Looking ahead: Singapore’s environmental challenges and how youth can make a difference

Tree planting volunteers Photo credit onemilliontrees movement by NParks

This article was written with supporting contributions from Sylvester Siew Kwicksylver, Yong Feng and Patricia Lazatin @woodycakes

If you are like me you don’t have to look hard for reminders that there a lot of reasons to worry about the future state of the environment and how that could impact Singapore. The problem may seem overwhelming not only due to the complexity of the types of problems that can be considered as “the environment” but also more importantly what can I as an individual do that would make any difference?

These topics are complex and there are multiple approaches for how to resolve them which could fill volumes of books. I’ve moved through different perspectives on these issues through my own learning journey. This article is one of those perspectives as I attempt to unpack these issues through a series of five questions that were posed to me recently:

What are some environmental challenges that Singapore is already facing/will likely face in this decade?

Climate change, the biggest challenge of our times

You may find different groups giving different priority to different ecological assets with some prioritizing ocean plastic pollution while others deforestation and then another group is concerned about climate change — so how to choose among all of these important issues? A couple of perspectives to consider:

Using these as a guide, I would say climate change is in a league of its own.

As a reminder of what is meant by climate change — by burning fossil fuels to power the global economy, humans over the past 200 years have polluted heat trapping gasses into the atmosphere causing it to warm. This warming is shifting the earth’s climate, changing weather patterns and causing global sea levels to rise from melting glaciers. You can expect very little to change in Singapore from the direct effects of climate change in the next 10 years, that is very short for climate change. A few tenths of a degree average temperatures, a few more days a year of hot weather, millimeters or barely measurable sea level rise, it’s not worth mentioning. However looking further into the future, the current estimates predict a rise of 2–3 deg C by the end of the century and significant human and environmental costs as a consequence. For Singapore this may be more intense due to the urban heat island effect [7]. Singapore may experience it’s first 40C day by as early as 2045 [7]. Some of that can be prevented if warming is limited to <2C by quickly transitioning away from fossil fuels and other activities that emit the heat trapping gasses. The problem and the solutions to climate change are widely available and well understood.

Climate change in the broader context of environmental conservation

One way to think about the environment is as a collection of ecological assets which provide their own natural resources that have value and can either be invested to increase in natural wealth or neglected and depreciated over time. They provide different types of life sustaining inputs such as supplying oxygen for the air we breathe, cooling the air, removing carbon dioxide, cleaning up dirty water to become potable, supplying food and materials such as timber, minerals, fuels; and novel inspirations for our technology in medicine and other fields of biodiversity. Globally we have many ecological resources — the oceans, reefs, fisheries, forests, freshwater sources and our atmosphere.

It’s a tricky challenge to be able to make prioritization and trade-off decisions when these interests compete with our limited time and financial resources. For example, Lithium is a critical component for batteries which are essential for the energy transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy in the solutions for climate change. So a new lithium mine being proposed in Nevada, USA can be a game changer to help solve climate change, and at the same time will likely have substantial environmental impact to the local ecology due to the habitat loss and potential air pollutants from the processing to convert and purify the raw mineral to its finished form. Framed in this way environmental issues are seen as competing interests. Another way to frame climate change in the context of other environmental issues is complementary in a shared learning challenge.

Trade-offs

Each of them share in common societal and political challenges as trade-offs against a certain kind of short term orientation and economic growth, so lessons learned from solving this challenge may be generalized to all environmental challenges. There are no perfect solutions that simultaneously sustain our current lifestyle, population growth and economic activity and yet, have zero environmental impact. All of them are trade-offs against one another and that is the environmental challenge for the next decade, to make these trade-off decisions responsibly at a global scale and Singapore has a part to play in these decisions.

Beyond Singapore’s borders

Singapore imposes a high cost to environmental resources on other countries beyond its borders from what it imports for consumption both for local residents’ lifestyles and industry. For the most part, Singapore has been successful at keeping things clean and green inside its borders. Despite the public messaging, our waste generation problem is not the most urgent due to our efficient incineration method of disposal and an ability to expand Semakau. Similarly when it comes to water resources, we have many options. Our rainfall is abundant and there is water reclamation and desalination. So on all of these domestic issues, it is only a question of money. Even then, the solutions are quite affordable in contrast to the other challenges beyond Singapore’s borders such as conservation and climate change. We do know that Singapore is one of the richest countries in the world in terms of income per person. Singapore is classified as very high in human development with a human development index (HDI) of 0.932 where an HDI of >0.79 is considered highly developed [9]. In terms of wealth it also ranks high with a 2016 GDP per capita of $55k [10]. Due to Singapore’s large wealth, its global environmental impact is visible in the Southeast region such as deforestation on a scale comparable to large economies such as the US and China [8]. So we do have an obligation to play a leading role in the world on climate change.

Low hanging fruit for policy makers

One policy which could make a big difference is pricing the carbon tax according to the level recommended by the International Monetary Fund of $75 per ton compared to the current $4 per ton[2]. What is lacking is the implementation of these solutions at a global scale. The challenge is a problem of scale and of speed. Many things are happening but they aren’t moving fast enough to keep pace with the remaining allowable window to avoid the worst-case scenarios.

In your opinion, what are some of the societal limitations that Singapore is facing that prevents it from being a more environmentally-friendly city state?

Broadly speaking, the societal challenge facing Singapore is an over-emphasis on the short term and self-interest with a neglect for long term investments and coordinated action for the collective good for the nation and for the world. There are many ways to think of how society collectively makes decisions together. One way is to think of society as the sum of the psychology of individual behavior. Another is to look at how the social systems and institutions in society interact with each other and influence behavior at scale — such as government agencies, businesses and civil society leaders like political parties, NGOs, media, academics, religious and labor organizations. From both the individual and institutional perspectives, the challenges for Singapore’s environmental performance are largely similar to other urbanized, developed economies. However, there are some which are uniquely acute for Singapore.

Role of businesses and governments

In particular, self-interested businesses, which act out their legally bound fiduciary obligation to accumulate profits, are the ones most responsible for environmentally destructive behaviors such as pollution and deforestation. Businesses are large, well organized organizations difficult for any single individual to influence. Typically, governments are used by the citizens as a collective action tool to organize everyday people to limit the destructive potential of business. That is one reason why the international agreements on climate change are between government heads of state and also why an entire country’s performance on the environment is measured by government policies. For the case of climate change and many other global environmental issues, government action to fulfil this responsibility falls short of what is needed to address the problem. One common feature in the politics of decision making of most modern nation-states is the priority of short term (<5 years ahead) domestic economic growth measured as Gross Domestic Product (GDP) over other longer term interests for the broader global economy such as the environment, healthcare, education and income inequality. There are many narratives to explain this short term domestic political orientation such as business influence on government, corruption, a disillusioned and unengaged public or a fundamental limitation of social behavior of our species at scale. All of these are factors which limit the potency of government as a problem solving force for global environmental issues to some degree in every nation-state around the world, including Singapore.

Social and psychological challenges of climate change

There are a number of psychological barriers to dealing with climate change. Firstly, it is a slow-moving problem that demands upfront investment for a reward in the distant future. Secondly, the benefits go to everyone globally even if some free-ride and don’t pay their fair share. Lastly, It is difficult to coordinate action because everyone has their own ideas about the problem and priorities. This is true whether in small groups of environmentalists deciding between projects or internationally between governments.

Strategies for overcoming barriers

Strategies for overcoming self-interest and short term thinking are complementary to good practices for emotional and mental wellbeing. This includes dealing constructively with fears and sources of anxiety, practicing empathetic and cooperative communication and cultivating a sense of belongingness and purpose. Some important steps to gaining the personal capacities for investments and collective action are: gaining a sense of personal security, courage to speak-up, self-confidence, trust in others and practicing civic and prosocial behaviors. These qualities also tend to lead to improved happiness and health outcomes. Such qualities can be improved through volunteering and practicing acting collectively on projects in small teams. Large groups of people acting collectively can help to catalyze shifts in public policy and draw attention to an issue. For example, following a public turnout of around 2,000 people at the Singapore Climate Rally in 2019 where the organizers demanded more ambitious commitments for emissions reductions and a national plan for emissions reduction, there was evidence of an incrementally positive response in Parliament and in climate change policy. Immediately following the rally, Members of Parliament raised proposals for more ambitious climate policies in Parliament. In the following months language of the emissions reduction commitment was revised to appear more ambitious than the previous version, political parties included climate change in their manifestos in the 2020 election and the government released a Green Plan 2030.

Uniquely Singaporean

Three uniquely Singaporean and interrelated societal barriers to gaining these capacities are materialism, low societal trust, and aversion / lack of experience with participating in politics at work and nationally, through unions and political parties. Materialism tends to reinforce the prominence of businesses in society since individuals place a higher emphasis on their role as consumers, owners of properties, and employees rather than their civic roles. Materialism is also associated with self-interest and lower levels of life satisfaction, overall health and wellbeing and lower societal trust. The next point is a medium-to-low societal trust. Singaporeans have a low level of trust in relationships outside of their immediate families. This becomes a barrier for individuals to trust working cooperatively with each other in their local communities (including with schoolmates). Contemporary Singaporeans on average also show a notable aversion and disengagement with political participation in unions and political parties which are institutions designed to most effectively challenge powerful businesses and implement solutions at scale.

What are some actions that secondary school students can take to make a difference? What’s the best way we can help out?

Advantages and disadvantages of being a secondary school student

Secondary school students can do more than you might think. Some advantages of being a high school student are: first you have access to high school students who are most likely to be open to new ideas and share your own concerns about the environment; second, are motivated with a personal stake in your own future and third, you are relatively more welcomed into communities and organizations than an average adult. Some disadvantages you may face are limited agency on decisions about your free time and mobility, few to no personal financial resources and limited knowledge, experience and credibility.

Beyond the schoolhouse gates

I would challenge you to think beyond your school because you are at a disadvantage and have little influence on the decisions for the school’s institutional decisions. Also, the total direct environmental impact of the school’s operations are negligible. Instead, consider yourself as one node in an interconnected network. As one actor in a contagion of social and political change within your group of friends, similar educational institutions and communities within and beyond Singapore. A few complementary impact models for your consideration are citizen research, community outreach and community building.

Contribute knowledge to the big open questions

With only a small team you can advance knowledge on general open questions faced locally and globally on social change through citizen research. Citizen research can advance progress on societal challenges by either mapping out key information about people such as their environmental, social behaviors, attitudes with other locations, demographic and psychological predictors or by experimentation to identify the most and least effective interventions. For example, a research project based on interviews of rental flat residents without air-cons could put quantitative evidence to the real human impact of climate change to Singaporeans today. Research can also reveal the current barriers to change as well as capabilities and intervention strategies.

Be the change you want to see

As social beings we more readily change our behavior by mimicking others around us in our close personal relationships than we do by absorbing information from media and advertising. Two hard to decarbonize behaviors and larger emissions sources to prioritize for yourself and to influence others around you are reducing meat consumption (particularly ruminants; beef and lamb) and air travel since technological alternatives might not be readily available in the near future. Family planning is another intuitive high environmental impact and deeply personal life choice. These choices intersect with deep personal, cultural beliefs, preferences, and habits. So when confronted with these trade-off decisions in your personal life you may begin to appreciate the gravity of the challenge of climate change. If just thinking about these changes dampens your motivation you would not be alone. For those who are successful at modifying these high stakes behaviors they usually don’t start out there, but begin with baby steps like taking public transit more often or making fewer online purchases. Success begets success. When you achieve personal victories on small impact areas of your life that naturally leads to a desire to reach for higher stakes challenges, and others around you are likely to go through a similar staged progression. By modifying your behavior and life choices, you become a proof of concept case study and model to inspire your friends and family to experiment on themselves. By going through the process yourself you will be able to relate with the barriers that they may be facing and tell your personalized story of how you overcame them.

Catalyze change in others

A catalyst is a substance that speeds up a process but is neither an input nor an output of that process. With a slightly larger team size you can be a catalyst for collective action, you can consider the community outreach model to directly engage communities such as employees of local businesses, local residents or partnering organizations beyond Singapore’s borders who share similar environmental goals. As a catalyst you can choose to perform a combination of functions both to facilitate decision making in the target community or to act as a bridge to connect communities with common interests. The advantage of adopting the catalyst role is that you can overcome limitations of knowledge and expertise by engaging others who do have the expertise and then, connecting them with the individuals with knowledge and skills gaps rather than filling those gaps on your own.

Build the community for tomorrow

For lasting and sustainable impact, you can consider community building at the scale of your classmates, school and network of students in Singapore and beyond. Community building involves building meaningful relationships built on mutual trust and reciprocity; practicing cooperating and mutually supporting one another and building shared values, norms and institutions of your own, independent of those handed down to you from others. Throughout an individual’s life cycle the time when they are most open to new ideas and formation of habits, environmental prosocial behaviors and ideas and values that impact investment and collective behaviors is during their high school and university years. They tend more often than not, to keep these values and behaviors with them for the rest of their adult life. So, one strategy to meet future environmental challenges is to secure the values, norms, behaviors and institutions with the person who will ultimately be responsible for adapting to those future challenges — you.

What are some words you would like to share with us to impart to secondary school students concerned about the environment?

If the threat of climate change doesn’t bother you, then you probably won’t find this interesting. If however, you are like me and it does bother you, I have a few things to share from my experience.

Be honest with yourself

Know where climate change falls in your life priorities. What I have found is the best antidote to the negative feelings I have when I hear about climate change is the confidence that I am doing my part to be a part of the solution. For me, making a meaningful contribution to societal problems is the ultimate aim rather than a competing interest with my aspirations to live a fulfilling life. However, compared to the concern of societal issues like the environment, there are strong competing forces in my life that pull my attention towards my private, short term affairs, whether it is getting and keeping a decent paying job, finding a compatible romantic partner or maintaining relationships with friends and family. When I find myself falling short of my ambitious commitments to the cause, maybe without thinking about it, I sometimes react with stories that help to justify the inaction such as (irrational) despair: “oh well it’s hopeless there is nothing that I can do about it” or blame: “I could be making an impact if it weren’t for X preventing me from doing so” rather than moving beyond it. What I have found to be one of the biggest challenges in making a meaningful impact on climate change is not the opportunities for impact or some unreasonable person X, but my own ability to stay motivated and committed to sustained action. It starts with being honest with myself. Right now where am I prioritizing my contribution to climate change and am I OK with that?

Take care of yourself

As I write this response, it was several weeks after the deadline I was given. I’ve been through ups and downs, I’ve had projects that didn’t pan out, rejected by funding applications, and betrayed by teammates that I trusted and I myself, have let down others. I forgive myself and go at a pace that is sustainable for me. In some sprints I have given it my full attention even taking several years off of paid employment and worked full time unpaid on climate change research. At other times, I take a break for a while and recharge. Taking care of yourself involves getting control of your sleep, exercise, diet and incorporating good wellbeing habits into the structure of your day and week. I recommend using a calendar. I have learned the hard way how easy it is to lose control of my screen time and social media use. I have slowly gained an awareness of my own weak areas and the controls that work for me. Social media interactions are no substitute for face-to-face interactions where real relationships are built. Use it to compliment, rather than compete with your efforts.

Be skeptical and curious about everything

Curiosity is an antidote to a number of barriers, both the obvious knowledge gaps and also emotional factors. Climate change and collective problem solving is a complex endeavor so curiosity puts you in the best position to be able to pick-up new information and discover novel solutions. Dealing with people can be difficult at times and when it comes to compromise and making group decisions, conflicts will inevitably arise. Solving climate change in groups demands being in the right state of mind to take others’ perspectives and be an attentive, curious listener. Anxiety is one of the biggest psychological barriers to climate change because it shifts my thinking to prioritize the here and now and turn inwards with fear rather than outwards with confidence. The grip of anxiety can be difficult to escape once you are in it, and one technique is to move from a place of anxiety to a place of curiosity by first being curious about your own state of anxiety “how is my body reacting to X?” “am I feeling more of a response on my left, or right side of my body?” “what triggered this anxiety?”. Catch yourself rehearsing self-defeating narratives and interrogate them with alternatives “It’s hopeless, it’s already too late to do anything about climate change” “how do we know it’s too late? What does scientific research say? Will curbing emissions in the next 20 years make the effects of climate change worse?”. Be curious about yourself. Pay attention to and adapt to shifts in your concerns and ideas about types of problems and solutions as you grow and learn.

Go where the energy is

One of my strengths is my ability to self-generate a sense of passion that motivates me and infects others. I also consider myself a creative person and am always thinking of new solution ideas and discovering new angles to the problem. For some projects, I was so motivated by my idea that I rode on the energy of my own passion even if it wasn’t so interesting to others around me. Everything has its limits and I have found that even for myself, this flame quickly extinguishes without regular reinforcement. In one such project, around Dec 2018, I was exhausted after working on my idea for several months since July earlier that year and seeing little to show for it. Along the way, I started to remember how I had dismissed common concerns from many of the people I came across along the way. So in March 2019, I decided to pivot and take a different approach and instead lean into the problem that was energizing the people around me. That problem was Singapore’s commitment to climate change. The energy from the people that I found from seeking out their passion and energy has sustained me through the pandemic and even until today. I’ve moved around to different teams to stay current with where action is happening and where I can stay motivated. At times, the teams that I had been working with drift apart and disband, so I search for new ideas, problems and teams that are currently exciting people. Sometimes it’s in Singapore, sometimes it’s somewhere else. That’s one advantage to living in a digitized globalized society.

See your challenges as games of inches

Rock climbing is a popular activity in Singapore. Scaling a vertical wall seems impossible taken as a whole but can be done at ease by an inexperienced climber so long as there is a clearly identified path of steps from the ground to the top. The success that comes from breaking up large journeys into a series of smaller steps applies to overcoming any kind of big challenge whether it is in your personal life, at school, later on at work or to make an impact in your community. In practical terms this means breaking down what you set out to do into small actions that can be repeated, refined, experimented on, learned from, and accumulated for use on larger scale actions. When I first learned about the environmental impact of meat, beef in particular, I felt intimidated by the thought of having to give up meat. I understood the costs and health risks of too much meat, but I had meat for nearly every meal. I enjoyed it. I couldn’t imagine how this would work out. At the time my friend had similar reservations but a little more optimism from exposure to vegetarians. So we started out with a once a week vegetarian challenge. We kept track of how many weeks we ate vegetarian and soon it turned from days of no meat to weeks of no meat. It became a fun game to look for all the novel ways to add vegetarian dishes into our diet. It was an inspiration for new dishes to cook at home, new restaurants to patronize and a low conflict conversation segway into environmental issues for a general audience. Before we realized it we had gone from once a week no meat to a few times a month meat. # meals with no meat were our game of inches.

Find a buddy, then a community

I was fortunate that I had a buddy from the beginning of my climate journey. She was the one who prodded me every day with the news of the IPCC report on global warming of 1.5C in December of 2018. The dramatic change from one to two is huge. Procrastination with myself is easier than when I have to face someone else. Sometimes, it’s easier to see improvement ideas in someone else than the blindspots and excuses I make for myself. So it goes both ways and having that other partner’s set of eyes can be a great way to gain fresh ideas and stay motivated and on track. Influencing teams to action is much more than 2x as effective when you have a pair of voices advocating rather than one. The emotional cost of sustaining concern and action on climate change takes its toll and a friend can help to smooth the journey. They can help me to bounce back from the valleys and keep me in check when I’m on a high. I have reached the end of my time with my first buddy and I have since found other buddies for the next legs of the journey. Take what you can find, every individual has their own capacity, interests and shared commitments to you for a time and a place. Collective action ultimately happens at the scale of more than two people so once the two of you are ready, make it a crowd.

Are there any organizations that you can share with us for volunteering opportunities?

References

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Applied research, engineering, and projects for solutions to sustainable cities. SG Green New Deal https://aseangreennewdeal.wixsite.com/home

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Taylor Hickem

Applied research, engineering, and projects for solutions to sustainable cities. SG Green New Deal https://aseangreennewdeal.wixsite.com/home