Human drivers of a changing planet — issue #32

Human drivers of a changing planet — issue #32

Lately, we’ve been hearing the word “unprecedented” a lot. Unprecedented rate of temperature rise, unprecedented frequencies of natural disasters, unprecedented numbers of injuries and deaths. Our climate is changing, and each day we are reminded it’s not for the better.

But hey—when “unprecedented” is used to describe environmental change, it’s not always negative. Back in 1985, we discovered that the chlorine in man-made CFCs was rapidly destroying our planet’s ozone layer. Scientists predicted that if the rate of use were to continue, Earth would be uninhabitable by 2050.

What resulted was an unprecedented act of human collaboration via the Montreal Protocol, where the world came together to put the brakes on our rapid descent into environmental catastrophe.

How did we do that? Atmospheric chemist Dr. Susan Solomon observes that effective environmental response relies on 4 P’s:
  1. Personal: Does the issue affect me?
  2. Perceptible: Can I see the issue happening?
  3. Practical: Are there convenient solutions I can turn to?
  4. Public: Is there public awareness and has the public applied pressure onto decision-makers?
The ozone problem ticked all four boxes, and now the ozone layer is expected to fully recover by 2060.

Climate change could follow in its footsteps. Think about it—we’ve already ticked all four boxes too. We can do the same as we had done before.

It’s up to you. But for me? I won’t give up the hope of someday hearing about a climate that changes for the better.

Have more environment-related stories you want us to tell? Drop us an email at We’d love to hear from you.


Featured Story
For this story on Southeast Asia’s haze, the authors from Asia Research Institute shared with our team what they envisioned and the specific visualisations that would accompany the main points of the piece. We adapted a few of these ideas to enhance the impact and functionality of each viz, and to make sure the story flowed well. It was also our developer Bianchi’s first time coding a story from scratch!
To begin the conversation on how haze arises in the first place, we made several graphs on Flourish Story to show the role of natural climatic patterns in increasing the probability of fires. When the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) cycles intersect, they lead to drought and worsen the risk and intensity of fires. The final graph here shows, however, that in recent years the haze has been occurring in times of non-drought, which suggests other major drivers.
To explain why the decoupling between the haze and natural weather patterns, the story highlights the situation of peatlands. These carbon sinks rarely catch fire in the natural state, but dry out quickly when they are drained and cleared to make way for vast crop plantations. We visualised the process of peatland drainage and the resulting underground fires through illustrations and accompanying text in a Scrollytelling format, to mimic animation.
To emphasise the role of industrial agriculture in driving land-use change and causing the haze, we extracted data from Global Forest Watch and mapped it on Mapbox. We zoomed in on palm oil and pulpwood plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia, as they make up the bulk of peatland commodity production in the region. The map also includes the locations of peatlands and fire hotspots on one of the haze years to show the extent of deforestation and damage that occurs on these crucial lands.
...more from us
Asian communities have always welcomed floods, but recent downpours are turning them into a threat.
Singapore’s Cross Island Line promises economic benefits, but the environmental damage will be irreparable.

“So I guess this is my strength—I always manage to revisit things. Over the years, if you keep going through this cycle of building and failing, it becomes natural. So when I have to give up, I don’t feel anything anymore. Because I know that I’ll keep the project in mind and, you know, maybe in the next two years, I’ll revisit it again.”


Stuff we love
How does the sago palm help restore peatlands? Take this tour to find out. Explore 
What does 20 years of data tell us about how Malaysian states fare in forest management? Play
Humans have lived in harmony with forests for centuries. What’s changed in Thailand? Explore
Are nature-based solutions the best fix for climate change? Learn more from the experts. Listen
Did you know?
Ever since the expansion of palm oil in Southeast Asia, many of the region’s majestic beasts have become endangered. One of them is the Sumatran tiger. Palm oil plantations alone were responsible for 15 percent of tiger habitat loss within Sumatra from 2009 to 2011. Currently there are only around 400 to 500 surviving Sumatran tigers in reserves and national parks, and a hundred living in unprotected areas.