The essay that started it all

Youths can help tackle climate change: Urgent call for practical solutions

by Jessica Cheam

October in sea-battered Sagar Island, on the southern fringe of West Bengal, heralds the end of the wet, windy monsoon period and the start of the wintry, cool and temperate months.

Fisherman Ajay Maiti, 37, squints into the sunset and points to what looks like some dirt in the distance. We are standing on a soft muddy embankment and when I look carefully, I realise he’s pointing at a mound of mud - all that’s left of his home of almost four decades, built by his father’s bare hands.

I travelled to Sagar island last October on a documentary shoot with Asian broadcaster Channel News Asia. Sagar is part of the larger Sundarban Islands in the Bay of Bengal; three hours’ journey by road from Culcutta and a ferry’s ride away.

The topic of our documentary is climate change, and Sagar Island – despite its lack of infrastructure and remoteness – called out to us as it is one of the most visible manifestations of the global phenomenon.

Ajay tells me that lucrative crops used to be grown on the island. Then a combination of Cyclone Aila – the most severe cyclone to hit the region – in 2009; rising sea levels, erosion and salt water intrusion made the entire area a wasteland.

As a result, his brothers have had to migrate to other states to find work, while he is the only one who stayed on the island, married and had children. But he says he is worse off than he was years ago, with daily living a struggle since his family lost their land and livelihood.

The next day, I meet Rehana and Nazira Bibi, in their 20s at another part of Sagar Island. They were originally from Ghoramara, an island about 150 kilometres south of Calcutta. In the last few decades, at least half of its landmass has disappeared under water, leaving only five square kilometres.

Interviewing them was emotional. At one point, while responding to my questions about leaving their land, Rehana, who was carrying her two-year-old baby, started crying. “You can’t imagine the pain of losing our ancestral home,” she tells me through a translator.

Because India – and the world – does not as yet have a legal framework or policy for climate change refugees, they were given minimal help. The local government gave them a small piece of land – a fraction of what they used to have – and now they live in squalor, unable to plant the crops they used to with the limited land they have.

We travelled to Ghoromara island too, where we spoke to the local village leader, and he explained how erosion and rising sea levels has eaten much of the island, and how villagers are all living on borrowed time.

He’s pleading with the local and central government now to build sea walls and embankments to help the island. But the story is also complicated by the fact that artificial embankments built on the opposite side to facilitate a shipping channel have aggravated the erosion by strengthening the undercurrents which eat the sand out.

On Sagar Island, fisherman Ajay Maiti (second from left) and his friends stand on ground that used to be the location of their homes. Image: Jessica Cheam

The climate change story

Their stories are not simple ones to tell, and climate change is not an easy topic. It is long-term, and the science is complicated; there are changing weather patterns, changing monsoon seasons, changes in the intensity of cyclones, the swelling of rivers, different government policies and social consequences that shape the narrative.

But this is exactly why it is important that we continue to tell them, and encourage the world to listen.

Fortunately, there has been a marked shift in the global discourse around climate change.

The year 2015 was a milestone in that regard. It was the hottest year on record; environmental, social and broader security issues hogged news headlines as extreme weather events threw global food, water and energy systems into disarray.

This has played out further in the time since, with 2016 and 2017 breaking more records.

In the past year, Southeast Asia suffered the worst drought in 40 years with crippling heat waves and water shortages occurring across the region. In Malaysia, water levels in the Linggiu Reservoir in Johor Bahru - which enables Singapore to draw water from the Johor River - have fallen to historic lows.

Water levels at Johor Bahru's Linggiu Reservoir in July 2016 reached historic lows. Image: Channel NewsAsia

The unusually warm weather is also believed to have triggered the anthrax outbreak in Siberia, causing the death of two people and thousands of reindeer. Furthermore, the regions around the Poles are experiencing the fastest warming due to climate change.

If left unchecked, the potential cost of climate change to the world economy is estimated by a recent study to be as much as US$24 trillion by 2100, underlining the urgent need for businesses worldwide to pay attention to it.

The report, led by researchers at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science and Vivid Economics, is the first comprehensive study to use an economic model to put a number on the “climate value at risk”.

The study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, estimated that an average US$2.5 trillion, or 1.8 per cent, of the world’s financial assets would be at risk from the impacts of climate change if global temperatures rise by 2.5 deg C above its pre-industrial level by 2100.

But uncertainties in estimating this risk mean that “there is a one per cent chance” that warming of 2.5 deg C could threaten US$24 trillion, or 16.8 per cent, of global financial assets in 2100.

These sums overshadow the estimated US$5 trillion total stock market worth of fossil fuel companies today.

But amid the sobering facts, the world’s nations also forged the Paris Agreement in 2015 after 20 years of fraught negotiations, which sets a target to limit climate change and transition the world to a low-carbon global economy.

While the US has pulled out under the leadership of its president Donald Trump, there is concerted pushback from organisations all across the world. In the US, groups such as the one led by media mogul Michael Bloomberg called “We are still in” have promised that they will continue to support climate action.

The United Nations adopted a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals that sets the global development agenda for the next 15 years and aims to end poverty and hunger, fight climate change, and achieve sustainable economic growth.

From what used to be a fringe issue, climate change has become mainstream. Finally, it seems the world is awakening to the existential crisis we face as a civilisation, at a pace and scale never seen before.

And young people may be the most powerful force yet to be mobilised in the international climate movement.

India's Ghoromora island has lost at least half its landmass in recent decades, leaving only five square kilometres for these children to call home. Image: Jessica Cheam

The youth movement

I was reminded of an event that I spoke at two years ago. Some 200 youths from 10 Asean countries met to discuss campaigns for climate change action and this meeting of the "Asean Power Shift" took place at United World College of South East Asia in Singapore.

It was organised by a group of young people from 350 Singapore, the local chapter of a global youth-led non-profit organisation called

The name has its origins in the United States, where the first so-called Power Shift was held in 2007 and gathered 6,000 youths for climate change activism.

A Global Power Shift took place in 2013 in Turkey and, from there, 86 national Power Shifts have been held across the world. These meetings bring together millennials to discuss climate change issues and equip them with skills to organise similar campaigns in their home countries.

The idea is to empower us to lead local climate action groups which will, in turn, help educate the people in various countries on the realities of, and solutions to climate change, multiplying the effect.

The movement views climate change as an ethical issue involving equality, human rights, collective rights and historical responsibility. It recognises the fact that those who are least responsible for climate change generally bear the brunt of its impact.

To this day, the movement continues to gain momentum across the globe. And this is a reflection of how climate change as an issue has captured the imagination of the global youth.

And there is a strong case to continue to engage us in the global discussion about how to address it. As a group, the youth hold tremendous voting and purchasing power that could pressure governments and businesses to make the right decisions.

We could be the most potent force for the international climate movement, yet to be unleashed.

Take the Asean Power Shift for example – an event entirely led by a group of young people from Singapore - where the country's historical wariness of civil society and advocacy efforts has meant that activists are few and far between.

In many ways, the meeting - supported by Young NTUC and environmental NGO Eco Singapore - reflects recent, growing civic activism among Singaporeans, especially the young, and the growing appeal of climate change advocacy for my generation.

This reflects an international trend too. For instance, a survey of 8,000 young adults from 20 countries in 2011, led by the United Nations Environment Programme, found that young people increasingly want to be a force for change in creating a more sustainable planet.

The young adults surveyed, aged 18 to 35, consider poverty and environmental degradation to be the world's two biggest challenges, and they want more information on what they can do to be part of the solution.

Speaking to many of the region's participants at the event, I was encouraged by their energy and sharp questions.

Mr Vannchai Rot, 23, a social worker from Cambodia for instance, volunteers for a youth non-governmental organisation called the Youth Resource Development Programme (YRDP).

He said that in developing Asean countries such as Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam, climate change awareness is still very low. People can see its effects. They feel it is getting hotter and crop yields in these heavily agricultural countries have become erratic, due to increased incidents of droughts and floods. But people still generally do not understand climate change, its causes, or how to respond to it.

YRDP, which is part of the Cambodia Climate Change Network, seeks to address this by training and educating young people in the country, and equipping them with the understanding and skills to educate their friends and family. It organises a youth forum on climate change annually and conducts talks with the Cambodian government on how to address climate issues.

The progress is slow, however, said Mr Vannchai, because of a lack of resources.

Then there is Ms Pui Cuifen, a fellow Singaporean whose interest in climate issues was triggered by a university course she attended some five years ago and she has since been participating in and volunteering at climate change-related events.

In Singapore, awareness of climate change issues is generally high, she said, but this does not mean that people are doing anything about it.

"Many say they feel powerless, or that the problem is too big for them, so this meeting - the Asean Power Shift - reinforces the idea that we can make things happen," she said.

She feels the connection between climate change and how it impacts the daily lives of citizens in Singapore is missing at the moment.

Climate change effects, such as higher temperatures, rising sea levels, extreme weather, and increased risk of drought and floods, might be well reported, but for the man on the street to care about these issues, a personal connection has to be made.

This could involve something as simple as, say, driving home the message that the local dishes Singaporeans love - such as a bowl of fishball noodles or a plate of chicken rice - could be very expensive or unavailable in the coming years as food production declines because of more droughts or floods.

Very often, it comes down to small, personal actions, said Ms Pui, who started a community garden a couple of years ago in Choa Chu Kang with her neighbours to grow their own food. This is her way of "doing things that are sustainable and bringing people together".

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Cleantech One in Singapore is dedicated to testing urban sustainability solutions that will help the city-state achieve their climate change targets. Image: Cleantech One

Singapore’s climate pledge

Known as “the little red dot”, Singapore has encouragingly punched above its weight when it comes to climate action.

Last year, it released its national climate action plan, in which the government acknowledged that the country is likely to face higher temperatures, more intense and frequent heavy rainfall events coupled with more pronounced dry seasons, and higher sea levels in the years to come

The Climate Action Plan is the most comprehensive national statement on climate action since the historic Paris Agreement on climate change was inked last December in Paris.

As part of the Agreement, Singapore had committed to reduce its emissions intensity by 36 per cent from 2005 levels by 2030, and stabilise emissions with the aim of peaking around then.

The action plan is divided into two central strategies – one on mitigation, that is, reducing Singapore’s greenhouse gas emissions and raising its energy efficiency; and the other on adapting to the impacts of climate change by future-proofing hard and soft infrastructure.

These initiatives to make Singapore climate resilient include building seawalls and rock slopes in coastal areas; retrofitting drainage infrastructure to deal with flooding; a new heat stress information system to help the public better plan outdoor activities as temperatures are projected to rise by 1.4 to 4.6 degrees Celsius towards the end of the century;

The Climate Action Plan is a great starting point. Singapore has since also announced a carbon tax to take effect in 2019. It is the first Southeast Asian country to impose such a tax.

But beyond getting businesses and government officials on board, the country will need to make a concerted effort to encourage the wider public, especially the youth, in building a climate-friendly culture and embedding it into the national consciousness. This will include integrating climate change into Singapore’s education curriculum from an early age.

After all, any efforts to build a low-carbon, climate resilient society will surely fail without the participation of the citizenry.

The answer starts with you

In many ways, the solution to this global challenge is a personal one. It starts with getting every citizen to care and feel a certain responsibility towards our Planet and society.

I often remark to others that if climate change continues unabated, Planet Earth will still be fine. Over hundreds of millions of years, nature has always re-calibrated the planet when it was necessary. It is mankind who is at jeopardy; countries and communities across the globe will be subject to destabilising forces from the impacts of climate change - from rising sea levels to food security, erratic weather patterns to natural ecosystems being put out of balance.

Many academics and security experts have linked climate change impacts to political instability and social unrest; in many studies, experts have pointed out that climate change contributes to an uncertain world where terrorism can thrive.

So if we are to address these global challenges, and more personally, if you care about the people around you, then it is your responsibility to take action. In my own personal capacity, I have tried this to do it with Eco-Business, a media organisation that I founded which educates and advocates on sustainability and climate change issues.

In our various initiatives, from the national recycling and social initiative EcoBank to the events we host such as the Eco Action Day Circular Economy Challenge, we have always sought to put a special focus on engaging youth. For EcoBank, recruiting armies of youth volunteers helped to raise awareness – and translate that into action – among the public. And for the latter, we galvanised some 12 youth groups across Singapore to create innovation solutions that adopt circular economy principles in any chosen industry or company. They represent the drive for innovation, and ultimately, will be key to creating solutions that will address our climate challenge.

Taking the idea of building a community to the next level, Eco-Business recently partnered with spacemob and Ascendas-Singbridge in Singapore to launch The SDG Collaborative (, a new co-working space for sustainability professionals in Singapore and the region, and an alliance of organisations dedicated on delivering the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

There is room to do so much more.

I have always believed in the power of education to effect change. My own personal journey on climate change activism began when I started covering energy, business and political issues in my previous job at The Straits Times. I realised that although climate change has wide implications, cutting through all beats, it was – at that time – severely under-reported.

Climate change potentially represents a major threat to the health and socio-economic stability of youth - particularly in developing countries, where 80 per cent of young people live. It was therefore my duty to be concerned. And the more I learnt about it, the more I realised that this is an issue that needs to be kept at the top of business and government agendas.

The youth of today confront a host of challenges and an uncertain future. The fourth industrial revolution is bringing about huge disruptions in global economies and the skills that enabled our parents’ generation to succeed are going to be different from the ones we are going to need in the future.

But even though we live in a world characterised by diversity and conflict, there is also vast opportunities and unprecedented ways of connecting with each other across the globe. To be able to influence our own future, we have to get involved. As a country – and as a global society – we need to find ways to harness the energy of the youth, and encourage innovation and entrepreneurship in an environment that inspires and enables us to pursue our dreams.

The youth represent a tremendous resource and this is why I have focused my volunteer efforts as a speaker and facilitator at numerous youth events and projects in Singapore and around the world.

In the course of my career, I have also pursued opportunities in media and communications that enable me to amplify the impact of climate change stories.

The Channel NewsAsia documentary in particular was an eye-opening project that allowed me to travel to Malaysia, India and Copenhagen to examine the climate challenge, and how countries were responding to it. The documentary was shown across Asia, and amplified further through the channel, Eco-Business and my social media channels. What has been most personally rewarding are the countless letters, emails and messages I have received as a result of the work of the team I work with.

I hope to have the opportunity to travel to Antarctica to chronicle the impact of climate change from a different perspective, and be able to tell more stories from the expedition – stories that can inspire change. Stories that can help those like Sagar Island’s Ajay Maiti, Rehana and Nazira Bibi and their children. And my own children.

As a young mother of a five- and three-year-old, I feel deeply responsible about being a steward of the environment that we are given, and leaving a better world for them than the one we inherited.

The youth have a right – and a need – to be concerned, for we are the ones who will be around in 2050 and beyond, when scientists predict climate change effects will significantly worsen if no global action is taken.

This was aptly summed up by Dr AKP Mochtan, Deputy Secretary-General of Asean for Community and Corporate Affairs, who spoke at the Asean Power Shift. He said something that has always stayed with me: "The youth have much at stake, because the youth have much future to live."

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