Stories > The Confluence Of Climate And Culture

2022 • Issue 1

The Confluence Of Climate And Culture

As world leaders strive to avert the climate crisis, a group of international researchers, led by a Singapore university professor, seeks solutions from islands and cultures across the Pacific.



native from the state of California in the United States, Dr Kristy Kang, assistant professor at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) School of Art, Design and Media (ADM), is well-acquainted with the impact of climate change. Over the years, California has been repeatedly ravaged by wildfires and heat waves that have only increased in frequency, duration and intensity. In the summer of 2021, it was devastated by record-high temperatures, leading to dangerous levels of heat exposure that caused hundreds of deaths.

In contrast, the metropolitan city-state of Singapore is relatively insulated from the impact of climate change. “Singapore has its own issues in relation to climate change, but is structured in such a way where it may not be so easily visible,” Dr Kang states.

Prof Ute Meta Bauer, Dr Hervé Raimana Lallemant-Moe, Dr Nabil Ahmed, Armin Linke and a cameraman from TBA21 Academy’s The Current initiative, a fiveyear-long curatorial fellowship programme focused on the exchange of ideas around water bodies.

As Ute Meta Bauer, professor at NTU ADM and the founding director of NTU Centre for Contemporary Art (NTUCCA) puts it: “Climate change in Singapore is less tangible. If it gets hotter, we just increase the air-conditioning.” It is this difference in experiences that forms the premise of the cross-border research programme – Climate Change and Cultural Loss – between Dr Kang and Prof Bauer. The research, supported by a three-year grant by Singapore’s Ministry of Education, explores the fundamental connection between people and their environments.

“Part of what this project dwells on is how your perspectives and perceptions can be shifted based on where you are situated and where you stand,” explains Dr Kang.

The project – which comprises an international research team – hypothesises that in the contemporary urban context, such a connection has been lost, resulting in an indifference toward the climate crisis, or unexplained feelings of climate anxiety.

This is a sentiment echoed by Singaporean Samantha Lai, a marine biologist who is currently pursuing her PhD in the Experimental Marine Ecology Lab at the National University of Singapore. “I think most Singaporeans would be concerned if the rising sea levels and flooding impacted their homes, property and way of life. Having previously worked in the public service, my sense is that Singaporeans largely rely on the government to prevent this from happening, hence the apparent sense of detachment from the issue.”

To demonstrate the sometimes latent link between cultural loss and climate change, the research team from NTU led by Prof Bauer uses transdisciplinary methods to build on emerging legal frameworks surrounding the environment in the Pacific region, and utilises visual narratives.

Through the use of audiovisual media to present ecological and cultural loss, the team hopes to ignite climate action and make visible the necessity to re-establish a direct relation between human societies and the environment.

Much like several other coastal regions, the deep-seated impact of climate change is visibly felt in the Pacific islands. Having observed the sea levels creeping up over the years in Papua New Guinea, Prof Bauer hopes to convey this sense of urgency.

A tabu ceremony in Navatu Reef, Fiji to protect the ocean from overfishing (photo credit: Lisa Rave); wildfires in Thousand Oaks, California (photo credit: Ventura County Fire Department Public Information Officer/Twitter).

“We want to create tangible results for our schools and universities, to demonstrate the necessity of cultural transformation that can enable the implementation of what has been proven by climate science, and bring about a change in our consumption habits.”

Prof Ute Meta Bauer, Nanyang Technological University

“We see a benefit of bringing this debate to Singapore and introducing it to our culture – to have a physical exchange with the Pacific islands and learn how difficult it is to manage the growth of fish populations or edible plants,” Prof Bauer explains. “It’s not as simple as going into a supermarket, where [food] is always there. Despite an ongoing pandemic and disrupted supply-chain challenges, we do not have a shortage of food in Singapore. Meanwhile in the Pacific islands, food such as fish is not always available. The ocean might actually be empty.”

Expounding on the need for a shift in people’s behaviour and attitude, she questions: “Can we broaden our hyper-local perspective to one that is more trans-local?”

Prof Bauer also believes that cultural practices from the Pacific are worth learning. She cites the example of the Fijian practice of tabu (a variant of “taboo” in anthropological lexicon), a tradition used to formally mark the closure of a section of the community’s fishing grounds after the death of a local leader. In the Totoya Islands, which forms part of Fiji’s Lau island group, the island’s high chief recently established a permanent tabu – one of the first in the open ocean – to protect the islands’ reef ecosystem from overfishing.

“Isn’t it interesting to explore the possibility of incorporating these customary laws, which are socially and culturally embedded, into the modern-day legal frameworks?” says Prof Bauer.

Law professor and fellow researcher Dr Hervé Raimana Lallemant-Moe, who hails from French Polynesia, concurs with the idea of rethinking ancient customs. He highlights the Polynesian practice of rahui, a tradition of periodically restricting fishing and other oceanic activities to allow its marine life to recover. In recent years, this practice has been reintroduced in the French Polynesian territories through the creation of marine protected areas (MPAs), where large-scale extraction activities such as industrial fishing and mining would be prohibited.

In 2016, authorities from the Austral archipelago, the southernmost French Polynesian islands, proposed for an area as large as 1 million sq km across the South Pacific to be established as an MPA.

Sensitivity towards and respect for the ocean is something Dr Lallemant-Moe believes Singapore can cultivate. “It is fascinating to acknowledge the fact that Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia share a lot of cultural commonalities,” he observes.

The first session at Talanoa, in 2018, during which the international panellists held discussions on the topics of Ownership of Cultures, Images, and Sound Production.


”It is one ocean – and Singapore is part of this ocean – with many different cultures that share many identical practices and perceptions on climate change. People in the Pacific tend to think that they are part of nature and that they need to respect it. It is linked to the geographical features of island states and the fact that the ocean is crucial to the people who live there.”

The parallels between coastal cultures – even those as far apart as Singapore and French Polynesia – are beginning to emerge more strongly. “I think that Singapore and the Pacific islands face similar issues, particularly in terms of the threat of sea level rise and the potential loss of our biodiversity,” observes Lai, highlighting that the two regions, however, take different approaches towards climate change.

“The Pacific islands tend to take a stronger position in climate negotiations and demonstrate their cause through dramatic statements,” she says. For instance, in the recent Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, the prime minister of the small Pacific island nation of Tuvalu, Kausea Natano, stood knee deep in water to deliver his speech, to drive home the point of rising sea levels.

In contrast, Lai suggests that Singapore tends to take a more measured approach, and is already preparing the nation for what is seen as an inevitable future. As such, the country’s national water agency, the Public Utilities Board, has launched a Coastal-Inland Flood Model to plan for the twin impacts of rising sea levels and increased rainfall intensity, as well as plans to preserve the coastal mangroves.

In addition to the technological intervention, the culturally sensitive ways of the Pacific islands is something Lai believes Singapore can learn from: “It would be good if Singaporeans can become more aware and active in advocating for climate mitigation instead of just adaptation.”

Knowledge can also be lost when cultures are forgotten. Prof Bauer alludes to the childhood of local visual artist Charles Lim, who grew up in a kampung (village in Malay) named Mata Ikan, in the east of Singapore. She suggests that because Singaporeans used to work with and live in close proximity to the sea, they gained an innate understanding of the environment that younger Singaporeans today lack.

Singaporean marine biologist and researcher Samantha Lai opines that Singaporeans should strive for climate mitigation and not just adaptation.

Lim concurs, highlighting the example of Singapore’s beaches, many of which today are made up of imported sand due to land reclamation. “When I was growing up, the sand was very coarse. It was actually coral forms and material from sea life, which was interesting to see that it came from a living material,” he recounts his childhood memories. “There’s a disconnect between Singapore and the sea. Due to urbanisation, we don’t think consciously of the coastline.”

Researcher Lai brings an anthropological point of view to the discussion. She posits that Singaporeans’ disconnect from the sea has to do with the nation being largely made up of immigrants and the erosion and assimilation of indigenous communities over the years. “I have noticed that most locals are unfamiliar with our coastal biodiversity, and are always surprised when I talk to them about it at outreach events,” says Lai.

“The majority of Singaporeans think of the coastline in terms of a recreational space, and few have strong links to it in the same way that the indigenous cultures here did. The sense of personal loss if these coastal areas disappear due to rising sea levels is not as strong. It is useful to keep in mind that much of our original coastline has already been lost to reclamation, so that emotional tether gets eroded as well.”

It is a disconnect that needs to be bridged, stresses Prof Bauer. “We need to learn about the importance of marine life and coral reefs to the biodiversity of our oceans. There is a risk of colossal loss of knowledge if we are not careful.”

In French Polynesia, centuries of colonisation has resulted in the loss of traditional ways of life – which they are still trying to relearn today. In the past, for instance, its people could identify by touch and sight when a fish was healthy for human consumption. Today, erring on the side of caution, the islanders feed the fish to animals instead of consuming it themselves.

With the exchange of cultures, Prof Bauer hopes to make an impact on multiple fronts.

“We want to create tangible results for our schools and universities, to demonstrate the necessity of cultural transformation that can enable the implementation of what has been proven by climate science, and bring about a change in our consumption habits.”

Dr Kang summarises the central idea by stating that both culture and technology can be conjoined to create a bigger picture. “To broaden the inherent value of traditional practices and cultural technologies, you can only do so by first making them visible, and try to translate them in a way that people can begin to understand what the cultural [and climate] impact would be for any of these practices,” she concludes.

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