By JULIA ILHARDT / Pic By BLOOMBERG
ON MAY 24, 2019, hundreds of thousands of students around the world went on strike to highlight inadequate global action on climate change. In Penang, eleven students joined this movement in a protest occurring after school hours and with the support of parents and non-governmental organisations.
But in Penang, education authorities accused the organisers and school of politicising and exploiting underage children, quickly diverting the conversation away from its intended and essential focus on the intensifying environmental crisis. A crisis which will render a different world for the current generation of students, in Penang and across the planet.
Too often, this conversation loses focus in the haze of political platitudes and economic development, but particularly for vulnerable countries such as Malaysia, climate change should be a constant and integrated topic of discussion.
Today, as we talk about business or diplomacy or standard of living or security, we should also be able to talk about the environment. Not as an afterthought.
As with many other developing and coastal nations, Malaysia will disproportionately bear the brunt of climate change’s consequences, despite being minimally responsible for actually changing the climate.
In fact, Malaysia is already facing significant costs in the form of shifting weather patterns, and the predicted severity of future impacts are well documented in Malaysia’s reports to the United Nations.
Between 2030 and 2050, Malaysia could see up to 31% reduction in rice yields of some major granaries, 460% increase in oil palm plantations subject to flooding, 25% reduction in dairy production, sea level rise subsuming power plants and fisheries and coasts.
Perhaps an overwhelming amount of difficult-to-conceptualise statistics, but the point is that the situation is undeniably serious and present, and known to Malaysian officials.
At an individual level, Malaysians can expect an increase in the intensity and frequency of floods of the sort that hit South-East Asia around 2006. One study estimates that in Johor, this flood caused at least RM1.5 billion in damages and impacted 100,000 people.
There could be an upsurge in food prices as yields become irregular, intermittent water shortages from periods of drought, new diseases carried on the waves of heat.
Historically, Malaysia has acted as a leading proponent for the “common but differentiated responsibilities” (CBDR) principle of environmental negotiations.
This is the idea that all states must adapt to and address environmental degradation, but that developing and less industrialised countries shoulder less responsibility for the changing climate.
CBDR is justified, and it manifests in the polluter-pays principle and developing country exemptions in environmental treaties.
At the same time, CBDR is perhaps part of the reason that the environmental discussion in Malaysia has been slow to develop, subverted to questions of growth and prosperity.
Even so, Malaysia set ambitious targets for itself at the Paris Climate Conference in 2015, promising 45% reduction in emissions by 2030. Environmental and sustainability goals have been incorporated into the 11th Malaysia Plan, the National Policy on Climate Change and the National Adaptation Plan, to name a few.
Over the past year, a spotlight has also been shown on Malaysian environmentalism through the appointment of Yeo Bee Yin as minister of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change. Yeo has been vocal about Malaysia’s lack of progress on Paris commitments and has initiated important programmes to promote renewable energy and subsidise public transit, for example.
But as has been pointed out, even at the uppermost levels, Malaysia’s climate change conversation lags behind.
While much of the world has moved on to a 1.5°C global warming target necessary to avoid detrimental planetary changes, Yeo’s ministry is still analysing a 2°C limit.
Since the 1990s, Malaysia has also espoused a goal of retaining 50% forest cover but still, this promise fails to appear in the law. And despite a push for nations to increase Paris targets by 2020, Malaysia has so far remained silent.
In May this year, Yeo announced a collaboration with the UK government to draft a “Climate Change Act” focused on strengthening the institutional and legal framework for environmental regulations. But first, Yeo explained, Malaysia must assess whether there is a need for this policy.
Then, after at least two years, it might reach the hands of Parliament.
Considering the intense environmental damages Malaysia expects to face by 2030, it seems clear that significant policy changes are both necessary and lacking the luxury of time. Malaysia’s climate-related acts and advocates are encouraging in words, but implementation suffers from overlapping jurisdictions and alternative political priorities.
Words need to translate into broad and verifiable action beyond high profile issues like foreign waste and plastic straws, targeting destructive industries, biodiversity, consumption habits and more. And Malaysia needs to continue pushing for stronger and more coordinated international progress, acting as an example for major industrial polluters.
Certainly, there are groups in the country demanding this agenda every day, ranging from the Malaysian Youth Delegation to the World Wide Fund for Nature to Klima Action Malaysia. A University of Malaya study finds that 69.7% of Malaysians are concerned about climate change and political voices such as Yeo’s raise public awareness on this issue.
But if Malaysia is truly forwardlooking on the environment, why reprimand a Penang school that lets students advocate for the planet? Why stifle a performance that questions the sustainability practices of the palm oil industry?
These are the kinds of difficult conversations which keep Malaysia’s climate progress on track and demonstrate the mutual participation required for environmental progress.
Climate change should be a more significant subject in school curricula, should be a topic of daily conversation, should shape tangible demands for Malaysian officials and industries.
Malaysia and the world face definite and devastating consequences as a result of environmental degradation, and there is not much time to change.
The student protesters know what they are talking about, and we should listen.
Julia Ilhardt is a research assistant at IDEAS. The views expressed are of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the newspaper owners and editorial board.