From Covid to the Climate: Our twin Towers of Terror

When I was 13, my family travelled to Tokyo DisneySea while we were on vacation in Japan. Most of the memories associated with that trip are now obscured by the fog of time – I hazily remember Aladdin dancing on a screen, a sharp turn on a wooden rollercoaster, and spinning in a teacup (my favourite theme park ride: slow-moving, predictable, and close to the ground). The one memory that does jump out vividly in my mind is our ride on the Tower of Terror.

Me at the theme park with my iPod showing how much we need to cut atmospheric CO2 by in parts per million

The backstory of the Tower of Terror is relatively simple. A white collector (colonizer?) named Harrison Hightower has spent his life collecting artefacts around the world and one day steals a tribal idol that is cursed. When he returns to his hotel to store the idol, the deity in the idol awakens at midnight and sends his elevator plunging from the top of the building into the earth. Hightower dies and the hotel is shuttered amid rumours of a curse.

13 years after his death, the hotel is re-opened for guests to tour the building. Naturally, the tours take place on an elevator platform and, as guests are taken through the hotel, the deity re-emerges and sends each elevator load of theme park enthusiasts plunging down into the darkness of the hotel, repeating Hightower’s final moments.

Just before riders are dropped to their doom, they are brought to the top of the lift shaft where there are several exposed windows to the outside world. This allows riders to see how terrifyingly high they are above the ground and also gives those outside a chance to hear the piercing screams of fear as the lift gives way beneath the riders and the darkness swallows them from below.

It was the middle of winter when we reached the Tower of Terror. The last hint of sunlight had already left the sky and a cold wind was blowing in from Tokyo Bay. As we shuffled towards the park exit, my father noticed the winding queue outside the fateful attraction and, at that moment, he became possessed by the twin Singaporean instincts that 1) if something has a queue it must be good and 2) if you paid for an experience you have to get the most value you can out of that experience. Despite my protestations, we soon found ourselves at the back of the snaking queue.

We waited outside the Tower for a dreadful thirty minutes, watching an endless stream of souls scream through the top-floor window and then vanish out of view. I remember clutching my jacket and shivering, perhaps from the cold rain that had started to fall or from the anxiety of dropping from a great height.

When we finally got onto the ride, I could barely control my breathing. We were told to sit on the lift platform, hoisted through several rooms with eerie projections, and finally confronted with a glowing green idol that whispered ominous lines at us in Japanese. As the lift ratcheted up towards the open window at the top of the shaft, I remember debating whether it would be better to fall with my eyes open or closed. When we reached the top, the ride paused for a moment, and we gazed out through a shattered windowpane onto a twinkling expanse of lights that stretched out into the darkened landscape. And then the bottom fell out beneath us.

One thing that you can’t tell from outside the building is that the Tower of Terror isn’t a single big drop. Instead, you drop a few metres and then inexplicably the lift shudders to a sudden halt. The platform then creeps up slowly a few metres and – just as you start to get comfortable – BAM it drops you again. We plunged, paused, and plunged again for what felt like an eternity in pitch darkness. A key design of the ride is that the series of drops and pauses are in a randomly selected pattern so no one knows exactly when the ride is going to end. If the queue for the ride wasn’t responsible for my anxiety in adulthood, getting thrown around in the dark without an end in sight takes some of the credit.

Looking back on the experience, I identified three key elements that made the ride particularly horrific to my 13-year-old self: 1) a vivid preview of the ordeal to come (through the top floor window), 2) a complete lack of control over the physical experience, and 3) uncertainty about whether the ride was actually over or if there were more drops still.

13 years after that traumatic night, I find myself amid another journey that feels eerily similar to that night in the Tower. Last week, I tentatively welcomed a gathering of friends to my home for the first time in months, and we drank, ate, and played our favourite board games. While the newfound luxury of group gatherings was refreshing, I couldn’t shake the suspicion that we haven’t seen the worst of times yet.

As countries grapple with rising infections and institute fresh lockdowns or confront a rising body count, I wonder if these foreign responses are cautionary tales to avoid or a preview of Singapore’s future. Like many others, I struggled with the rapid and continuous changes in social restrictions. Jumping from DORSCON Orange to Phase 2 to Phase 3 and back to Phase 2 Heightened Alert, my emotions yo-yoed between joy and despair with each change of the rules. (I am reminded of the infamous words of Michael Scott – “Snip snap, snip snap”). You have no idea the physical toll that three rounds of lockdown has on a person.

Mentally, the worst part of the lockdowns was the complete loss of control. Not being certain of when we would be allowed out again, not having control over the virus and its spread, and having limited technological tools to fight this faceless, lifeless menace all contributed to the feeling of hopelessness that spread across the island. Even with today’s rising vaccination levels, it is unclear whether we are truly out of the woods yet or whether another new supercharged variant will emerge. As was the case on the Tower of Terror, I find myself unable to unclench.

While we live in the midst of one terrible ride, another looms on the horizon in the form of the climate crisis. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has recently released its latest report and I am finding, with fear in my heart, that the climate crisis has much in common with both the Tower of Terror and our current pandemic.

With each passing year, we are more certain about the likely (devastating) impacts of the climate crisis, either through detailed reports like the IPCC’s or actual news reporting about unfolding disasters. We are simultaneously in the queue for a series of climate catastrophes while also already experiencing the first drops. Thanks to the clear window into the future offered by climate science, we can be quite certain about what this ride will look like, but we have no idea when it will end.

Like the pandemic, it is probable that the climate crisis will defy our vain attempts to establish order and control. The floods and fires that have erupted in the recent months affect countries of all socio-economic levels and it appears that technology is minimally effective in managing catastrophes in the short term. We have now created fires too big to be put out and rains too intense to be staunched. It is also becoming more difficult to say for certain how bad these climate events will be and if / when they will get better. For a civilization predicated on predictability and control, this is a frightful reality to confront. From where I stand, it is challenging to envision a future world which is environmentally safer than the one I was born into.

I suffered through the Tower of Terror, and the Covid-19 pandemic has now created great suffering across the world. If there is any hope for the future, it is that governments and business leaders will take strong action to reduce the harms of the climate crisis. They are the ones who hold the levers to halt this wild ride that we have now set in motion. Holding them to account will be one of the most important tasks of our generation.

In a seemingly hopeless situation, one piece of good news is that the worst effects of climate change are not baked in yet. While some negative impacts are guaranteed, the IPCC’s latest report highlights potential pathways for the planet where we reduce how bad things get (the way I think about it, it is like choosing between a year of circuit breaker and a year of Phase 2 Heightened Alert). The key differentiator of which track we proceed down is how we respond over the next few years.

So what should come next? To me, the most important part is ensuring that we don’t slip back into the same ways that were entrenched before the pandemic. If we return to the comfortable pre-pandemic status quo of consumption and production, the climate crisis will make our Covid-19 experience feel like the teacups ride.

Pushing people out of their comfort zones is difficult for political and business leaders in the best of times, much less in the middle of a global pandemic. It will require courage to undertake the necessary decisions and there will be short term backlash. Reimagining what “comfortable” should feel like in between two life-changing catastrophes might be the greatest challenge of our lives, but for the sake of our future it is time to drop the hammer and take climate action at a breathtaking scale.

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