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Hot Air

Some years ago, I was in conversation with a retired government official who had been a high heidyin in the Bangkok governor’s office.  Bangkok was just recovering from the latest inundation and he was scathing in his criticisms of the administration of the day.

He noted, correctly, that flooding in the capital seemed to be both more frequent and more severe.  I agreed, but mentioned climate change and other factors that were not directly under the BMA’s control.

He was having none of this.  It was sheer mismanagement.  After all, he said, it wasn’t as if Bangkok was sinking.  Or that sea levels were rising.

It was one of those moments.  Had I stumbled on that rare Thai who can deliver sarcasm with a deadpan expression?  Or had I stumbled into another chasm of official ignorance?

I quickly calculated the odds and put my money and my mouth on the second option.  And give him his due, he did listen.  None of the total denial nonsense of ‘you farangs can’t understand Thailand’. 

He turned to someone he knew and asked if my tale of collapsing aquifers and illegal deep-bore pumping could be true.  Fortunately for my cred, he had buttonholed an academic who was a bit better informed.  He couldn’t vouch for everything I was saying, but yes, Bangkok was indeed sinking and that could well be a factor in worsening the risk of flooding.

I was so grateful to have got a fair hearing based on an appraisal of the facts rather than defensive xenophobia that I thought better of asking the next obvious question.

‘How on earth can someone so ignorant of basic facts about Bangkok rise to the position you used to hold?’

It’s still going on.

I quote from the 27 September address to the nation by Prime Minister, Head of the NCPO, and representative of True Thainess to the world General Prayut Chan-o-cha just before he went to make the nation’s pitch at the Paris climate change talks.  (This comes after the bit where he tells all the Bike for Dad participants to pick up their T-shirts by using the MRT or BTS –for heaven’s sake don’t think of biking there).

‘Global temperatures should be reduced by 2-3 degrees Celsius.’

(This is the official English translation available at http://www.thaigov.go.th/index.php/en/speech-2/item/97953-97953.html, but the translation in this case happens to be correct.)

By some miracle this little nugget of misinformation was left out of his Paris speech, which just included the normal paean to the Sufficiency Economy and a promise that Thailand would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20-25% by the year 2030.  Which is a disappointment really, because if you’re going to make fairy-tale promises, why not repeat what he told the nation before he left, that ‘greenhouse gas emissions should be reduced by 40%’?

But how is Thailand going to cut emissions even that much?  The PM listed the projects: garbage management, development of rail systems for mass transit, development of eco-cars and electric vehicles, ASEAN’s reforestation campaign, and a roadmap for a smoke-haze-free ASEAN.

He failed to mention the planned coal-fired power plants (which will be providing the pollution-tainted electricity for the mass transit trains and electric cars) and of course he couldn’t talk about the non-existent practical measures that could have an immediate effect on emissions like restricting the use of private cars in favour of real bicycle lanes or even merely adjusting the air-con in cinemas, tour buses and government meeting rooms to something a little less sub-arctic. 

Climate change is in fact so important to this government that when the Prime Minister presented its policy statement to the National Legislative Assembly in September last year, the word ‘climate’ was mentioned only once.  In the phrase ‘investment climate’.

And there you have it.  Ask about the rationale for future coal-fired power plants or increased airport capacity or yet more roads, you get either a pipedream oxymoron like ‘clean coal’ or sober declamations on the need for economic growth, whatever the environmental cost.

In other words, more hot air.


About author:  Bangkokians with long memories may remember his irreverent column in The Nation in the 1980's. During his period of enforced silence since then, he was variously reported as participating in a 999-day meditation retreat in a hill-top monastery in Mae Hong Son (he gave up after 998 days), as the Special Rapporteur for Satire of the UN High Commission for Human Rights, and as understudy for the male lead in the long-running ‘Pussies -not the Musical' at the Neasden International Palladium (formerly Park Lane Empire).