City Weekend

Why climate change is very real, despite what Donald Trump says, and how natural gas can help Hong Kong

After more than 40 years in the US, Hong Kong-born scientist Gabriel Lau has the answers for sceptics

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 March, 2017, 1:02pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 March, 2017, 1:21pm

While all eyes are on the United States to see if it will pull out of the landmark Paris Agreement on climate change, a Hong Kong-born scientist, who has spent over 40 years studying the issue in America, challenges those who do not believe in global warming to convince him with solid scientific proof.

“I think not only US President Donald Trump, but also lots of people still question if climate change is real. Mainly because they do not fully understand science,” Gabriel Lau Ngar-cheung, an AXA professor of geography and resource management at ­Chinese University of Hong Kong, said.

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“Our research has shown that the later you deal with climate change, the bigger price you need to pay.”

Lau, who was involved with the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, developed interest in the field since the 1970s, when he was still an undergraduate in physics at CUHK.

After graduation, Lau worked as a research assistant at the University of Washington and later as a ­research scientist at Princeton University.

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“I thought I could put what I’d learned from physics into climate change research,” said Lau, recalling the day when he decided to leave Hong Kong to ­conduct such research. He added that climate change was considered a “forward” idea in those days.

Despite all his achievements in the US, Lau returned to Hong Kong in 2013 to continue his research at his alma mater and teach.

He spoke to City Weekend about the challenges of advocating environmental protection, his early days in the US and what society at large should do to save the planet.

What was the world’s general attitude towards climate change in the 1970s?

Almost everyone at that time didn’t expectthe ­impact of climate change to be this huge. Not many people were even aware of the issue between the 1970s and 1980s, and it didn’t seem to raise any big concern until 20 to 30 years ago.

Many still do not ­believe in climate change. That’s why we have to do lots of research to illustrate its significance.

Did you have to deal with racism in the United States when studying there in those days?

I did not experience much racism at that time. There were more than 30,000 students from different races studying at the University of Washington. Around 1,000 of them were Chinese, some of whom were born there, while others came from different places, including mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

My gang was mostly Chinese. A public radio station in Seattle offered us the chance to host a Chinese ­programme to do some news reporting, drama and to play music. A lot of Chinese immigrants were ­living in Chinatown and did not speak English, so we thought it would be good to deliver the news to them through the Chinese programme.

How did you get to be part of the United Nations panel on climate change?

It is a panel that involves academics worldwide. I was working as a research scientist at Princeton University, which has a leading climate change research programme. So it is natural that the UN will look for notable researchers to be involved with its panel.

Apart from Princeton, there are lots of well-known research laboratories in the US, Europe and Asia. The UN programme really is international.

The Trump administration has announced its intention to eliminate the Climate Action Plan of the united states. What will happen if the country withdraws from the Paris agreement?

I hope, in the end, it will make a decision that is based on science. Many scientists and researchers have shown that climate change is a serious issue to the world, and I really want this to serve as the principle of leadership. Instead of just simply saying they don’t believe in climate change, these detractors have to explain to me why, so I can show them more of my ­research to eventually convince them.

We will have to see if public ­opinion can influence different ­countries to combat climate change
Gabriel Lau Ngar-cheung

If the US withdraws from the Paris Agreement, it will be a regression on many levels. For example, fellow scientists in the US will not gain a lot of ­support, and the source of funding will also be affected. But for now we will have to wait and see.

China and the US are two of the major contributors to climate change. This is because China has a huge population, while the US is a great consumer of energy. So, there is an impact on the world if the US does not take part in the agreement.

I think we will have to see if public ­opinion can influence different ­countries to combat climate change ­together.

The progress to improve the environment will be dramatically slowed down if the US withdraws. Many climate change researchers were actually from the US in the past.

But I think the research and UN-related programmes will continue.

The most important thing is to rely on scientific evidence. And no matter how intense the debate ­becomes, the outcome should always be rational and that we don’t lose sight of scientific analysis.

You have achieved a lot in the United States. Why did you decide to return to Hong Kong?

I was born in Hong Kong. I had lived here for 21 years before moving to the US. I felt like I owed something to Hong Kong society. I lived in public housing and studied in government schools, so I thought I should give something back. Returning was always my wish, but I was too busy working in the US.

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During my stay in the US, I had only visited Hong Kong once or twice a year to see my family and good friends because they were still here. They were the reason for my visits on top of attending conferences.

Whenever I had the time, I would also visit CUHK and the Hong Kong Observatory. In the past 10 years, I have been in regular contact with CUHK, and they have shown interest in developing environmental research. So when they asked me to come back for good, I came back without a doubt.

What is the biggest challenge when you try to persuade people to change their behaviour and attitudes towards the planet?

There are still a lot of people who question if climate change is real. But there is no doubt if you look at the numbers closely as well as the real life examples. We also have to raise the awareness of ordinary people.

Climate change is not a conspiracy theory to slow down economic development. It is a fact. It is also a matter of justice. Are we doing justice to our next generations if we destroy the planet? This is what we call generational justice. We human beings are in control of just about everything, including other ­living things. A tree cannot speak to us but its survival depends solely on us, on our behaviour and attitudes towards the natural world.

Your recent research shows there have been more hot nights in Hong Kong than in the past, and heatwaves have been worsening. What does that mean and what can we do?

The simplest way is to reduce the levelof greenhouse gases. In Hong Kong, instead of burning coal to ­generate energy, we can use natural gas, which is more efficient and produces fewer greenhouse gases. Currently, half of the city’s energy supply comes from the burning of coal, which is the dirtiest source of energy.

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In future, we might want to generate half of the energy from natural gas, while another 25 per cent could come from Daya Bay Nuclear Power Plant. Nuclear power plants do not emit greenhouse emissions, but are controversial on safety grounds. We can also develop solar, wind or hydroelectric power, which is clean and reusable. But it requires lots of space and is pretty difficult to apply in Hong Kong.

In terms of demand, every one of us could chip in and try to lower our level of energy consumption. Air conditioners consume lots of energy, so we should switch them off as often as possible.


What do you usually do for fun?

I enjoy going to my old neighbourhoods in Sham Shui Po and Tsuen Wan and thinking about the moments I shared with my parents and grandparents.

Do you have any motto you live by?

Knowledge is boundless like a sea and one can only reach their destination by studying hard.

Who is your favourite singer?

I like the groups Peter, Paul and Mary and The Seekers. They sang folk and anti-war numbers.

Do you have anything that you really want to do but haven’t done yet?

I want to travel to places that I haven’t seen or already been to but have not had much time to explore. I would also love to go North America again.

How do you save energy?

I don’t have a car. Since I am living on campus, I just walk to work every day.

Do you separate your rubbish for recycling ?

Yes, I do. But it’s beyond my control once I put it into the recycling bin.