Climate crisis: We must listen to young voices


Youth environment group Klima Action Malaysia (Kamy) at a rally held before the Covid-19 pandemic began in 2020. — Filepic/The Star

Happy New Year, everyone, and happy lunar new year to those who celebrate it.

Apart from my personal desire to live a healthier year than I did in 2022, my new year’s resolution is to play my part in making 2023 a year of change here in Malaysia and, of course, around the planet.

As we look back at 2022 and forward into the new year there is no doubt that we live in difficult times, but that doesn’t mean that we should be eternally pessimistic. We need to grasp the positives and nurture them, to emphasise and celebrate when things go right, when we can demonstrate that people working together can change things.

So here’s an example of some good planetary health news. Those of you who have been around for a while will remember the ozone layer crisis – that’s when the use of chlorofluorocarbons in fridges and aerosols punched a hole in the ozone layer above the poles, significantly increasing our exposure to harmful radiation from the sun.

Once the hole was discovered in the mid-1980s, the international community marshalled its resources – scientific, economic, diplomatic – to mount a campaign to ban chlorofluorocarbons, and to restore the ozone layer through adoption of the 1987 Montreal Protocol.

New data released recently by Nasa (the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration) indicates that the hole is shrinking year on year. This good news shows that the world can solve an environmental crisis when we try.

And I see there is also as some good planetary health news here at home in Malaysia. The government has created a new Natural Resources, Environment and Climate Change Ministry, bringing together the key jurisdictions that need to work together to support improvements to our planetary health. The fact that we have a ministry that includes “climate change” in the title, and thus a recognition that there is more that we can and must be doing as a country and as a regional leader to play our part, fills me with a sense of hope.

And while our new government is feeling its way into position, there are encouraging signs that ministers are reaching out, listening and being honest with us about the challenges that we face. Natural Resources, Environment and Climate Change Minister Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad put out a statement on Dec 24, 2022, clarifying his ministry’s commitment in addressing climate change, stating that a business-as-usual approach will no longer suffice, and recognising that the government will need assistance in drafting clear policies and identifying mitigation efforts.

To this end a Parliamentary Select Committee on the Environ-ment and Climate Change has been proposed to the Speaker of the Dewan Rakyat.

His statement was picked up by youth climate activist Aidil Iman on Twitter, who said “One week ago, we met with the new environment minister & proposed that he pushes for the establishment of a Parliamentary Select Committee on the Environment & Climate Change. I’m very happy to see that he actually listened to us”.

This connection between young people and those in power also fills me with hope. Young people have been more vocal and visible than other groups in raising climate change as a top priority in global governance discussions as well as through broad social nudging and shifts in behavioural norms and generating pressure for policy and legislative changes.

Placard-carrying students at a demonstration calling for action against climate change in Chennai, India, on Dec 3, 2022. — AFPPlacard-carrying students at a demonstration calling for action against climate change in Chennai, India, on Dec 3, 2022. — AFPYoung people already see and feel the impacts of the climate crisis but are not yet being given the space, trust, and guidance to act on it. Deliberately making space for young people in high-level policy decision forums and systematising information sharing with them and their representatives means involving them in developing resources, tools, and materials in forms and formats that are appealing to them, and in spaces that they already inhabit – both online and in the real world.

My team and I have been engaged in a series of discussions with young people over the last year. We have gained insights into some of their interests, ideas and anxieties over the impacts of the climate crisis and the role of planetary health among youth in Malaysia. Our experience led us to conclude that mobilising the next generation of planetary health leaders requires a change in existing power dynamics so that young people and adults engage as equals.

We saw that young people are perfectly able to articulate their thoughts and drive their own community-based and cross-sectoral initiatives but were often frustrated by their “junior partner” status in broader discourse.

Leveraging mainstream youth spaces like social media are important, but any strategies to engage young people by those in authority must also address the digital privilege gap, as well as engagement with communities that may not be up to speed on climate and health discourse.

We found that simplifying the concept of planetary health into positive, solutions-oriented narratives and messages seems to generate the most positive reaction. This kind of engagement also provides hope for young people and seems to avert feelings of apathy and powerlessness.

The fact that those in power now have so rapidly and seriously engaged with young people is encouraging and uplifting. But maintaining this dialogue and truly engaging our young people beyond those on social media in decisions that will have major impacts on their lives must be a part of our collective way forward.


Dr Jemilah Mahmood, a physician and experienced crisis leader, was appointed the executive director of the Sunway Centre for Planetary Health at Sunway University in August 2021. She is the founder of aid organisation Mercy Malaysia and has served in leadership roles internationally with the United Nations and Red Cross for the last decade. She writes on Planetary Health Matters once a month in StarLifestyle.

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