And, how do my consumer choices matter?

Well, they matter a lot, since the complex problem of climate change will ultimately affect the price of the petrol you put in your car, how much your plate of noodles costs, and what type of jobs you can expect to see in the future.

It’s important to keep it on the agenda because, like the floods last Sunday, it could come out of nowhere and catch us unprepared.

This article was originally published in The Straits Times.

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