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Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg (centre) holding a placard that says ‘School strike for climate’ during a climate strike in Lausanne last month. Despite frequent occurrences of climate-related disasters, governments across the world have failed to come up with a strong commitment to address climate change. - AFP pic

THE year 2019 saw greater action from all over the world calling for increased national ambition to address the climate crisis.

Most notably, Greta Thunberg became Time magazine’s Person of the Year, making her the youngest person ever to be honoured. Regardless, like most things seem to be these days, the past year was a paradox.

During the dry season, approximately, 906,000ha of the Amazon forest were lost to forest fires.

In Malaysia, 2019 ended on a sour note with floods hitting the east coast, displacing more than 50,000 people.

This year began with apocalyptic images of bushfires ravaging Australia and causing untold damage.

The total area of land affected — reported to be 18.6 million hectares — is larger than the whole of Peninsular Malaysia’s land area of 13.04 million hectares.

Bushfires are a normal occurrence in Australia. However, this season has been much worse. The intensity is largely blamed on human-induced climate change.

Despite frequent occurrences of climate-related disasters, governments across the world, yet again, failed to come up with a strong commitment to address climate action at the Madrid Climate Summit.

Bas Eickhot, a Dutch member of the European Parliament, lamented that “no progress has been made to bring countries more in line with the 1.5 degrees target of the Paris Agreement”.

As a movement, the youth-led climate strikes have grown exponentially since the day Thunberg held up the sign reading “Skolstrejk för klimatet” (school strike for climate).

Her rise to fame has made the world take note of the importance of youth in addressing climate change.

In Malaysia, many have called for us to find our own Thunberg.

While we should encourage champions who can assume leadership on this challenge, it is important to note that this is merely one piece of the puzzle.

We can see individual recognition not aligning with collective responsibility—and more importantly, to impact on the ground.

Firstly, we need to move beyond individual-focused movements and take responsibility as a whole society.

Instead of focusing efforts on recognising individual activists or personalities,there needs to be a more ambitious social movement, involving all citizens — youth and the senior citizens alike, the government and the business sector.

Ideally, as more individual citizens are persuaded to develop a new identity by pursuing ecofriendly lifestyles, sustainability will naturally become more of a public concern.

Unfortunately for Malaysia, this may not happen anytime soon.

In a recent poll by the Merdeka Centre, climate change—or environmental concerns — did not come up at all when respondents were asked about the most important issues facing Malaysia. Economic concerns such as inflation (53.1 per cent) and job opportunities (22.2 per cent) came out on top.

Other issues included corruption, preservation of Malay rights/fair treatment of all races and implementation of hudud.

Secondly, while there is no doubt young climate champions can be effective in boosting climate action, it is essential that we do not shift the heavy burden of safeguarding the future to them.

Here in Malaysia, there has been a growing climate change movement, in particular among the youth. For example, Klima Action Malaysia started organising strikes demanding political will to address climate change.

Another youth-led initiative, Malaysian Youth Delegation, is educating the public on climate change policies and has participated in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of the Parties, bringing a Malaysian youth interpretation to the international climate negotiation agenda.

Such social movements are crucial to exposing Malaysians to the importance and urgency of climate action.

However, Zero Hour co-founder Jamie Margolin argues that it is “such an unfair burden to place on kids who did not cause this problem and do not have the voting power, or the monetary power, the resource power the adults in power have”.

The burden falls upon current decision-makers and society as a whole.

The Environmental Democracy Index by World Resources Institute ranked Malaysia second last — at 69th place out of 70 countries surveyed — with regard to public engagement in the early stages of environmental decision-making.

This reflects the need for institutional reform leveraging multi-stakeholder partnership which will be far more valuable than individual champions.

In this day and age, it is natural for youth to pay greater attention to the climate crisis, as the issue concerns their future — and some even argue, survival.

So, with youth political empowerment becoming stronger through Undi 18 and other initiatives by the youth, addressing the climate crisis should be one issue which Malaysia should unite on.


Alizan Mahadi is Senior Fellow and Nur Syahirah Khanum is research staff in the Technology, Innovation, Environment and Sustainability division, ISIS Malaysia

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