Govt must act fast to stem scourge of climate change

Govt must act fast to stem scourge of climate change

Netizens were up in arms earlier this week when news surfaced that the government was on the verge of spending 20 million baht to send 81 officials to the upcoming global climate change conference in Paris. Insider information exposed the budget request to dispatch the throng of officials to the event to an outraged public.

The Paris conference is seen as the last hope to produce a global agreement to try to contain greenhouse gas emissions. Past attempts to extend the life of the expiring Kyoto Protocol, the first and only binding global agreement, have been abject failures.

Officials must have been astounded at the furious public reaction. Normally, the issue of climate change has never aroused much public interest.

The proposed trip to the conference was a routine item that usually draws a big yawn from the media. Unfortunately, the officials have misread the Public Unhappiness Index (PUI), which appears to be on the rise as government's performance dips.

Officials later clarified the budget request covered other activities as well, including a G77 conference that will be chaired by Thailand this year. The budget requested is actually minuscule in the larger scheme of things. But criticism arose from the perception that concerned officials had never achieved tangible results or played a significant role in past conferences. Under the circumstances, any budget is too big a budget.

Officials' less-than-stellar performance on the issue of climate change only reflects the neglect shown by Thai governments. Bureaucrats dutifully go through the motions of drafting national plans, action plans and what-not, knowing they are working on a task that will get them nowhere because no cabinet member will take a second look at it.

It is no surprise the Thai public is mostly ignorant about climate change. They can parrot the word global warming -- lok ron in Thai -- but have little idea about what it is in spite of media reports and all sorts of campaigns going back a few decades.

The media is not much help either. There is little incentive for reporters to pursue the topic in depth unless some drastic phenomenon takes place. Climate change is right at the top of non-selling news for the media.

Few cabinet members can claim to be truly aware of the issue and understand its impacts.

Despite the cycles of droughts and floods repeatedly hitting the country in the past decades -- with various natural disasters in between -- we still hear cabinet members talking about the climate change impact as a far-off phenomenon.

They fail to see that lok ron and its consequences are already with us and we are at this very moment suffering from them. And it will get worse if ignorance reigns.

Weather is progressively deteriorating for Thailand and the world. In 1993 we suffered water shortages. In 1994 we had too much rain. In 2005 people in 71 provinces suffered from a drought which made a return visit in 2008.

In 2011, as we all know, we were hit by the mother of all floods. And now in 2015 we have the worst drought in memory. Next year promises to be even worse. We don't know what will come after that.

But we know it will not be good news. The time to act to stem the tide of bad news is short. We have to act fast and at a scale commensurate with the damage we have wreaked upon the environment.

But this government continues on its merry way of being friendly with big industry, citing the weakening economy as an excuse. Most of the proposed development plans show the regime's incomprehensible lack of understanding of climate change. Or it just doesn't care.

Its policy on mining will allow concessionaires virtual carte blanche to prospect and mine anywhere even in the most pristine watershed areas.

The policy to create Special Economic Zones along the border will destroy thousands of rai of forestland. We have had enough of policies gone astray that wiped out whole mountains of verdant cover.

Witness the policy to promote rubber plantations, which has led to widespread forest encroachment.

The government also allowed maize planting on the highlands, which has stripped some mountains bare, such as in Nan province.

We cannot afford to lose more forests. And the government plans to build two coal-fired power plants in the South, with several more waiting in the wings, despite there already being 40% power reserves in the system.

If all goes according to plan, we will import CO2 in huge quantities that will come with the imported coal. Can we in good conscience do that as the world burns?

It may be true that the economy is in the doldrums and needs some stimulus. But Thailand does not need to take the traditional route of development.

We are equipped with enough resources to go the alternative route, which is fast becoming mainstream.

It is the threats to the country's long-term future that we have to be worried about, and it behooves us to contain those threats and improve our Public Unhappiness Index.

Wasant Techawongtham is former News Editor, Bangkok Post.

Wasant Techawongtham

Freelance Reporter

Freelance Reporter and Managing Editor of Milky Way Press.

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