Speech by Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, at the Official Opening of the Centre for Climate Research Singapore on 26 March 2013
SPEECH BY DR VIVIAN BALAKRISHNAN, MINISTER FOR THE ENVIRONMENT AND WATER RESOURCES, AT THE OFFICIAL OPENING OF THE CENTRE FOR CLIMATE RESEARCH SINGAPORE ON 26 MARCH 2013
A very good morning to everyone present here. It is a special occasion to launch this new centre.
We all know that climate science has become increasingly sophisticated and even more important over the years. Our knowledge and tools for analysing climate science has grown exponentially. However, as we live in a very dense, low-lying city, Singaporeans should also be aware that we are also vulnerable to the impact of climate change.
Climate change trends have exacted a heavy toll on many countries over the past few years, taking hundreds of thousands of lives and causing damages of up to US$380 billion. This is a tally which is expected to double every 12 years. These facts are not mine, but are based on a 2012 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Climate can undergo disruptive change
For decades, city-dwellers like us have been shielded - or at least we thought we have been shielded - from the forces of the elements. Quite frankly, I think many of us have developed a false sense of security and stability. Now, we are beginning to see phenomena that could signal disruptive or sudden change.
Some of us may remember the impact of Superstorm Sandy. It hit the US and the Caribbean in October 2012. The hurricane flooded many major cities, including New York, cut electric power to millions of people, and tore apart densely populated coastlines. Superstorm Sandy’s most intense wind zone was three times as wide as Hurricane Katrina’s in 2005. Closer to home, in December 2012, Typhoon Bopha hit the Philippines and killed many hundreds of people. The death toll could have been even higher, if the authorities had not already evacuated thousands of families before the incident.
In Singapore, we have been blessed to have experienced comparatively less severe effects, but we have also had a few records of our own this year. For instance, we experienced the hottest January day, with the temperature soaring to 35.2 degree Celsius, and then we experienced the wettest February in the last 25 years.
So far, we have not really made any adjustments to our lifestyles because of changing weather patterns. But things could take a sudden and surprising turn in the future. While scientists are not yet able or willing to attribute these events directly to climate change, I think there is already a forewarning of the chaos we can expect in future if complex systems were to shift. And the problem is that when complex systems shift, they do not just shift a little bit at a time or slowly. They change suddenly, massively, and with great impact.
Building resilience to climate change
Therefore, no country is immune to climate change and the variability that climate change brings to the weather. Changes in the climate will affect our health, economic development and general well-being. It can cause water requirements to outstrip supply, shift agricultural belts, accelerate the erosion of coasts in low-lying countries and island states, and encourage the spread of vector-borne diseases. These are all issues that confront our ministry and the National Environment Agency.
Singapore is a very low-lying and densely urbanised island, and therefore we are especially susceptible to climate change. We cannot afford to be complacent and take for granted that everything that we have done so far is going to be sufficient for the future. Instead, I believe we need to buy insurance, prepare for the future, adapt faster; and more relevant to today, be aware of what is going on in science and technology. This means focusing on science, engineering, design, planning, and learning new techniques, and doing so quickly.
Policy must be informed by science. We must have access to accurate comprehensive data if we were to analyse trends rationally, even as we pursue mitigation and adaptation in order to safeguard life and property in an uncertain future.
First for the region and for Singapore
For a start, we need to try to project the long-term future climate, and this is the major task given to CCRS. I am glad to note that you will be the first research centre in the world that is focussed specifically on tropical weather and the climate of the wider South-east Asia region, within which Singapore is only a tiny red dot. We have unique and complex processes in the tropics, such as convective thunderstorms and monsoons, which only take place in a small, hot, wet island like ours and this part of the world.
I know that there will be many uncertainties, but from an intellectual and scientific point of view, these uncertainties will also provide much intellectual challenge, and you will have opportunities to push the frontiers of science.
The CCRS recently initiated a new Climate Change Vulnerability Study which will use data and methodologies consistent with the upcoming 5th Assessment Report (AR5) by the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC). This will help deepen our understanding of climate change and its impact on Singapore and the region, and hopefully contribute to developing solutions and measures to enable us to adapt to this change in an effective way. I am glad many of our future partners from Singapore universities and research institutes are represented here today. I want to assure you that you will play a critical role. I also want to assure you of full government support for your academic efforts.
The first phase of this study was commissioned in November 2012 and is being undertaken as a joint project between CCRS and the world-renowned UK Met Office, Hadley Centre.
The CCRS will also have a crucial role in education and outreach. The factors behind climate and weather are complex, and not easily understood by non-specialists. To be honest with you, human minds are not optimally designed to understand probability, risks and complex systems. We are in fact designed to look for heuristic simplicity whenever we observe something. So, the outreach, the explanation, and to develop greater public appreciation of the complexities of the phenomena which will be confronting us – these, I believe, will be major challenges for the CCRS and all scientists.
It is not enough to just have interesting and sophisticated chats about something which only interests us, but we need to be able to explain that in layman’s terms, to get people to understand what really is happening, what impact it has on our lives and what changes we need to make. Until and unless that public education is achieved, much of the arguments will be based on ideology, superstition, tradition, habit and peer pressure. But if we are going to make a debate that is informed by science and facts, then that has to start with scientists explaining and creating a greater and deeper sense of understanding for the science. I hope you will not neglect this role in education and outreach.
To all the research scientists here, I want to thank you for your hard work, not only for what you have done, but also for what you will do in the future, and to let you know that you are a valuable member of our family. What you do is going to be important for Singapore, the region, and also globally, and it will become even more important in the years to come.
For the younger ones amongst those here, I hope you will be excited by the many opportunities that this field you have chosen to focus on will present over the years to come. I hope you will consider research as a career path and know that what you will be doing will be impactful and stimulating, and make a difference to the real lives of real people in the years to come.
I will like to congratulate everyone who has made CCRS possible, and wish you all the best as we launch this new centre. Thank you.