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Think globally, act locally

November 12, 2010

Logesh, Wen Yun and I had a very eventful afternoon today with Dr. Natasha Hamilton-Hart. We were introduced to Dr Hamilton through this insightful presentation (www.nus.edu.sg/oes/pdf/ccc_policy_carbonemission.pdf) and decided to interview her to gain perspectives on the UNFCCC process as well as her views on environmental issues in general. Dr Hamilton-Hart is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Southeast Asian Studies, National University of Singapore.

We discussed the UNFCCC process, which has been subjected to many criticisms, especially since it failed to produce a legally-binding agreement in Copenhagen last year, which was the aim of the Bali Action Plan. Despite this failure, Professor Hamilton is not of the view that the UNFCC process should be scraped. The benefits of the UNFCCC process are that it is multi-lateral, providing universal coverage and that it also has a huge supporting infrastructure. In her opinion, it is the best process we have, and one we have worked on for the last 3 decades. It is virtually impossible to restart from scratch with climate change being such a pressing issue. Instead of aiding in negotiations, a switch in arena may delay negotiations and may be a ploy to defer committing to a legally-binding agreement.

An interesting summary of her view on the UNFCCC process is that the UNFCCC process is technically possible, just that it has unresolved technical issues which demands political will, an area in which a technical fix does not exist. This writer infers from this that changing arenas for negotiations then become a red herring as lack of political will exist anyway. Hence it is best to work the current system and to make the best out of it.

Dr. Hamilton strongly believes that the actions that happen on the national level do matter, and the topic of local efforts dominated a large part of our conversation with her.  Many obstacles to reduce greenhouse gases lie at the national level. For example, Singapore can apply pressure on companies such as Wilmar which has their headquarters based here and Golden Agri which it is a large stakeholder in, who have environmentally-unfriendly practices such as logging in Indonesia (which incidentally causes our haze problem *coughs*)

A culture of activism is lacking in Singapore today, where we lobby our own government and expose private interests.  

(On a sidetrack here, but a clarification that this writer needs to make: This does not equate to being anti-establishment, it is simply being engaged in issues which matter and have a sound basis, and voicing out these opinions to the general public. I, myself think that Singapore owes much of its success to the efficient uncorrupted government and credit them for their successes. However, I’m bringing these issues up because I think that while Singapore has established the National Climate Change Strategy (http://app.mewr.gov.sg/web/Contents/ContentsNCC.aspx?ContId=452) and the Singapore Sustainable blueprint (http://app.mewr.gov.sg/web/Contents/ContentsSSS.aspx?ContId=1291), it does have the capacity to do more. I’m entitled to bring this view up to the public sphere, open to opposing views that may counter my view) Dr Hamilton reminds us that these comments may be political in nature, but the word ‘political’ should not be tainted with connotations of being costly. She gives a hypothetical situation: A government official comes down to one’s school to give a talk and presents selective information. ‘Someone needs to put her up hand and say, “Actually, Sir…”’ We, locals, can identify problems and shine the spotlight on them, generating consciousness on such issues. We should delve deeper into issues instead of taking them at face value.

One of the issues that Dr. Hamilton felt is very relevant to Singapore’s context is consumerism. We have a ‘throw-away’ mentality and the mindset that if affordability is not an issue, then nothing should stop us from buying an item. It is ironic that the thing that prevents Singapore from being more eco-friendly is our abundance of wealth instead of its lack. On the ways to convince people to being more eco-friendly, she brought to light the fact that sometimes the choice is not between an item or its eco-friendly but slightly more expensive cousin, but considering the necessity of the item in the first place instead. What we can do as individuals to target direct consumer action is to making the connections between our lifestyle choices. Dr. Hamilton illustrates this with an example of an airplane company advertising their cheap prices, and the need for us consumers, to make the connection between cheap prices translating into fuel inefficiency which costs the environment, and choosing otherwise.

In addition to what Dr. Hamilton has said, I think that the consumer is very important since it’s the very entity companies seek to serve. We have the power to make decisions. An example of a successful boycott is visible at the link below:

http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/news/features/Sweet-success-for-Kit-Kat-campaign/

Some of us may find the video gruesome and disturbing but the discomfort it causes us confronts us with the harsh reality. We may not have to venture into boycotts like these, which some may view as rather extreme, but we can simply call upon our government to label products which are made from palm oil from Indonesia, empowering us the individual to make the choice. Currently, the Singapore Green Labelling Scheme (SGLS) applies to most products, except food, drinks and pharmaceuticals.

Since Dr. Hamilton is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Southeast Asian Studies, we seized the opportunity to question her on the place of ASEAN in environmental issues. She debunked the assumption that ASEAN is hampered by its non-interference principle but rather more fundamentally, the willingness to engage in environmental issues. Cooperation is irrelevant if actors involved do not seek to change, and all of them have mutual vested interests. Since there is no external pressure in ASEAN, pressure has to come from within, and Dr. Hamilton links this point back to the importance of the efforts of the individual.

Apart from all the insights we have gained from Dr.Hamilton, we were also inspired. A doubt that may arise in readers’ minds, and also one that Dr. Hamilton candidly brought up is that our trip halfway across the globe for COY6 and COP16 contributes to further greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The COP16 delegation realizes this and is thus, more convicted to make the best of our trip and to bring back fresh insights for you readers out there. We will not disappoint!

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