‘A 1.1°C warmer world is already a matter of life and death’: Climate scientist Winston Chow

The Singapore scientist, recently elected to the UN’s top climate body, tells the Eco-Business Podcast about the precarious state of climate adaptation in developing Asia. The region is not well-prepared to manage the cascading risks of extreme climate events, he says.

"We are already at 1.1°C of warming – a matter of life and death for the Global South", says Professor Winston Chow, the recently appointed co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's working group on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability.

The era of “global boiling” has arrived, declared United Nations secretary general António Guterres after July broke temperature records and claimed lives in India, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines, while Chinese cities were prompted to open air raid shelters to offer its people respite from the searing heat.

The heat wave is the latest test of the preparedness of the Global South to withstand climactic extremes, which as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – UN’s top climate body – observes are becoming more intense and more frequent. It is the responsibility of climate scientist Winston Chow to assess just how vulnerable developing countries are to climate change in his new role as co-chair of the IPCC’s working group on climate impacts and adaptation measures.

Chow, who is associate professor of urban climate at Singapore Management University’s College of Integrative Studies, told the Eco-Business Podcast that while policymakers at the COP28 climate talks in December will lock horns over how to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, the current state of global warming – 1.1°C – is already a “matter of life and death” for millions of people living on the frontline of climate change.

Climate adaptation or how the world should adjust to climate change has not enjoyed the same level of attention as its “sexier” sibling mitigation, but Chow says that there will be enormous rewards to be gained from “protecting things of value” that are under threat from climate change right now.

I’ve met my fair share of climate contrarians. You have to remind yourself, they are fellow humans with their own interests and ideals.

Winston Chow, associate professor of urban climate and Lee Kong Chian research fellow, Singapore Management University

There are also reasons to be optimistic that the world has finally woken up to the need to respond to the climate crisis, Chow says. “If you’d have asked me in 2009, after the Copenhagen COP, I would have said we are screwed. But in the years since the Paris Agreement in 2015, two things have given me hope.”

First, the business community, which has realised that there is money to be made from climate action. Secondly, alignment between the world’s most powerful countries. China and the United States may disagree over many issues, but they see eye-to-eye on the need to tackle climate change, says Chow.

Winston Chow

Winston Chow is co-chair of an IPCC working group on climate impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. 

Tune in as we talk about:

  • What does climate adaptation really mean?
  • How well prepared is the Global South for cascading climate risks?
  • Climate adaptation “success stories” in Asia
  • How can we get better at telling the climate story?
  • What businesses ask climate scientists
  • Dealing with climate deniers
  • Will the world achieve net-zero 2050?

The edited podcast conversation:

Tell us about your role as co-chair of the IPCC’s working group on impacts, adaptation and vulnerability.

The role focuses on assessing impacts, vulnerability and adaptation to climate change. There are two co-chairs. My partner in crime is Bart van den Hurk [scientific director at the knowledge institute Deltares in the Netherlands], who represents developed countries, and I represent developing countries. Our job is to deliver an assessment report on the state of climate adaptation, vulnerability and impacts in different economic and natural sectors in different regions of the world over the next five to seven years. 

My job is also to be an effective communicator to make sure as many people know about the importance of climate adaptation, what works and what doesn’t work, and how it can be financed and enabled.

Climate adaptation has been an overlooked issue until COP27. Talk us through what climate adaptation means and the task ahead for climate-vulnerable countries in Asia.

Adaptation is essentially protecting things of value from the adverse consequences of climate change. It’s the twin sibling of mitigation, which tackles the root causes of climate change. 

Extreme climate events such as heat waves, and the recent tropical cyclones that affected Okinawa and Beijing, are not going to get any less intense or less frequent, and we need to protect aspects of society, cities and ecosystems from these impacts.

I will mildly disagree with you and say that adaptation has been on the agenda at previous COP climate talks and bilateral discussions. But you’re right, adaptation hasn’t been perceived to be as sexy a topic as mitigation. Nonetheless, it is important because climate impacts are happening now. It makes prudent financial and political sense to take action to protect what is valuable to us now.

There is going to be a wealth of important adaptation-related research looking into risk and impact reduction which we have to get a handle on and distill in more ‘palatable’ and policy-relevant language for policymakers.

We have to find a way to make sure that the assessment reports are accessible to a broad range of people, including the business community. For example, even before they look at transition risk, they need to figure out the level of physical risk they are facing in an age of climate extremes.

UN secretary general Antonio Guterrez said we’re now in the age of global boiling. What’s your take on this statement?

Antonio Guterrez has a good point in the sense that we are already at 1.1°C above the pre-industrial warming. The world needs to keep to the 1.5°C Paris Agreement goal. The issue is that for many people in most of the developing world, 1.1°C is already a matter of life and death. Livelihoods are being affected, crops are failing chronically, traditional fishing grounds are no longer plentiful because the oceans are too warm or too acidic. 

So if that is what is happening at 1.1°C, then for people living in these regions who don’t have the resources to adapt or the capacity to reduce the climate risks that are in the pipeline, the “global boiling” statement is extremely valid for 1.5°C. This has to be kept in mind, especially with the discussions that will take place in Dubai, this coming December for COP28.

What scares me the most about climate change are positive feedback loops – a domino effect of climate events. How well prepared is the Global South for such events?

The scientific term that we use is “cascading risks”. One event leads to another, and the impacts are felt a long way down the chain – it doesn’t end at a set point. Across a variety of metrics, Asia is not well prepared to manage these risks.

For example, if a flood event occurs in a coastal port where goods are traded, it knocks out the port facilities for a couple of weeks and prices of goods shipping out of the port would increase, due to the lack of available transport options. Consumers elsewhere would then have to bear the brunt of this event. Maritime workers might not be able to bounce back if the floods become more frequent and severe too. The odds are these communities will leave and the final cascading impact is that the revenue base where you get your taxes shrinks. Policymakers will feel the impact.

I would say that not many regions are adequately prepared. Not many are aware of the domino effect – they are only focused on the short-term direct impacts of climate change. The concern my fellow climate scientists who do these sort of assessments have is that these events will add to physical risks, as well as add to the challenge of transitioning to a more green economy.

Tell us some climate adaptation success stories in Asia.

There are a few that we include in the case studies section in IPCC’s sixth assessment report. One is Semarang in Indonesia. Another is Xi’an in China. I wouldn’t call them success stories, rather they are stories of positive change.

In Semarang, the key focus was on reducing issues associated with sea-level rise and flooding. It wasn’t just a top-down decision to adapt by maintaining coastal vegetation, different stakeholders like those with local knowledge and lived in the city for a long time were included in decision-making. There was inclusivity in the social sense. 

In Xi’an, it’s a case of water-sensitive urban design along the rivers that used to flood quite often and caused a lot of damage to infrastructure. Flooding was reduced as a result of what happened there. But what was interesting to me was how the applied research was funded, through a public-private partnership. Businesses and local government realised that investing in nature-based solutions was in their mutual interest to address the flooding problem. It will pay off in the long run. 

How do we get better at telling the climate story?

You need good storytellers who know the basics of science, who can connect with different people from different cultures and communities.

In the last assessment cycle of the IPCC, we highlighted the concept of climate-resilient development, where climate adaptation is combined with climate mitigation and biodiversity conservation, because we know ecology is critical [to fight climate change]. Telling a good story to the right people gets everybody on the same page and is essential for climate-resilient development. It gets people motivated to understand that collective action is going to make things easier. 

But people are motivated for different reasons. Finance people might be motivated by profit or by reducing financial losses or capital expenditure as much as possible. I’m motivated by wanting my kids and their friends to have a liveable world to live in in the future.

To tell the climate story, you need to find the thread that links these things together and conveys it in a genuine way that makes people understand what is at stake and motivates them to act.

What sort of questions do businesses ask you as a climate scientist?

It depends on the audience. In some cases, companies are just starting out on their own net-zero journey and want to know the basics of climate science; why they should reduce their Scope 1 or Scope 2 emissions, let alone why Scope 3 emissions matters in the grand scheme of things.

A reinsurance company would be fascinated to hear from climate scientists about the changing probability of severe storms, and there is an increasing number of lawyers who realise that climate justice is important, and they want to know how to hold companies to account for environmental damage, for instance. 

Interest from businesses is increasing a lot – and this is good news for climate scientists who have been shouting about climate change for more than 30 years. Better late than never.

As an academic, I’m usually comfortable talking with my peers and writing boring papers that only 10 people read! It’s a challenge to reframe the complex information we deal with so that it appeals directly to a company’s interests. 

How do you deal with climate deniers?

I did my PhD in Phoenix, Arizona, where I met my fair share of climate contrarians.

I don’t like engaging with climate contrarians on social media, because it’s difficult to convince a faceless person without seeing them eye to eye. People behave differently be in real life than they do online. 

When I do meet people face-to-face who argue that greenhouse gases do not cause climate change or that it’s too expensive to do anything or they just don’t care, I have to remember that they are people too, with their own interests and ideals. The challenge is finding out what makes them tick and what their values are.

The scary thing about climate change is that it is so all-encompassing and pervasive that it affects all aspects of life. I wouldn’t say I’ve convinced climate contrarians to change their minds, but perhaps made a few pause to reflect on their own assumptions on whether climate change is natural versus human-made.

One example is [climate deniers who enjoy] champagne. Climate change is going to cause champagne not to be champagne anymore, because that region of France [Champagne] is going to be too warm to cultivate that varietal. This usually prompts people to pause and say, okay, maybe climate change is serious enough that it will affect my enjoyment of my beverage of choice. 

That’s all I ask of people who question the science behind climate change or have their own version of what causes climate change: Are you willing to have a discussion in good faith? Usually, telling them that climate change will cause a change to their personal lives gives them cause to reflect and reconsider their mistaken assumptions about climate change.

How hopeful are you that we’re going to meet the climate-critical 2050 net-zero target?

Hope lies on a spectrum. If you’d have asked me this question in 2009, after the Copenhagen COP, I would have said we’re screwed. But after 2015 [the signing of Paris climate accord], I see two important signs: One is the business community. Even the dirtiest sectors can’t ignore climate change. There are some progressive sectors that realise that something needs to be done urgently. And more importantly, there’s money to be made from this.

Secondly, there is high-level alignment between powerful countries on climate change that are not aligned on much otherwise – China and United States. I think climate is the only thing that they see eye-to-eye on these days. That’s actually a positive sign, and I am quietly hopeful and optimistic – much more so than between 2010 and 2015.

Much needed action is taking place that will hopefully get us as close to net-zero by the middle of this century, if not sooner.

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