The release of Before the Flood, a National Geographic documentary starring Leonardo DiCaprio, has once again thrust the issue of climate change firmly into the public eye. The film premiered on the National Geographic channel on October 30 in the US (and was made available to watch online for free for a week afterwards) and generated debate for talking about what could happen to our planet if we don’t start to make any changes.
More than a month later, people still continue to speculate online about the documentary’s shocking doomsday-like outcomes for Earth and the environment should current climate change trends persist. In the midst of all this climate conversation is the problem of Hong Kong. The city has cause for concern. Here’s why:
Sea levels are rising as a result of global warming – that’s a given. Global temperatures are set to rise by 4 degrees Celsius, which poses a “danger to many great coastal cities and regions,” according to Ben Strauss, the Vice President for Sea Level and Climate Impacts at Climate Central. Hong Kong, as a coastal city, is classified as one of the main areas that would no longer be inhabitable in an altered future. According to a study by Climate Central, some 45 million people in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Tianjin will see their cities slip under the waves if nothing is done to curb climate change. While China has pledged to reduce carbon emissions in a bid to cut the rate that temperatures are rising from four per cent to two per cent, the future still remains uncertain.
It’s not just the rising sea levels that we need to look out for. The increasingly violent fluctuations in weather may potentially wreck the city’s infrastructure. The Hong Kong Observatory has predicted that the number of very hot days (with a daily maximum temperature of 33 degrees Celsius or more) in summer will roughly double, rising from 11 days to 24 days. The number of very hot nights (a daily minimum temperature of 28 degrees Celsius or more) will rise to 30 per year – that’s four times the current average per year.
In terms of rainfall, the Hong Kong observatory has reported that the average annual rainfall is expected to increase by about 11 per cent by the end of this century. That combination of hot, heavy, and prolonged rainfall may produce excess run off – rainwater that neither evaporates nor penetrates the surface of the Earth to become groundwater – which increases the risk of flooding and landslides. Apart from affecting businesses, heavy rainfall can also irreversibly damage buildings, roads, and public areas that can’t withstand powerful rainstorms and gales.
Another threat to Hong Kong’s future is pollution. Coal-fuelled power plants and vehicles like minibuses, cargo ships, and cars emit carbon dioxide. Statistics from the Hong Kong Medical Association have shown that air pollution can worsen asthma, impair lung function and raises the risk of cardio-respiratory death by 2 to 3 per cent for every increase of 10 micrograms per cubic metre of pollutants. These roadside pollution levels are responsible for up to 90,000 hospital admissions and 2,800 premature deaths every year.
Finally, Hong Kong’s unsustainable waste management systems will also take a toll on our society. Leaving aside the ever-present issues of electronic waste and food waste – both of which have remained largely unaddressed for years – the waste that’s generated by households alone in Hong Kong has been growing exponentially. There are no effective recycling facilities in Hong Kong, so we have to rely on landfills. A 2013 report by the Environmental Protection department estimates that all three landfills in the New Territories will be full by 2019. The department hopes to reduce the amount thrown out by each person from 1.36 kilograms to 0.8 kilograms per day by 2022 – but little progress has been made to achieve this so far.
Would you go to a pool and spa that uses sludge - sewage from toilets and kitchens - if it means helping the environment?
“Whether or not they realise it, Hong Kongers are already feeling the effects of climate change,” says Jude Wu, the Hong Kong director of Conservation Managing Director at Conservation International Foundation. “Some effects are obvious, like the hotter summers and more extreme rainfall leading to flooding. Others are less obvious, like disruptions to the supplies of food and fresh water that Hong Kong needs to import, plus other climate change related pressures around the world that have a ripple effect on our financial and trade industries.
“Our people and economy depend on a stable global climate, but that also means Hong Kong consumers and businesses have a much higher level of influence and responsibility than we think to shape humanity’s climate future.”
As dismal as our outlook may seem, the apocalyptic theories in the documentary weren’t presented to us as an inevitable outcome. They’re there to shock us into action. People continue to deny the truth of the effects of climate change to themselves – and it’s not helping. We must act now and hope that our world’s environment can still be saved. There is still time. We can still act before the flood hits us.