A Green Dot and an Oil Bubble

21st September, 2019, 3 p.m.

I tiptoe across Hong Lim Park so as to not step on anyone’s feet or their picnic mats laid all across the field. My friend is fairly deep inside the 1,700-strong crowd, enjoying the time in the sun as all attention is paid to the stage. We don’t really know these people speaking, but they’re sharing a message we all echo: Climate change is happening, and we need to take action now.

Joining the crowd at 3 p.m., I am part of Singapore’s first ever Climate Rally. I’m a spot of white in a sea of red, having completely missed the memo on everyone’s outfit. Though this rally is led by youth – one of the organisers, Komal Lad, is just 19 – there’s no shortage of other generations in attendance. Though I’m one of the few to come alone, I see plenty of people I know, including a few volunteers, all around the park.

I tag up with my friend Jessie, another lone comer, and we park ourselves next to a few other friends of mine on a picnic mat (read: bath towel) as we pay attention to the next speaker, the founder of LepakInSG, Ho Xiang Tian. His speech captures everything on our minds.

Then he asks for a moment of silence for the environment.

That vow for silence is almost broken by the sound of racing cars in the background.

21st September, 2019, 9 p.m.

My dinner is interrupted by the sound of racing cars in the foreground.

Just three hours ago, I was laying down in the grass at Hong Lim Park as part of the “die-in” in the Climate Rally.

Now, I’m in a suite in the Marina Mandarin, tucking into lobster and fish, joining a party filled with executives, businessmen and luxury car owners, as we are perched over the Marina Bay Street Circuit, watching the beginning of qualifying for the Singapore Grand Prix from the balcony.

I feel like a hypocrite.

I think climate change is an immediate issue that needs to be solved, yet I also love motorsport. A sport that literally runs on fossil fuels. There are alternative, clean-energy racing series like Formula E, but as much as I love that championship, it’s nowhere near as popular, as global or as mainstream as Formula One. 

But as I sit there, cold water in hand, next to execs that are between five to fifty whiskeys deep, watching cars scrape against the bumpy tarmac leaving sparks all around, I think it all over again in my head.

My mind clashes when I say I support both environmental conservation and motorsport, but what about groups of people? Will they be outspoken of the other event happening at the same time? How defensive will they be of their own event? And, most curiously, will there be any consensus between the two?

Not to be clickbaity, but the results surprised me a little.

The Split : Formula One vs Environmental Sustainability

“It’s a bit antithetical to host a Grand Prix next to a climate rally.”

Literally, the first words out of Jessie’s mouth when I mention the clash of dates between F1 and the climate rally. While she obviously understands it to be a total coincidence – F1’s schedule lined up perfectly with Climate Week – there’s a clear clash of ideas behind each event. Behind each event, there’s different motives. Different mindsets. Different everything. 

And Jessie wasn’t the only one thinking that.

I bumped into my friends from JC, Christine and Monica, and the conversation soon veered towards the elephant in the room. While Monica seemed to focus more on the nature of both events, contrasting the Grand Prix’s adrenaline fuelled action to the serene, peaceful, togetherness on display at the Climate Rally, Christine came out swinging.

“It’s an unapologetic use of carbon,” she proclaims, “shamelessly promoting technology that can be powered by fossil fuels. They promote capitalist accumulation while we aim to use only what we need.”

A scene at the rally. (Source)

“It’s an oil bubble versus a green dot.”

Her words ring true in my ears. Stakeholders, like those I was sitting with in that suite that night, pride themselves for getting involved in such a high-end event. One of them says he comes to parties like this simply to network and connect around the sport he loves. 

There’s a reason Singapore Airlines splashes the cash to be title sponsor for the Grand Prix. With our Grand Prix promoted as a jewel in the calendar, with entertainment throughout the city and racing under the stars, it’s a corporate haven to have your name associated with the Grand Prix. Whether paying to sponsor trackside advertisements, house accommodation for international visitors, or even just paying for a corporate suite, it’s the event for companies to flex.

And it’s this ‘flexing’ that Christine is getting at. Everyone wants in to this event, but there is a certain price tag. Once you can pay up, you’re showing the world your company’s prestige. It’s a constant form of showing off, and not just by companies, but nations too.

For those in the climate rally, though, it’s this accumulation of wealth that is just part of their gripe. One of their main goals is to slash carbon emissions, and as such, one of their goals is to convince financial institutions to “divest fully from polluting industries”. Though mainly focused on industrial investments and production in Jurong, there’s clearly some influence that the Grand Prix holds.

Though Formula One does promote energy-efficiency in some methods, like using regenerative energy from the brakes, it’s still an oil-based sport. Each car uses 110 kilogrammes of fuel each race. Petroleum companies like Shell and Petronas plaster their names on the cars, and the track is lined with Liqui Moly advertising. Getting involved in the Grand Prix is far from divesting from polluting industries. It just leads to more investment in something that, try as it might to be energy efficient, will inherently promote carbon-emitting practices.

The investments and the ‘flexing’, though, come at a cost. And the Grand Prix itself isn’t cheap to run, costing $135 million annually to host.

The Government foots 60% of the bill.

In the climate rally, Jessie is incensed by this. Especially considering Singapore promoting itself as a ‘city in a garden’, she states the hosting of the Grand Prix is dissonant to that idea. You can’t promote both at the same time, she says. Which idea does Singapore actually want to promote? It’s possible to promote both, but the conflictual nature of each idea hurts both images if promoted together.

Furthermore, with the influx of tourists and the insane amount of logistics, there are plenty of costs for air transport. After all, the F1 calendar sees teams travel roughly 132,000 kilometres by air. With Singapore being the first ‘flyaway’ race from Formula One’s traditional European season in the summer, and with plenty of spectators coming in from other countries, especially nearby Australia, all the air miles racks up.

To Vicki, one of the volunteers at the climate rally, she understands the environmental concerns this provides as well. With the influx of tourists, having seen 490,000 overseas visitors attend the Grand Prix over the years, she understands just how many people are visiting Singapore each year. She notes that, in the climate rally’s call to action to reduce carbon emissions, promoting Singapore as a transport hub is a major threat to that call to action, and if change were to be achieved, she believes air travel should be reduced.

Yet, she also understands what would happen if all air travel were to stop. Singapore is reliant on the tourist industry and foreign investment, and if air travel were to be curtailed, there’d be a significant drop in Singapore’s economy. If there was no Formula One race, tourist numbers would be impacted. Confidence in investing in Singapore could drop, and the economy could suffer. 

Vicki says this wave of change could happen, but only if the backbone of our economy changes as well. Though it sounds like a bleak statement, there’s an air of hope in her voice, as with the rest in Hong Lim Park. They came here for a reason, action towards climate change must be immediate. Even if those actions take time, even if it needs drastic change in the way Singapore operates, it has to be done, not talked about.

These are the voices of people like Vicki, Monica, Christine and Jessie. All of them are 23 or younger. They want change from the highest institutions. Even if the change has to be radical, they feel it’s something worth stepping towards if they want to maintain any semblance of a future without a climate disaster on our hands. Events like Formula One is almost an embodiment of the fear of change. 

At least, that was what I thought.

Greta and F1?

A birds-eye view of the Marina Bay Street Circuit. (Source)

In that suite full of execs and suits next to a buffet of suckling pig and a sweet pear treat modelled to look like a coconut, I didn’t expect outright denial of climate change. That would be too stereotypical and narrow-minded. I expected acknowledgement of climate change, but either playing down the factors or those generally unsure of its future, playing to my idea I formed in Hong Lim Park: People at the top are aware of the dangers yet afraid to apply radical change that could affect their livelihood.

Yet I got completely different results. There was a middle-aged woman in a cocktail dress, holding champagne, who loved the racing, but questioned why they weren’t using electric cars. One exec who consumed too many whiskeys knew how detrimental to the environment the race was. I found it surprising to hear this in an event specially organised for Formula One, given the image of what I formed in my head of these people without getting to know them.

But as the night closed, I had to drive my parents back (stuck to ice water while the rest went alcohol-mad), and offered a lift to a couple. The husband was a consultant in the service sector. I asked him what he was going to do the next day, just to keep the whiskey-induced conversation going. His answer stunned me.

He was going to Phuket the next day to deliver a talk to 1,000 delegates about environmental sustainability in the service sector, especially about its impacts for the future generation. He was going to deliver this talk with his daughter, who he was extremely proud to call his “very own Greta”. He didn’t just care about climate change, he was acting on it.

I laid in bed that night, having been to Singapore’s first climate rally and a private Formula One party in the space of a few hours. I thought there would be such a disconnect between people in both events. I had accurately predicted those in the climate rally to denounce the Grand Prix in their fight for change. Yet I thought, for some naive reason, that those in the party wouldn’t care much about the climate movement. That they’d be more focused on the immediate benefits of the Grand Prix. That they would be afraid of radical change towards a sustainable future.

How wrong I was.

Maybe I found the few executives in a thousand, making efforts towards environmental protection. Or maybe the era of climate change dismissal in our highest echelons is coming to an end, and in its place, a consensus on the environment is dawning. 

The question now is how much everyone is willing to give.

Names in the article have been changed to protect the identities of individuals involved.


Luke Levy


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