[SCMP Column] Climate threat local and personal

October 29, 2018


It is now five weeks since Typhoon Mangkhut wreaked havoc across Hong Kong. Still the scars are raw, and not just a matter of a few tens of thousands of trees gone. If we are properly to absorb what “climate change” is all about, we need to look around us now.

Because, for most of the world’s 7bn-plus people, climate change is not about whether global mean temperatures will be 1.5 degrees or 2 degrees higher, or about sea levels rising 10cm more than previous models, or the melting of the ice cap over Greenland or even the bleaching of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. If we are to absorb the awesome, awful consequences of climate change and global warming, it has to be local and personal. Like Mangkhut.

Over the past two weekends, I have walked afresh along Hong Kong’s devastated high mountain trails. The shock is not the tree wreckage – though that is gruesome. The shock is the silence. Most bird life seems to have gone, and with it the birdsong, hopefully not for good. The butterflies that normally splash colour along the way are wholly absent. As I relive the shocking 24 assault of Mangkhut on my village home in Clearwater Bay, I am forced to wonder how on earth our birds and butterflies managed the battering, with nowhere to hide.

From my home, I look down on a six foot wall of wood and flotsam pushed inland by Mangkhut. The rubbish ranges from bits of boats and mangled surfboards to refrigerators and plastic everything. It sprawls a length of 40 yards and sits drying in the sun about 30 yards inland from the coastal wall that Mangkhut wrecked. Locals have by now stopped picking through it in the hope of finding something lost.

This is climate change up close and personal. Now that the sea wall has been wrecked, any old spring tide, or grumpy storm, is set to eat away the waterfront land.

Those like Donald Trump who deny the link between human hyper-consumption, CO2 and climate change no doubt turn to Typhoon Wanda in 1962, whose 5m storm surge left thousands homeless in Taipo and Shatin. Hong Kong’s sea levels are 15cm higher today than they were in 1962. Heaven knows what harm Wanda would have done if it passed through today.

Our weather scientists have not yet told us whether Mangkhut was more vicious than Wanda. What they did tell us in a 2010 Hong Kong Observatory report was nevertheless blunt: “On the basis of a pessimistic but not unrealistic estimate of the sea-level rise made in recent years, even ordinary spring tides would be sufficient to bring sea flooding to low-lying areas --- with or without typhoons. Mitigation measures would be necessary.”

Mitigation measures means sea walls. In the wake of Wanda, as our planners built our new towns in the 1960s and 70s, they mandated sea defences at least three metres high in all flood prone areas. One must today wonder whether than was enough, and how much needs urgently to be spent on existing sea walls, both in Victoria Harbour, and in remote Sai Kung villages like mine.

One also wonders whether Carrie Lam, as she begins to draw up plans for an ambitious new HK$500bn manmade island off Lantau, needs to add a couple of extra metres – and an extra few hundreds of billions of dollars – to give proper protection to the 1m or more people she plans to house there.

But my main point is that the IPCC and its reports, expert and thorough as they are, mean nothing if they don’t capture what climate change means for us all, locally and personally.

No wonder Anjana Ahuja, the Financial Times science commentator, complained two weeks ago that “the international silence was deafening” following the latest IPCC report: “Climate change denial, no longer a credible political position, has given way to climate change indifference... there is little political bandwidth for a massive problem that is global in nature.” She should add “... and unlikely to get serious until after most of our present-day political leaders are long dead.”

Up close and personal in the US, means seeing 1.7m people evacuated in North and South Carolina as Hurricane Florence swept in, and over 500,000 people losing electricity. It means 375,000 people being evacuated in Florida in anticipation of Hurricane Michael, with pecan and cotton farmers losing their entire crops, 2m chickens killed, vegetables with US$480m lost, and 3m acres of commercial timber destroyed. It means devastating forest fires across California.
 
In Japan, it means a 2018 summer of alternating typhoons and heatwaves – with an earthquake or two added in for good measure.
 
In Germany and Switzerland it means the drought-hit River Rhine – the 1,200km economic lifeline for a large part of central Europe – withering to a trickle, with ferry and barge services being suspended. It means Swiss families having to tap emergency stockpiles of diesel as fuel barges are stranded, and BASF, the German chemicals group, having to halt production at the world’s largest integrated chemicals facility in Ludwigshafen.
 
In China, it means the Gobi desert gobbling up 3,600 sq km of grassland every year (the entirety of Hong Kong is just 2,754 sq km) in a country that is already desperately short of cultivable land, while sea-level rises threatens inundation of at least 1,150 sq km along China’s coast (worst is the Pearl River Delta area, where 13 per cent of the land is already below sea level).
 
If the IPCC is to capture anyone’s attention – most important, the attention of our political leaders who are under constant pressure to appease spending pressures from local lobbies – its messages need to be local and personal. The messages need to be based on our actual experiences, not on abstract mathematical models and high-level global data that bounces around our brains and settles nowhere.
 
I need to hear the silence of the mountain trails, and see the drab absence of butterflies, and the bleached mountains of debris straggled across my village’s destroyed sea walls. These are the warnings of what climate change is all about. They are the warnings we cannot ignore.
 
David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view. Opinions expressed are entirely his own.

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