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No Time For Cold Feet

SCMP – Updated on Mar 13, 2009

A confession: each time I read or hear the words “climate change”, I mentally switch off. It wasn’t always this way; I am environmentally sympathetic by nature and a firm believer in sustainable development. The problem is that scientists seem to have signed a pact to outdo one another in offering bad news about global warming. There would seem to be no need to read their research; the general message is worsening doom and gloom, and that urgent action is necessary.

Headlines about increasingly severe weather patterns no longer faze me – they are expected. Accounts of islands disappearing beneath rising seas, greater levels of fresh water salinity, worsening droughts and shrinking ice caps do not surprise me. Rising temperatures mean an increase in diseases; this is new? Tell me I am not the only one who feels this way.

There are many people who think differently, of course. They are the ones directly affected – and there are at least 2 billion of them. The way to unglaze my eyes is clearly to personalise the issue. If my doctor were to say I had a severe case of climate change that could well prove terminal if the prescribed medication was ignored, my outlook would be different.

One of my office colleague’s views certainly are. He nodded in enthusiastic agreement yesterday when I showed him a warning by US senator John Kerry that deferring potentially costly actions to combat climate change because of the global economic crisis amounted to “a mutual suicide pact”. A resident of Tai O village on Lantau, he knows first-hand about climate change. Exceptionally heavy rain that caused landslides last June cut the only road to the town for two weeks and wiped out three of his favourite walking trails around Shek Pik reservoir. Spring tides are beginning to creep into the village’s low-lying streets, while hundreds of residents were evacuated during the storm surge from Typhoon Hagupit in September. From my North Point lair and Quarry Bay office, climate change is not apparent. Besides, governments claim that they have the matter in hand. US President Barack Obama’s billion-dollar low-carbon packages have been much applauded, as have his plans for a cap-and-trade scheme for the greenhouse gases blamed for global warming. Environmental concerns are high on the agenda of next month’s Group of 20 leaders’ summit in London. Its core task is stabilising the global economy and co-ordinating rescue efforts, but energy efficiency, renewable energy and green technologies will apparently feature among solutions. Falling energy consumption as a result of the financial meltdown also means that levels of harmful pollutants are falling.

The big picture seems rosy, but my colleague and others at the cusp of the problem are not so sure. Many of the fiscal stimulus packages that aim to create employment do not seem to have the environment in mind. Premier Wen Jiabao’s work report to the National People’s Congress conspicuously gave it the lowest of priorities. Non-governmental groups dedicated to environmental concerns are feeling the funding pinch.

So, how to turn attention to matters climatic? All those grim reports from this week’s International Scientific Congress on Climate Change in Copenhagen are not doing the trick for me. Nor is concern about a meaningful successor to the Kyoto pact, being hammered out in December, spurring me to write letters to politicians; I know that there is a giant disconnect between their rhetoric and actions. Broadly, it is the responsibility of the world’s leaders working together for the common good, but at a grass-roots level, it is local governments that should be taking the lead.

In an economic downturn, helping people at risk has to be a priority – but this does not mean that an important constant, environmental protection, should be pushed into the background. The two have to be combined by building high-speed railways rather than roads and airports, constructing “green” buildings, encouraging firms dedicated to alternative energy and perhaps above all else, educating. Oh – and my colleague would like to see his trails rebuilt, and a sea wall for Tai O put up.

Peter Kammerer is the Post’s foreign editor.

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