Human Writes: Are you panicking yet?


  • Living
  • Saturday, 21 Dec 2019

A bushfire burning on a property in Balmoral, 150km south-west of Sydney, New South Wales. A state of emergency was declared on Dec 19 in Australia's most populated region, as a record heat wave fanned unprecedented bushfires. — AFP

There was a time when AIDS was treated like a joke. In the early days of the epidemic, the US President’s then press secretary, Larry Speakes, laughed about it in press conferences. It took former US President Ronald Reagan five years to mention it publicly.

There was plenty of denial and ignorance too in Malaysia in the early 1990s. I recall one minister once refusing to discuss it. As a rookie reporter, I felt compelled to cover the issue.

AIDS turned out to be one of the world’s worst pandemics, with some 30 million dead and up to 100 million infected today. It could have been far worse if activists had not fought for action.

I see many parallels with the current climate crisis. We will soon reach a tipping point with global warming, after which we descend into catastrophic climate change.

And yet do we see governments racing to action? Barely! Politicians are squabbling over relatively petty, peripheral issues – look at the infighting in PKR. Then there’s Britain with Brexit, that complicated exit from the European Union.

Last week, we hardly made progress at the climate change conference – Conference of Parties 25 (COP25) – in Madrid. The issue of a global carbon market was shelved until next year.

We are mired in the greatest existential crisis to civilisation but we can’t muster much of a response. This is insane.

The status quo will remain until enough of us – people like you and me – do something. Quick. In the last six months, climate change has been a constant theme in my column. I feel driven to raise the issues.

I’ve had people question whether the issues are being “exaggerated”. To those denialists, go look at satellite maps of the Arctic, where climate change is twice as intense. Since records began 40 years ago, the summer Arctic has lost 40% of its extent and up to 70% of its volume. Greenland’s ice sheet is melting six times faster than in the 1980s.

We should be careful making hard conclusions, but the numbers keep piling up. In the last five years, the world has had the five warmest years on record ever. In the last decade, we’ve suffered some of the worst floods, the worst heatwaves, the worst wildfires and the worst hurricanes.

Australia just had its hottest day on record, with temperatures rising to 46°C in some areas. More than 100 bushfires are blazing. Air quality levels in Sydney have risen 12 times above hazardous levels. A state of emergency has been declared in the state. The country’s Climate Council said in a briefing paper: “THIS IS NOT NORMAL... Longer and longer heatwaves. Less rain... Climate change is supercharging these mega-fires.”

Yet Australia was described as a “major obstructor” at the COP25 meeting. Australia is the largest exporter of coal and the third largest exporter (after Saudi Arabia and Russia) of fossil fuels.

The addiction to fossil fuels persists. Insanely, the world spends US$5tril (RM20.7tril) on subsidies for fossil fuels – the stuff threatening our survival – a recent International Monetary Fund study found. This is like pouring petrol on our burning house. Malaysia too spends billions annually – a whopping RM20bil in 2014 – on such subsidies. Even this current government scrambled to allocate RM3bil for subsidies upon being elected. Bring on the electric buses instead!

Nothing will change until we strengthen our democratic principles. Speak louder. Question your MP. Challenge the status quo. Your part counts. Individuals can be powerful – look at teen activist Greta Thunberg. Many climate change issues need greater public scrutiny.

There was barely a murmur over the RM3.5bil contract for a new power plant given to Tadmax Resources. Why are we building fossil fuel plants to generate power we don’t even need and which limit use of renewable energy?

Why is there still so much illegal encroachment into forests and land grabs that displace indigenous communities? The Orang Asli are more under threat than ever. A quarter of the land in Sarawak – mostly native customary land – has been designated by the state for large plantations, sometimes against the will of native people.

“Gazetted forests” now include “forest plantations” of palm oil. How can we equate a monoculture plantation to a biodiversity-rich forest? Our forests are critical to offset carbon emissions.

We still have a “very long way to go” in climate adaptation, says Dr Renard Siew, Climate Change Advisor at the Centre for Governance and Political Studies. There are pockets of initiatives – such as flood mitigation projects – but a holistic plan for climate mitigation and adaptation is needed.

“Unknown to most people, Malaysia is listed among countries with the highest urban population living in low-lying areas and hence we're exposed to sea level rises and coastal erosions. Already, we have seen... recurring floods year on year,” he says.

On the East Coast, some families cleaning up the mud and debris from last week’s floods say they won't buy new furniture as funds are limited. There's no point, they say, because bad floods seem to return every year.

Siew says the recognition of the climate crisis in the private sector is “minimal”. Many local businesses were adopting a “wait and see” approach, which is why it’s urgent that the Climate Change Act be enacted. “It needs to be drafted in a holistic manner,” he adds.


We have a minister in charge of climate change now. But we need an entire government on board. We have taken baby steps, but we need to take giant strides. As we begin a new decade, I only hope that we finally wake up in time to take action 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 lifestyle@thestar.com.my. The views expressed here are entirely the writer's own.
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