The first thing we should do is stop fooling ourselves that we can do things slowly and that the change can be gradual and without pain, writes Eric Thoo.
Symposium On Sustainable Penang
Komtar, Penang, Malaysia, 16 January 2018
“Malaysians will catch up!” a panellist announced confidently.
Auditorium A was filling up with promising ideas offered by the young panellists on stage discussing the topic “Can Penang be made sustainable by 2030?”
One of them highlighted the importance of public transport in reducing or even eliminating the need for private cars.
Another pointed to our public education system, calling for climate change to be made a mandatory and extensive topic in the school syllabus.
Strong words such as “love for nature” were even used to stress how a fundamental change in our relationship with nature was the key solution.
Understandably, the mood in the symposium was easily positive. Being a millennial myself, I worry that my generation prefers paying attention to celebrity gossip more than real-world issues. After all, isn’t that the myth surrounding our youths today?
Listening to the discussion that day, however, I was anything but worried. Sure enough, the mood in the auditorium brightened up to the passionate exchange of views among the youths.
After a long while, I dared myself to be hopeful – of the direction my country is going and of the future we all share in general.
The discussion reached a climax when moderator Dr Lee Lik Meng, a former professor of town planning from University Science Malaysia, challenged the youths to make the solutions offered a reality by 2030.
Silence enveloped the room. I held my breath. After all, if there was any chance for us to move away from our current unsustainable, high-consumption lifestyle, it would depend on our future leaders’ stand on the issue.
As one of the panellists began answering, a particular phrase caught my attention. My internal alarm went off. And before I could ponder further, it rang again. And again. When the phrase rang in my ears for the fourth time, I knew there was no mistake. Something was wrong.
Flashback: The 21st conference of parties to the UNFCCC
Paris, 12 December 2015
On this historic occasion, 195 nations stood together and signed an agreement that could potentially change the course of history: the Paris Agreement. World leaders vowed to stop temperatures in 2050 from increasing more than 2C above what they were before we started powering our economy with coal.
The 2C target was chosen for a very specific reason. Breach the target, and we break our Earth’s capacity to recover ie the damage inflicted on our planet would be irreversible and any chance of survival would be out of the window.
So far, the temperature has increased by 0.8C, and we have already experienced some of the worst natural disasters ever. Allowing the temperature to warm more than twice that amount will without doubt have perilous consequences.
Renowned journalist Naomi Klein has pointed out that a report published by the World Bank warned that “we’re on track for a 4C warmer world [by century’s end] marked by extreme heat waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening sea level rise”.
The report also cautioned, “There is also no certainty that adaptation to a 4C world is possible.”
Indeed, we have to act, and we have to act now. With just over three decades to go to the Paris Agreement’s deadline, time is one thing we cannot afford to waste.
Back in Komtar
As I sat rather uneasily in auditorium A, the particular phrase rang out yet again.
“In time, the syllabus in our public education will improve!”
My internal alarm went off again. And the siren wailed.
“In time, the city design in Penang will be ideal for the use of public transport!”
The wailing of the siren continued.
“In time, our nation’s legislation will improve and meet the actual needs of the world!”
The siren wailed loudly like a banshee in distress.
“In time, Malaysians will catch up!” one of the young panellists announced confidently.
I tell you I almost went deaf.
Flashback: One of the worst floods ever
Penang, 4 November 2017
Penang made headlines in the mainstream media that day, almost two years after the Paris Agreement was signed. The state experienced one of its worst floods and around 2,000 victims were displaced. But that was only the beginning of much worse to come.
Four degrees of warming will also raise global sea levels by one or possibly even two metres. Island nations will be submerged, coastal areas inundated. Penang will not be spared.
And let’s not forget about the brutal heat waves that can kill tens of thousands of people. Couple that with dramatic crop yield losses in the wake of scorching heat and a slightly higher population, and the consequences will be dire.
If our ancestors came to Malaya as war or economic refugees, our children might flee the land as climate refugees – that is, assuming they survive raging wildfires, the collapse of fisheries, widespread disruptions of water supply, and global epidemics.
To drive home the point that we are running out of time, many mainstream analysts have confirmed that, based on our current emissions trajectory, we are headed for even more than 4C warming. The International Energy Agency (IEA) even put the number at 6C.
The first thing we should do is stop fooling ourselves that we can do things slowly and that the change can be gradual and without pain.
Back to the future: The future is now
It dawned on me that our nation still has much work to do. The baseless optimism from one of the young panellists that everything would be magically solved in the future sounded suspiciously like we were, yet again, postponing the problem for the next generation to solve – something we know only too well how to do.
As the discussion on stage drew to a close, I collected my belongings. I was just about ready to leave in despair, when suddenly, I heard a voice declaring, “No, the future is now! We have to start making a difference! Start from today!”
I looked up. I couldn’t suppress the big smile on my face. Perhaps there was still hope for us after all.
And of course, the person who made the bold remark was a woman.