Human Writes: We’re not seeing the big picture in climate change

  • Environment
  • Sunday, 09 Dec 2018

Think big, people. Think big picture. Are we doing so?

After Malaysia’s political makeover earlier this year, it’s disappointing to hear the same old polemics about race and religion.

Evidently, some people are out to seize these issues for political or personal gain. And granted, as we spread our previously-clipped wings, old grievances will come to the fore. The temple issue for example echoes similar strife a decade ago. Clearly, communities need to be involved properly by local authorities in development projects – and before money changes hands.

The big picture is that we’re on this path of reform and sometimes it’s rocky and unsteady. But don’t get off the path. God knows, there are forces pushing for that to happen. We stay on course, let the law deal with those forces, and let the vision of a thriving Malaysia take us forward.

All this politicking and strife may seem like big issues, but there are other issues that are much bigger and can’t be overlooked.

The really big one is our planet.

Let me say it in plain words: We are facing our own extinction if we don’t act soon against climate change. Can it get any bigger than that?

We’re not talking about change happening in decades or even years any more. It’s now. We’re seeing more extreme weather events – intense tropical storms (cyclones, typhoons or hurricanes), heat waves, droughts and rainfall. The rising seawaters in the padi fields of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta and the scorched earth of Somaliland are signs. The Arctic line and permafrost have receded while the tropics and the Sahara Desert have enlarged.

Every month, we see dramatic changes and grim reports.

Last week in Queensland, Australia, there were more than 100 “catastrophic” bushfires. Long heatwaves have made bushfires more intense in recent years.

In California, a whole town was incinerated last month. Wildfires have risen in size and ferocity – of the state’s 20 largest ever wildfires, 15 have occurred since 2000, National Geographic magazine reported.

Last week, the World Meteorological Organisation confirmed that the trend of our planet getting warmer continued in 2018. The organisation said that warmest 20 years on record have been in the past 22 years, with the top four in the past four years.

Currently, representatives from 200 countries are meeting in Katowice, Poland, at a major climate change meeting, COP24 (24th Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Climate Change). They may set the course for the earth’s future.

But even the conference’s host admits a miracle is needed – Katowice itself depends on coal. Fossil fuels such as coal and petroleum, used in industry and transport, produce heat-trapping carbon dioxide and “greenhouse gases” (collectively termed carbon emissions). In agriculture, the production of meat, specifically beef, produces the most emissions.

Bold action is needed to address this. But it’s hard. In France, a proposed fuel tax rise led to massive protests over the last few weeks, forcing the government to back down.

Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, all countries agreed to work to limit global temperatures rising more than 2°C. Any rise over this would have catastrophic results. In fact, recent reports show even a 1.5°C rise could be too much.

Further, a new report by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) says we could reach this 1.5°C threshold within just 11 years – and definitely within 20 years – unless there are major cuts in carbon emissions.

The way we’re going now, being so completely casual about climate change, we are not going to keep to that 1.5°C threshold. This means in a dozen years, our planet might be irreversibly changed.

And, furthermore, recent research indicates that the biggest and most immediate impact of climate change is likely to be in the tropics – the Amazon Basin, South-East Asia and parts of Africa – and in Australia.

Rising temperatures might make the tropics increasingly unliveable, particularly for tropical species unable to adapt physiologically.

Intense typhoons and cyclones, as well as higher rainfall, are expected (but some areas will see lower rainfall). Low-lying areas are at risk of flooding. Most of the world’s cities at risk of a 1m sea level rise are in Asia. The 2017 Global Climate Risk Index includes five Asian countries in its list of top 10 countries that have suffered most from extreme events.

See what I mean about seeing the big picture? Our focus is wrong, the big stuff is getting overlooked.

To me, we’re like kids on the beach, squabbling over our little patch of sand. We haven’t looked up to see this gigantic, sky-high tsunami wave looming over us. If we did, perhaps we’d run for our lives to higher ground rather than wrangle over grains of sand.

Let’s hope we see the big picture before it’s too late.

Human Writes columnist Mangai Balasegaram writes mostly on health but also delves into anything on being human. She has worked with international public health bodies and has a Masters in public health. Write to her at

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