They are very much connected although Southeast Asia and the Arctic are about 6,000 miles apart.

The rush to exploit the resources of the northern Arctic region will exacerbate the climate change impacts of the already melting Arctic. Its implications for Southeast Asia are catastrophic. The climate change-induced wild variations of the Southeast Asian monsoon already causing massive flooding and affecting littoral infrastructure, agriculture, marine currents and fish stocks, is a case in point.

Singapore which has been granted observer status in the Arctic Council is in the position to push for a global mechanism to save the Arctic; furthermore, put the Arctic situation on the agenda of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and of the international climate change negotiations under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. However, Singapore in its practical politics tradition is seemingly more inclined to doing business in the Arctic than saving it.

Melting away

In the last 30 years, 75% of the Arctic sea-ice melted away.  Sea-ice levels in 2011 plummeted to the second lowest level since records began and North Pole could have an ice-free summer in 10 to 20 years.  As the ice melts, companies are moving in to exploit the oil, precious metals and fish, and are anxious to use the northern routes to shorten shipping journeys. This brings threats of oil and other spills, pollution, and underwater noise, invasive species, overfishing and habitat damage. Oil and gas companies, led by Shell, are racing to the Arctic to lay claim to its untapped oil and resources.

Science explains that Arctic sea ice helps moderate the global climate.  It keeps the planet cool by reflecting back into space 80% of the sunlight that strikes its white and bright ice surface. During summer, as sea ice melts, it exposes the ocean’s surface to the sun’s radiation.  Instead of reflecting 80% of the sunlight, the ocean absorbs 90% of the sunlight with the effect of warming the planet.  Hence, the Arctic serves as a climate feedback mechanism.  This mechanism is disturbed even by a slight temperature increase that leads to greater warming over time.  

It is therefore imperative to preserve the Arctic and let it do its thermostat function for the planet and mankind.

Our monsoon getting wild and catastrophic Australia’s Office of National Assessments and Myanmar’s climate expert Dr. Tun Lwin attribute heavy monsoon rains, and increased severity and frequency of typhoons and tropical storms already being experienced in the region to climate change. This situation is going to be catastrophic and irreversible in 10 to 20 years according to the World Bank.

In its report last month, the WB reaffirmed the 2012 assessment of the International Energy Agency (IEA) that in the absence of further mitigation action there is a 40% chance of warming exceeding 4°C by 2100 and a 10% chance of it exceeding 5°C in the same period.  This warmer world, adds World Bank, will have the cities of Southeast Asia submerged in floods or by sea level rise.

Singapore’s realpolitik

Despite the grim future of Southeast Asia in this era of melting Arctic, Singapore is noticeably more inclined to commercially exploit the Arctic than save it, consistent with its realpolitik tradition in which politics and diplomacy are based on practical rather than moral or ideological consideration.

According to this tradition, Singapore’s practical politics have been dictated by the imperatives of it being a small state with extremely limited natural resources in a historically hostile neighbourhood. To survive and progress, Singapore struggled to overcome internal and external challenges with pragmatism and nationalism. It did what it deemed realistic, and not necessarily what was proper according to morals, science or other standard or what was ideal or acceptable for most stakeholders during crunch times.

Seemingly, it is what it is doing now in the Arctic. Its realistic diplomatic investment in the Arctic is about protecting the development of its key domestic industrial sectors, namely Singapore’s role as a global hub port, as a strong base of offshore and marine engineering and as an international leader in port management. One of Singapore’s most important engineering companies, Keppel Corp., joined the Arctic ice-breaker market in 2008. Last year, Keppel and ConocoPhillips announced that they are aiming to jointly design a pioneering rig for offshore Arctic drilling.

Singapore’s actions in the Arctic can be interpreted that its practical politics and diplomacy is actually doing business in ice-breaking the Arctic and while profiting from climate change, it is protecting its international seaport by crying Arctic governance.  

But Singapore is not without options in doing things differently. As the Southeast Asian state with observer status in the Arctic Council, it can opt out its destructive business of breaking the ice in the North Pole; and with genuine concern and credibility push to declare bans on oil exploration and extraction and unsustainable industrial fishing in the Arctic, and to further declare the uninhabited part of the Arctic region a protected sanctuary.  Singapore’s respected position both in ASEAN and the UNFCCC is a leverage to get the diplomatic and political support of other governments to protect the Arctic should Singapore bring the Arctic situation on the agenda of the regional association and the international convention.

This is crucial because what happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic.

The Southeast Asian monsoon, the Arctic, and Singapore are very much connected although Southeast Asia and the Arctic are about 6,000 miles apart.

Zelda Soriano is a Lawyer and a Political Advisor for Greenpeace Southeast Asia.