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KIS Student's Work Recognised by the Economist
KIS is proud to share the news that Puthipong (Sun) from Grade 12 submitted an essay about climate change to The Economist. An excerpt of his piece was selected to be published on their website.
What fundamental economic and political change, if any, is needed for an effective response to climate change?
Eight years ago, the streets of Bangkok flooded such that my village became a virtual canal where, for a time, the primary means of transportation was to row boats through the streets. The economic damage was immense: up to US$46 billion, according to the World Bank. Yet this could happen again. Unchecked urbanisation and climate change means that Bangkok could be mostly submerged by its own weight by 2030, yet little more than ad hoc fixes have been enacted in response, despite the existential threat it poses to the nation. This same phenomenon is being replicated on a larger scale in the rest of the world, where the flowery promises of politicians to combat climate change don’t match their actions. It wasn’t always this way. The 1987 Montreal Protocol now ratified by virtually every nation arguably saved the human race by UV irradiation due to the absence of an ozone layer. However, the conditions for another similar consensus has long gone, and in the absence of widespread agreement over the scope and appropriate reaction to climate change, actions by private actors not beholden to public opinion must be taken.
In the last decade, climate action has been sluggish — too slow and too late, due to political shortsightedness and expediency. The number of signatories to the Paris Agreement, pledging to keep warming under 1.5 ̊C, which have met emission targets can be counted on one hand, and major emitters have no real motivation to do so. In the East, for instance, Russia may benefit from the melting of ice caps by the opening of new trade routes, meaning it is against their economic self-interest to halt climate change. China, the largest emitter, has the mandate to maintain economic growth to maintain stability, disincentivising a needed shift from coal as a primary power source. The result is a Tragedy of the Commons on the global scale, where individual, national gains outshine the collective, global threat.
But while the governments of the world may have failed in containing climate change, they’re not the only actors capable of averting catastrophe. The actions needed to contain climate change — switching to carbon-neutral energy sources, drastically reducing meat consumption, eliminating emissions from vehicles — can also be facilitated by private companies pursuing and commercialising innovations. As customers grow more environmentally conscientious, demand for solutions to climate issues will create new industries. For instance, demand for carbon-free food production calls for potentially profitable commercialisations of scientific innovations. The nature of developing new technologies is uniquely suited to the private sector, where competitors race to invent and implement the best solution for the least price. Furthermore, private companies are not as subject as politicians to the sentiment of the public, but rather to investors, meaning they can charge full steam ahead without worrying about funding being cut off.
Nowhere is this more clear than in the energy sector, where demand is driven by the global need for fossil fuel alternatives. In recent years, nuclear power has been plagued by cost overruns and the increasingly competitive prices of renewable energy. Moreover, government deadlocks driven by public opinion means that there are no viable places to dump toxic nuclear waste, making supporting nuclear power a poison chalice for politicians. In the private sector, however, nuclear has a much more positive outlook. Terrapower, a company founded by Bill Gates is making strides in its promise of next-generation travelling waves nuclear power plants that recycle radioactive waste, is immune to meltdowns and doesn’t use weapons-grade uranium, simultaneously bypassing three major political concerns already. It’s not alone: as of 2018, over 75 nuclear startups with various designs are currently competing in a market of ideas for the energy of the future. The cost-constrained nature of startup funding means that it is much more likely to develop an affordable solution to the energy conundrum.
The companies in question usually promise a benevolent agenda. Tesla wants to “accelerate the world’s transition to renewable energy,'' according to their mission statement and Jeff Bezos invests his billions to “save the world.” But relinquishing responsibility to tech billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk is by no means an ideal solution. For one, the interests of the super-rich do not inherently align with the interests of the public. The profit motive has been repeatedly shown to act contrary to the public interest in multiple occasions, most notably in the American healthcare industry, which has evolved into an extortionate cartel. Companies are not beholden to taxpayers but to shareholders, and in addition, have no obligation to transparency. This is where the government, having relinquished the chair of leader, steps into the role of regulator and enforces accountability. Government agencies must act to ensure that competition is not being unfairly eliminated through enforcement of antitrust laws, companies are not cutting corners at the expense of the consumer and generally act as a representative of the public interest to keep companies in check.
The second role of the government is that of customer and beneficiary. This is already developing in places like California, where the local government is subsidising the cost of electric vehicles to encourage adoption, reducing emissions and supplementing the bottom lines of companies, a win-win scenario. In Thailand, where the government is pushing towards an innovations based economy, fostering a massive untapped market like contracts for the infrastructure to keep Bangkok afloat could be a way to kill two birds with one stone.
Thankfully, at least in the States, the tech industry generally leans progressive, aiming to improve people’s lives and the world with technology — we’ll be counting on them. What is clear now that on the current trajectory, world governments have failed to steer the world out of looming catastrophe. It is time the politicians take a backseat and give the upcoming eco-billionaires a shot at the steering wheel, as dangerous as it may be. After all, it is best to do so while the politicians still have a say in the matter.
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