Science-based does not mean value-neutral: Making the case for broader public participation in climate governance

Academic Views / Thursday, March 25th, 2021

Belicia Teo, a PhD student at NYU’s Department of Sociology whose research focuses on climate change and social movements, argues that climate policy requires more than “listening to the science” — it also requires broader deliberation to address differences in norms and values.

The rhetoric of “listening to the science” has gained prominence recently, thanks to the urgency of the climate crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. In Singapore, former Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli, for example, has emphasised that “robust, credible and objective” scientific assessments formed the foundation of Singapore’s climate policy and that scientific findings were critical in “imbuing greater objectivity and scientific rigour in our dialogues and policy choices.” Climate change has been given unprecedented prominence in national discourse since 2019, after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong identified it as an “existential” threat during the National Day Rally. The Singapore Green Plan published in February lays out a roadmap for sustainability initiatives across areas like transport, green finance and energy usage. Furthermore, Parliament recently declared a climate emergency and recognised the need for bolder action.

On the surface, it might seem strange that the climate movement in Singapore is responding to these announcements critically. Recently, the price of petrol was raised as part of efforts to reduce transport emissions. SG Climate Rally, the group that organised Singapore’s first physical rally for climate change, put out a statement denouncing the price increase and created a petition calling for workers to be given a rebate on the tax. How do we make sense of climate groups’ dissatisfaction with the government’s climate policies?

In 2019 and 2020, I interviewed members from various climate groups in Singapore in order to understand how they thought of climate change and why they were pushing for more to be done.[1]  I came to realise that the central source of their frustration was not over a failure to “listen to the science”; rather, it is to do with the value systems and visions of the world that underlie climate policy. Climate groups in Singapore are unsatisfied with the government’s policies because they hold different value systems and framings of morality and justice. They were concerned not only with their own material well-being and security, but were fuelled by values such as other-centredness and a sense of fairness, and did not feel that these framings were met by current policies. Rather than justifying policies on the basis of “the science”, I argue that public participation around climate change in Singapore needs to be widened to allow for norms and values to be discussed and contested.

Expert framings of climate risk 

As pointed out above, the Singaporean state relies on experts and scientific knowledge to determine the risks  around climate change and what actions should be taken to address them. This reliance on expert framings assumes that risk can only be understood in instrumental terms, and that such framings are not up for debate. What this fails to recognise, however, is that contained within framings of risks and their solutions are assumptions about people and the morals and values that they hold. 

Take coastal protection as an example. Science can tell us that Singapore is likely to experience a one-metre rise in sea levels by the end of the century and identify which areas will be impacted. Science can tell us about the variety of options to defend against it: sea walls, polders, or nature-based solutions like mangroves. Science can tell us that building and maintaining seawalls in Singapore over the next century is likely to cost between US$0.17 million to US$3.08 million. It can also tell us that Singapore’s coasts are home to seagrass meadows and mangroves that store more carbon than vegetation on land, and are rich sources of biodiversity. But science cannot tell us which of these approaches to choose, because this is a decision that requires value judgements.

Choosing between hard engineering or soft engineering solutions also reflects what we value. (Photo: Eustaquio Santimano)

Do we decide that cost is the most important factor, and choose to construct seawalls over coastal habitats? Or do we recognise that the potential tourism revenue from these areas make them valuable and thus worth conserving? Or do we decide that coastal ecosystems and the creatures in them are valuable in and of themselves and therefore should be conserved? 

Climate policies are not just rational solutions directed by science. They contain assumptions about things that we prioritise and value, our obligations to other people and other species, and the kind of the world that we want to live in in the future. When policy choices are made solely on expert framings of risk, it is also an imposition of meaning onto regular people, who might not agree with said meanings.  

Dominant framings of climate change

Singapore’s approach currently leans heavily on adaptation, focusing particularly on rising sea levels. S$100 billion has been pledged over the long term to protect Singapore’s coasts through a mixture of methods like land reclamation, sea walls, and natural eco-barriers like mangrove forests. Climate change and climate action are largely framed according to their potential impacts on economic growth and Singapore’s current material standard of living. In his speech in Parliament after the second reading of the carbon tax bill, Minister Masagos Zulkifli emphasised that economic growth and environmental protection could go hand in hand, describing the bill as being important not only in getting the industrial sector to “do their part for the climate”, but in strengthening Singapore’s competitiveness in a low-carbon future. Thus, despite the turn towards reducing emissions, we see that existing measures are still geared towards ensuring that economic growth will continue, or will even be bolstered by a ‘green’ focus.

Singapore’s first Climate Rally in 2019 drew close to 2,000 attendees. (Photo: SGCR Facebook)

Framing climate change as a balance between economic growth and environmental protection leads to particular ways of responding. Efforts to reduce emissions have largely focused on increasing energy efficiency through measures like the Energy Conservation Act. A carbon tax, introduced in 2019, is currently set at S$5 per tonne. The International Monetary Fund estimates that the tax needs to be around S$99 per tonne to limit warming to 2°C or less. Climate and environmental policy are thus bound up with the prioritisation of economic growth, and the assumption that technological developments will allow Singapore to modernise its way out of the crisis. 

Climate groups’ framings of climate change

This emphasis on protecting Singapore and maintaining economic growth pushed my respondents to act. All of them talked about how they were driven to action because they were concerned about the unequal impacts of climate change, both outside and within Singapore. Singapore’s domestic targets for emissions currently aim to peak at around 65 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in 2030, halve that amount by 2050, and reach net zero sometime in the latter half of the century. These targets are ambitious, but are not consistent with holding temperature increases to below 2°C. As respondents noted, Singapore, with its prowess in land reclamation and multitude of air conditioners, might be able to weather such a change. One even remarked that if they were only concerned about sea level rise in Singapore, there would be nothing to worry about. However, they recognised that climate change would have devastating impacts beyond Singapore, especially in countries that lacked the resources to adapt. 

Even within Singapore, the climate crisis will bring about more hardships for those already in vulnerable positions. My respondents talked about their concerns for migrant workers and food delivery riders who spend long hours under the sun, as well as low-income families who might not be able to afford air-conditioning. Similarly, SG Climate Rally is protesting the petrol hike because it unfairly puts the cost of decarbonisation on full-time delivery and ride-hailing riders and drivers, who are already facing challenges related to job security.

This sense that we needed to do more to mitigate the effects of climate change was also informed by how my respondents understood Singapore’s contribution to the climate crisis, and hence, our responsibility to the rest of the world to manage it. Across government publications, speeches and websites, continual emphasis is placed on how Singapore is responsible for only 0.11% of global emissions. Hence, it is implied, there is not much that Singapore can do to mitigate the crisis, and its current efforts already make up its “fair share”. However, my respondents felt that this did not adequately capture our true impact on global emissions. They talked about how Singapore’s position as the largest petrochemical refining and trading hub in Asia and the world’s second busiest port meant that we played a role in allowing emissions from other sources. Under IPCC calculations, responsibility for emissions from international marine and aviation bunker fuels are not counted as part of a nation’s greenhouse gas inventory, but the emissions from aviation and marine fuel supplied by Singapore generate close to three times as much greenhouse gases as our domestic emissions. My respondents argued that Singapore had benefited greatly as a key player in industries that contributed to the climate crisis and hence needed to do much more than what the government was proposing.  

Attendees at the SG Climate Rally in 2019. (Photo: SGCR Facebook)

From this other-centred perspective, my respondents found Singapore’s adaptation-heavy approach selfish and unjust. They brought up concerns for their own safety in the form of issues like food security, but also recognised that their socio-economic status and Singapore’s wealth protected them. However, as one described it, coming from a position where it “matters that other humans are suffering”, they could not align themselves with Singapore’s approach. In 2019, at the SG Climate Rally, Karen Sim in a speech said that while she was glad that the government was protecting Singapore from sea level rise, she did not want her child to grow up in “Fortress Singapore”. A future where Singapore thrives at the expense of others was not where my respondents wanted to see themselves living. 

Just like the Singaporean government, climate groups back up their demands by pointing to science. Speak for Climate, for example, advocates more ambitious national targets based on the IPCC’s recommendations that absolute emissions should reach net zero by 2050 to keep warming within 1.5°C.  

Ultimately, my respondents wanted a different future from the one that Singaporean climate policy promised them. This goes beyond narrow questions like how to expand solar capacity or how to utilise carbon capture and storage, and instead get at questions about how we want to live and the things we ought to value.

Why is it important to talk about differing framings? 

The government’s current policies assume a future where Singapore is relatively insulated from rising sea levels, and economic growth and development continue. It is also a future where the safety and security of thousands both within and outside of Singapore are thrown into question. 

Do Singaporeans share this vision of the future? For most climate groups that I spoke to, the answer was an emphatic no. Indeed, climate groups are not representative of majority opinion Despite the increased focus on climate change, environmental issues were frequently dismissed during the 2020 General Elections on the grounds that they were not “bread-and-butter issues“. 

But this does not negate the social value of their voices. Election post-mortems suggested that issues of social justice and inequality are becoming increasingly important. Climate groups reflect and respond to this change. Their emphasis on thinking beyond the nation-state and in terms of climate justice encourages our discussions to go beyond narrow framings of ecological modernisation and green growth.  

Allowing for this diversity of viewpoints makes room for people’s concerns or lived experiences that might not be captured in top-down and expert-driven approaches. Creating spaces for deliberation and dialogue is important not only because it can lead to better policy, but also because giving people the opportunity to be heard strengthens the legitimacy of decisions that are made, even if there is disagreement in the process. When decisions such as the petrol price hike are made without consulting those impacted, the sense is that those in power do not care about them, their concerns, or their livelihoods

The Singapore Green Plan provides a roadmap for achieving a sustainable Singapore. (Photo: Singapore Green Plan)

In recent years more space has been made to involve the public in policy co-creation. The government has created citizen’s panels and workgroups on work-life harmony and the consumption of disposables, holding public consultations on issues such as nature conservation and the BCA Green Building framework. There is a difference, however, between deliberation and listening to feedback. In 2019, the National Climate Change Secretariat (NCCS) held a public consultation about Singapore’s long-term low-emissions strategy. Email responses from the public to a series of guiding questions were later summarised and responded to by NCCS. This meant that responses were already set in frameworks decided beforehand by NCCS; there was no opportunity for dialogue or debate between NCCS and citizens. 

Even the climate groups that I spoke to, described their interactions with government bodies as being one-way. My respondents described taking the time to put together nuanced responses and questions in response to policy announcements or reports, only to receive stock responses. Those who had meetings or consultations with government ministries did so in closed-door sessions, described as being more like feedback sessions. One respondent summed up the process: “They just take your feedback into consideration, then you just wait lor. If six months later, something changes, then you know they changed it. If nothing happens, then they didn’t.” 

Who is allowed to take part in these discussions, how they are carried out, and who makes the final decision about the outcome are all questions that need to be considered when participatory processes are designed. The turn towards increased participation and policy co-creation is promising, but the terms on which it takes place have to be equitable. 


Believing in the legitimacy of scientific data is important, and it is the prerequisite for the kind of debate that I am advocating here. In Singapore, we are fortunate not to have leaders that outright deny the existence or severity of the climate crisis (the bar, unfortunately, is that low). But the claim that we are “listening to the science” or that policies must be “science-based” can also provide a veneer that hides how decisions over climate change are not value-neutral. 

When the Singapore Green Plan was announced earlier this year, Minister for Sustainability and the Environment Grace Fu said that sustainability will come with costs, and there has to be a “national consensus” around these costs. Building that consensus will require creating space for us to talk about and recognise wider concerns beyond just material interest and concerns about economic growth. Science can, at best, tell us the likely consequences of our actions and inactions, but choosing what to do is shaped by value systems, including what we take to be moral and just. The impacts of climate change will not be equal, but it will nonetheless affect all of us, in every area of our lives. What the risks are and how we should address them should be up for debate and public scrutiny.

This article is based on Belicia Teo & Sulfikar Amir, ‘Contesting Relations of Definition: Climate Risk and Subpolitics in Singapore’, Environmental Sociology (2021).


[1] Ten interviews were carried out with respondents from six climate groups. At the time that fieldwork was conducted, this represented every climate-focused civil society group in Singapore. Eight respondents were the founders or co-founders of their groups, and the remaining two were active members. The 10 respondents consisted of seven women and three men. Five were full-time university students, while the other five had graduated from university and were either working full-time or unemployed.  

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