The Improbable Aircon: Why Singapore Should Care About Antarctica
Antarctica may be oceans away from the Lion City, but Singapore plays an important role in protecting its rapidly melting shorelines.
A month ago, I found myself harnessed to a rope held by an expedition crew member who was, at the time, wearing five layers of clothes shielding from the -15°C winds. I, on the other hand, was wearing my two-piece bikini, ready to jump into the -2°C waters off the Antarctic Peninsula.
I could use a thousand lines to explain why I jumped and why the other 130 fellow explorers jumped too, or what is behind the psychology of an explorer. However, I am more interested in telling you why I went to Antarctica in the first place, what happened to me when I jumped and why you should definitively make the jump as well.
It all started in December 2015 with COP21. The successful international outcome gave me hope and made me realise that I, too, had a responsibility to do something. It got me thinking about the ways that I could get involved to help Singapore achieve its commitment of reducing its carbon intensity by 36% by 2030 from its 2005 levels. I could have joined an organisation that fights the haze or help raise awareness about food waste or clean beaches.
However, something bothered me even more about Singapore’s environmental impact: its air conditioning.
It was the first thing that struck me when I landed on the Little Red Dot a few years ago: the unnecessarily cold indoor temperatures, the freezing air in shopping malls and the feeling of slow cryogenisation inside the cinema.
At the time, I wondered why it was so cold everywhere I went. Were we fighting a potential infection outbreak? Were we supporting the sweater industry? Were we trying to make the population feel like they had a bit of winter?
I started asking shop owners, workers and the cinema managers — the same ones I was initially complaining to. They were cold too! I followed through and asked more people, 1352 to be exact.
I asked them a simple question: Are you too cold sometimes because of the air conditioning?
More than 96% responded ‘Yes’.
If everyone is so cold, why are we keeping the air-con temperature so low?
Air conditioners in Singapore are a major contributor to global warming. They represent nearly 40% of our buildings’ total energy consumption, which is adding to the amount of fossil fuels being burnt out to produce that energy in the first place! And despite Singapore’s relatively small size, its impact in terms of carbon emission is massive: the nation ranks 27th amongst the 137 countries the OECD looked at in terms of CO2 emissions per capita back in 2011. Our individual environmental impact here in Singapore is far worse than a person living in China, Hong Kong or Malaysia.
And what an impact! When I got back, in March 2016, the average land and ocean temperature was the highest in records, which was 1.22°C hotter than the average month since 1880 according to the NOAA. The previous record was set last year with an increase of only 0.32°C. March 2016 also marked the 11th consecutive hottest month ever recorded. So, not only are we too hot in Singapore, the overuse of air conditioners is making the world hotter! And that has an impact on the place that is supposed to keep us cool: Antarctica.
Made up of 14 million km2 of ice, or 20,000 times the size of Singapore, Antarctica is the air conditioning of the world. It is also the coldest, windiest and driest place on the planet, providing roughly 90% of our ice and 70% of our fresh water. Its surrounding waters in the Southern Ocean play a major role in fighting climate change by locking away carbon emissions from the atmosphere and absorbing about 40% of all human-made CO2 taken up by the world’s oceans. Its ice sheets can reach up to 4 miles in thickness in some parts of the continent, and if Antarctica were to melt completely, it would increase sea levels by 60 metres, submerging most of Singapore.The issue is that Antarctica is already melting faster than expected, thus threatening the city-state’s existence.
We do need to stop the melt before it is too late, and the way to do so is to hold the unavoidable increase in the global temperature to well below 2°C. That is why I founded #up2degrees — a local movement to raise awareness about climate change in Singapore. The aim is to get people to set the temperature of their air conditioning up by 2°C.
With the hope of spreading that message and get Singaporeans to do their part, I decided to go to Antarctica to see climate change for myself and show them what global warming looks like.
Selected amongst 6,000 global applicants, I joined polar explorer Robert Swan, first man in history to walk to both the North and South Pole, on the International Antarctic Expedition organised by the 2041 Foundation in March 2016. 2041 is the year when the Antarctic treaty protecting the most southern continent is set to expire, opening Antarctica up to the possibility of exploitation, environmental ruin, and even war. The mission of the Foundation is to inform, engage and inspire the next generation of leaders to take responsibility, be sustainable, and know that now is the time for action in policy development, sustainable business generation and future technologies.
In order to go, I raised almost US$20,000, welcomed Bawah Private Island as my main sponsor, received additional support from Ben & Jerry’s and Flamingo Research, as well as contributions from friends, family and the general public.
The first sight of icebergs left a lasting impression on me, which was quickly overshadowed by the knowledge that I was setting foot on the southernmost continent on Earth.
I immediately realised: this place wants me dead.
I saw what extreme conditions look like and what danger they pose for the survival of the human race. I felt the harshness of the cold, the lack of oxygen, the anxiety of complete isolation combined with the impossibility of rescue. There, I fell on the ice. I hurt my knee, my hip, my elbow — and they still hurt. I got so sick I was unable to eat anything solid for 10 days. I purged myself from the polluted air, from the processed food, from the concrete madness. I followed nature’s time; I had no watch, just the sun and the light to guide my days. I breathed fresh, pure air. I drank water that was so clean it had no taste at all. I walked where no one ever did and I had this bizarre desire to wipe away the footsteps I left behind and leave the place as virgin and wild as I found it.
I realised how strong and resilient the planet truly is and how insignificant we are. It became clear: we do not need to save the planet. Instead, we need to save us from ourselves. But I also saw a beauty that only the last wilderness on Earth could offer us.
Animals that had never seen humans before — most were curious and not afraid of us — why should they? We did not hurt them nor hunt them. And that is how our relations to animals should be.
Each encounter was more magical than the previous one. Perhaps because I had learnt to fully appreciate it, to be in the moment, to build that sense of respect for something that was simply bigger than all of us.
Antarctica is a weird place — it feels like another planet, where time ran at a slower pace. It is inviting us to sit, watch and listen. Carefully. It teaches a deep sense of openness, of observation, of scale. Perhaps most striking, it triggers a sense of the present and peace.
It is so immense and infinite, yet so sacred and vivid at the same time. It is so strong yet fragile.
Some people are still sceptical about climate change, but I have seen it with my own eyes. It is happening every day and Antarctica is suffering from it. In fact, our planet as a whole is suffering from it.
Join the #up2degrees movement, turn the temperature of your air conditioning up by 2°C so the planet does not have to do it for us!
If you liked this story, please recommend it by liking it so that others can read it too! This story was first published on 13 June 2016 by the British Chamber of Commerce Singapore.