We need to ask ourselves an honest question: “How ready are we to face another crisis?”
The cover of TIME, depicting the burning world. Pic Credit : Time
“It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land,” said the 6th Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report last week. Hundreds of scientists worldwide and representatives from 195 countries reaffirm that human activities have caused an increase of 1.0°C global warming above the preindustrial levels.
Meanwhile, the Paris Agreement sets a target; to limit global warming to 1.5°C, and well below 2°C. With the current GHG emission rates, we expect to reach a 1.5°C increase between 2030 and 2052. We now know without a doubt that the number one public enemy of climate is delaying action.
Global temperatures rising by 1°C may sound harmless, but even with a 0.5°C hike, the future for the environment and people look grim. At a 1.5°C increase, “the impacts would be irreversible or long-lasting,” according to the IPCC’s Special Report in 2018. This “harmless” increase in global temperature has taken its manifestation in the most extreme forms of environmental disasters.
The rapid shifts in global temperatures cascaded into climate extremes which affect millions including droughts, heatwaves, coastal floods associated with strong winds and rising sea levels followed by storm surges. These conditions threaten our resource security like water, fertile lands and coastal resources that we heavily rely upon. As a result, we are looking at the disruption of our agriculture and food supply, reducing infrastructure resilience, stress on public health sectors and altering forestry productivity and biodiversity, among others.
Extreme weather events are the new norm
The effects of climate change are already here and they are getting deadlier, from the catastrophic forest fires and flooding worldwide to the destructive typhoons in developing countries and disappearing glaciers, ice sheets, and islands.
Compounding impacts are evident with distressing scenes from all over the world. The flash floods in Zhengzhou trapping subway riders, the Tennessee flood killing at least ten people so far, and the shocking floods in Germany, Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Belgium, leaving over 200 people dead and damaging nearly 72,000 buildings at the cost of over US$10 billion. At the same time, we have forest fires in California, Turkey, Greece. In Siberia, it was some of the worst wildfires the region has witnessed.
Back home, the Southeast Asia (SEA) region was not spared. The severity of droughts in Mekong’s lower basin increased, slashing food crops and fisheries yields and shrinking arable land as saline intrusion intensified. Thailand suffered devastating economic losses of up to US$1.7 billion during the 2015–2016 drought, with over 9.56 million people affected. The prolonged droughts in Cambodia also destroyed nearly 68,000 hectares of rice fields, which is almost equivalent to three times the size of Kuala Lumpur’s land area.
Despite these impacts, Southeast Asia’s reliance on fossil fuels to power its economy will increase steadily in the following decades. The 6th ASEAN Energy Outlook warns that if ASEAN fails to achieve significant decarbonisation and clean energy targets, we are set on a pathway to double emissions produced from power generation - to some 2.3 billion tonnes - by 2040, while industrial emissions could grow by 75 percent.
These extremes will further destabilise the region, and Malaysia’s future seems uncertain. Madagascar’s famine showed what could happen when policies do not match the rapid climatic changes. Climate impacts will derail Malaysia’s National Agro-Food Policy target to ensure national food security, improve farmers’ financial nets and welfare and consequently, plans to increase our rice yield to more than 70 percent self-sufficient level (SSL).
Yan tragedy: a climate disaster?
According to Malaysia’s Third Biennial Update Report (BUR3) submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Malaysia recorded a temperature increase of 0.13 – 0.24°C per decade for the last four decades (1969 – 2016). The report revealed we would hit a 1.5°C increase even before 2050 if we follow the average growth trajectory of 0.2°C per decade.
So, is the recent tragedy in Yan, Kedah linked to climate change? Recent development in the latest IPCC report on what we call attribution science might provide answers on the degree to which the severity, frequency, or duration of an extreme weather event is attributed to increased surface temperature. A recent study on the deadly floods in Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands reaffirms attribution science; the study showed that intense downpour was nine times more likely to happen due to the climate crisis and caused 20 percent heavier rainfall in the region.
Extreme precipitation events such as the one we saw in Yan, Kedah will also be more frequent and severe in intensity. About 278mm of rainfall was recorded on August 18, 2021, in Gunung Jerai, more than the mean rainfall for 70 years, which came at a record-breaking intensity. Couple this with the area’s geomorphology and land use; this sets the perfect condition for debris flow, uprooting trees upstream and loosening the soil as they make their way downstream at breakneck speed.
The cost of this tragedy is not cheap. The newly sworn-in Malaysian prime minister pledged RM78 million for aid and reparation, stretching our fiscal space in this pandemic. As Malaysia mourns hundreds of lives lost to the pandemic on that day, we also mourn five souls lost amid the mudslides.
Who are the vulnerable groups?
The effects of climate change hit disproportionately across society. For example, young people and women poorly recover from extreme weather events because they make up most of the world’s poor and are trapped in societal norms or structures that deters them from economic and education opportunities.
According to Unicef’s Children’s Climate-Risk Index, Malaysian children sit at the world’s 61st most vulnerable among 163 countries. Globally, 820 million children are at risk of experiencing extreme heat waves. One in seven children are at risk of facing flooding rivers and two billion are currently highly exposed to air pollution, according to the seminal report.
How ready is Malaysia to face the climate crisis?
Like many countries party to the Paris Agreement, the Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) communicates Malaysia’s obligation for the 1.5°C limit and sets the tone for all climate and sectoral policies.
The recent update of Malaysia’s NDC states that Malaysia pledged to reduce the carbon intensity of its GDP by 45 percent, unconditionally by 2030, relative to 2005 emissions. However, many critics argue that factoring the growth of GDP to emission rates neglects our commitment to reducing our total emission - casting doubt on Malaysia’s low carbon penetration in our economy.
The following 30 years will entail a period of significant changes to shift our nation away from fossil fuel dependency. However, mismatched policies and priorities across agencies and ministries expose our unreadiness. A complete paradigm shift, subsequent reforms, and a stronger political will are indispensable to enable the transition to a greener and safer future.
One of the biggest questions is “How do we finance all this?” Mitigation and adaptation finance is expensive, and the co-benefits might take time to materialise. Expanding our unconditional NDC to 45 percent means implementations without any external support. In other words, we are missing out on financial, technology transfer and capacity building from developed countries, especially when Malaysians need to prepare and adapt to the increasing severity of climate impacts.
As the swelling of Malaysia’s expenditure for Covid-19 further pressures our public finance, we are concerned about Malaysia’s capacity to deliver our climate commitments and protect our citizens. We hope the new cabinet will prioritise the climate crisis as part of the national recovery plan and commit to increasing climate and environment financing in the upcoming national budget and the 12th Malaysia Plan onwards.
Inaction and delay, as we have seen, are deadly and costly. We need to ask ourselves an honest question: “How ready are we to face another crisis?”
Our ongoing health crisis can offer both an important lesson and an eerie warning for what is at stake; that government inaction and incompetence come with a massive cost paid with the devastating loss of precious lives, loss of livelihoods and a stable income, disruption of education and deteriorating mental health. The average Malaysians are trudging on to stay afloat, without certainty on where we are headed. All of this while the people in power continue their power struggle with no genuine commitment to any values, only political expediency.
The people and government must act to fix our sinking ship
We cannot afford the same neglect from the government in our generation’s most significant existential crisis. The situation is dire; we have consumed much of our carbon budget. Malaysia must actively design a clear climate roadmap open for evaluation and monitoring to significantly reduce our total carbon emissions, build community resilience and prioritise environmental protection at all levels of governance.
Malaysia’s National Adaptation Plan must entail a transparent and participatory decision-making process where frontline communities and vulnerable groups are present as crucial stakeholders. Our NDCs and policies must reflect gender interventions and the discourse driven by disaggregated data and recommendations by gender experts. Our Climate Change National policy must provide safeguards to regulate corporate interests, primarily on fossil fuel expansion and steered by evidence-based decision making.
Most importantly, our Malaysia Plan iterations must reflect our commitments to ambitious climate targets guided by good governance, equity, shared responsibility, empathy and justice for our collective care.
#KitaJagaSemua is not a pageantry slogan. It is a call to heed our greatest existential threat, putting aside our differences to work together and heal our relationship with each other. This is our decade of action.
Klima Action Malaysia authors :
Faris Ahmad Fadzil
Mathini Arveena Ravee
Fathiah Almira Shafique
The opinion piece can also be read at Malaysiakini