The boiling frog fable is a well-known metaphor to describe the unwillingness of people to act in the face of gradually approaching threats.
Although there appears to be little truth in the legend that a frog will continue to remain in water as the temperature gradually rises to the boiling point, the analogy has taken hold and been applied to many cases of human resistance to change.
The frog metaphor seems particularly apt this week as delegates meet in Poland at the United Nations Climate Change Conference COP 24.
Given the magnitude of the threat to our very existence, one may have expected that these delegates would have devised policies, or at the very least, significant incentives, during the past 23 years of conferences to make a real dent in the rise of atmospheric pollutants, such as carbon dioxide and methane.
Alas, it is very unlikely that anyone here in Hong Kong has been forced to alter their lifestyle to the extent that their actions would have had a noticeable reduction in their contribution to factors that lead to global warming.
In other words, although efforts such as the climate agreement reached in Paris in 2015 are laudable, we observe virtually no change in people’s behaviour to suggest we have an impending catastrophe the likes of which homo sapiens have never experienced before, and life on the planet itself has experienced only five times in the last few billion years.
I speak of the “sixth extinction,” a term that has recently entered the vernacular.
For example, as I enter my workplace, I see students taking the lift to go up or down one or two floors using a tiny sip of electricity that, here in Hong Kong, is mostly generated by burning fossil fuels.
Although I have never asked students about this behaviour and other similar types, such as casually opening a window in summer when the air-conditioning is too cool, or not bringing their own mug to the coffee shop, I feel certain the last thought on their minds is their incremental contribution to climate change and our approaching crisis. At these times, the frog analogy looms large.
It also looms large when I observe the local diet, which is largely carnivorous. It is said that the single most effective thing any individual can do to combat global warming is to stop, or at least reduce their consumption of meat.
This is because raising cows, pigs and chicken is such an inefficient way of producing calories, and also because livestock belch prodigious amounts of methane, a damaging greenhouse gas.
Instead, on almost every restaurant menu, or on every celebratory occasion, there are meals centred around meat or seafood, with low-carbon-footprint vegetables only as decorations.
And let’s not forget about those air-freighted tomatoes and blueberries in our supermarkets, wrapped in double plastic from distant destinations, that come at a carbon footprint price fifty times greater than produce arriving by sea.
At the level of society as a whole, our government has shown little interest in the big picture.
Sure, there are public service announcements telling us to turn off the lights and avoid overusing the air-conditioner, but such efforts are laughably minuscule in their potential impact compared with the damage done by mega-projects like the just-completed longest sea bridge in the world.
I have yet to see any serious mention of the environmental effects due to the construction of this bridge.
Never mind those few woeful dolphins that are destined for extinction anyway. But rather, pay heed to the unimaginable amounts of concrete and steel that were used in the bridge’s construction.
Converting limestone into cement and forging coke and iron into steel are known to be two of the primary producers of carbon dioxide contributing to climate change.
And speaking of big projects, the third runway at the airport presently under construction will end up allowing three times the number of takeoffs and landings that existed when the airport opened a mere 20 years ago.
Just for the record, a “fuel-efficient” A380 aircraft holds over 300,000 litres of fuel. Even on short-haul flights, each passenger is responsible for the burning of hundreds of litres of fuel.
So how can we avoid the worst effects of the sixth extinction that is currently being played out? Action is required at all levels beginning with a dedicated subject on sustainability in schools where students learn how to behave and eat in sustainable ways.
But most importantly we need to instil in our youth a mindset of environmental responsibility.
However, this is obviously not enough because we know that if Hong Kong is the only place willing to sacrifice economic growth for the sake of the planet – say by not building runways and bridges – real change on a planetary scale cannot happen.
Somehow, at meetings like COP 24, the authorities need to devise a new strategy that imbues a radical way of thinking among the population of all countries about economic and population growth and the seriousness of our planetary predicament – a mindset that considers extreme measures such as limits on the number of children a couple can have or taxes on the purchase of meat. Only then can we hope to make real progress.
We are now up to our necks in uncomfortably warm 45 degree Celcius water and the temperature is rising.
Paul Stapleton is an associate professor at the Education University of Hong Kong.