Climate change is about more than the environment

Precious resource: A mangrove swamp in Bagan Belat, Butterworth, Penang. Mangroves form a natural coastal defence system so destroying them increases the risks of coastal erosion, flooding and salt-water incursion. - Filepic/The Star

While Covid-19 and political crises worldwide are dominating global news headlines, climate change continues to threaten both the natural world and human lives.

The typical perception of climate change issues is that they are always about how badly humans have been treating nature and how important it is to save the earth. Most of us already know about the impacts of climate change such as extreme weather, floods, droughts, heatwaves, etc. It is all what many consider “boring stuff” especially if you have zero interest in the environment.

But the truth is, the impacts can never be overstated because climate issues are related to so much more. Addressing this crisis includes fighting for social justice and human rights given that inequalities, discrimination and poverty are interconnected with climate change and environmental destruction. The consequences of emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere are way bigger than most of us know.

Today, we live in an Anthropocene Epoch in which human activities hugely influence the planet’s climate and ecosystem. The Industrial Revolution was the birth of the surge of greenhouse gases emission. Since then, exploitation and consumption of natural resources continued at unprecedented rates, never enough to meet economic demands and human greed.

According to the United Nations, 80% of the biodiversity loss and half of the amount of global carbon emitted are sourced from resource extraction.

Overexploitation of natural resources not only has caused disruptions to the global ecosystem and biodiversity, it has also resulted in economic and political disputes, social unrest, out-migration, food insecurity and many more. Often, the most marginalised communities are bearing the brunt of these negative effects. Lest we forget, many indigenous communities have been, and still are, forced to leave their homeland to this day.

One example is resource extraction in coastal areas that has damaged natural coastal defence systems such as mangrove swamps, thereby increasing the risks of coastal erosion and flooding. With sea levels rising, submergence and incursion of saltwater into fresh water have degraded water resources for consumption. This affects livelihoods and economic activities through damage caused to infrastructure, houses and crops. An inevitable outcome is out-migration of human population – internal and cross-border – for survival.

The irony is that the people who mostly bear the heaviest cost of climate change are the ones who contribute the least greenhouse gases. It is the high-income countries that are the biggest source of carbon emissions yet they have been relatively less affected, whereas developing countries are facing two of the most concerning consequences of climate change, water shortage and food insecurity – and they will only worsen given the current lack of serious global action.

Water scarcity has already affected over 40% of the total global population. By 2050, it is projected that the number of people affected will double, and the regions most likely to be labelled “highly water-stressed” are North Africa, the Middle East, and South and Central Asia. There is no doubt people will have to compete for clean water in the future and this can cause more political disputes and emigration. Debates are already ongoing about water being one of the determinants of political stability.

Another problem is that people who are forced to leave their homeland due to climate change issues are not considered refugees at the moment and may not receive asylum support. “Climate refugee” does not exist under international law. The Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) chair of International Water Cooperation at Sweden’s Uppsala University, Ashok Swain, highlighted the necessity to expand the meaning of “refugee” to include climate-forced migration.

When it comes to racing against climate change, we cannot win. It is evolving more rapidly than ever. All nations should start planning and adopting mitigation and adaptation strategies. Countries need to work together to tackle this matter and low- and middle-income countries must be given adequate support by nations with more resources to cope with the future impacts of climate change.

Given that one of the root causes of environmental destruction is the excessive extraction of natural resources, governments need to produce clear frameworks for environmental resource management in their countries. Decoupling economic growth from increasing consumption of natural resources by adopting a circular economy system would be a good start. That is to say, in the current system, economic growth needs greater consumption, yet in a circular economy, growth works by extracting less resources and reusing existing materials and products. The current linear economic system we live in follows the concept of “make-use-dispose” whereas the circular economy uses the concept of “make-use-remake”.

Malaysia is rich in biodiversity and natural resources. It would be a huge waste if our government does not address climate change seriously. The current controversy over degazetting the Kuala Langat North Forest in Selangor from its reserved status would not occur if people understood the importance of resource management for bigger and long-term purposes. Instead of prioritising industrial development, the Malaysian government should shift its focus to the conservation and rehabilitation of natural resources as well as the well-being of the indigenous people.


University College London

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