Opinion: The truth about climate and COVID

Getting to school as a boy in Singapore in the 1970s could be soggy affair. Tropical downpours overwhelmed drainage systems, leaving parts of the island impassable. Students braved the rains and rising waters, turning up bedraggled, if they made it at all.

Thankfully, this became a thing of the past by the late 1980s. Massive flood alleviation caused this story to recede from front pages, as a modern city-state emerged. Yet, decades on, we seem to be heading back to the future. Severe storms are now becoming more frequent.

Last month, pictures of Singapore inundated with water hit the headlines again. A minister warned that as intense rainfall was becoming more common with global warming, people might have to get used to flash floods from time to time.

Rising sea levels are an existential issue for my low-lying island, about a third of which is less than 5 meters above the mean sea level. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has estimated that more than $100 billion (Singapore dollars) might be needed over the next decades to tackle the rising tides caused by warming seas and melting ice sheets.

But Singapore is not alone. New York City declared a flash flood emergency earlier this month in the wake of Hurricane Ida. More than 300 people were killed in China’s Henan province in August, when a year’s worth of rain fell in three days, leaving many trapped in underground train carriages and road tunnels.

Devastating floods in Germany and Belgium; droughts in Brazil; heatwaves in India, Australia and the Pacific Northwest of the United States; wildfires in California, Canada and across the Mediterranean and Amazon regions — such extreme weather events, once the stuff of movies, have been playing out across the planet this year.

Get used to it, say the climate scientists, for these are signs of what’s to come.

U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Chairman Hoesung Lee summed up the grim scenario: “It is indisputable that human activities are causing climate change and making extreme weather more frequent and severe.”

Yet who can blame a weary world for being distracted, with so many countries still in the grip of a rampaging virus that refuses to yield?

But as Lee rightly notes, the COVID-19 pandemic is a “foretaste of what climate change could do to our society, to nature and our lives.”

Lamentably, while the world’s scientists were quick to step up to the COVID-19 challenge, delivering effective vaccines, efforts to curb the outbreak have been hampered by populist politicians, global inequalities and a pandemic of misinformation. The virus has continued to spread, mutate and unleash new waves of infections.

The COVID-19 experience has made plain how difficult it will be to forge a global consensus on tackling the climate crisis. Here too, politics, inequality and misinformation confound concerted action.

This is where professional newsrooms have an important role to play. And it is why today’s World News Day focuses on the climate crisis.

Some 300 newsrooms from around the world are coming together to tell the story of how climate change is already impacting the lives and livelihoods of communities, and how they are grappling with it. Newsrooms, with resources and expertise, are best placed to tell these stories in clear and credible ways.

One of the best examples is the BBC documentary “The Truth about Climate Change.” In it, environmentalist David Attenborough sums up the facts.

“We are causing the world to heat up,” he says. “If we continue to behave as we are doing, our children and grandchildren will have to deal with potentially catastrophic changes. The vast forests of the Amazon could wither and burn. The oceans could turn acid, destroying much of the life they presently contain. The Arctic could be transformed. Its ice could melt, and its most famous animals vanish forever. Rising tides could cast millions of people adrift. Many of our coastal cities could be flooded and drowned.”

There is still time to act if the world is to minimize these changes, he adds. But time, that most non-renewable of resources, is running out. Now is the time to hear him, and heed.

Warren Fernandez is editor-in-chief of The Straits Times, the leading English language news title in Singapore, and president of the World Editors Forum.