Tales Told by Fishermen

The public demands to know what the plans are for Malaysia to be part of the global solution to climate change.

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Image from Fair Observer.

Hari Raya is not only the best time to see a variety of seasonal dishes, it is also the best time to meet people and experience life at the kampung. Last Raya, I took the opportunity to get to know the fishermen and farmers back in my kampung. They enjoyed sharing stories of the sea and paddy fields, but they noticed that recently, mother Earth is not as welcoming as she once was. 

They expressed their concern about the irregularity of weather, and how the monsoon season has changed. According to them, floods are no longer as predictable as before. Continuous heavy rainfall keeps fishermen away from ferocious seas. It is indeed a challenging time for them in the midst of an economic slowdown.

As the discussion goes deeper, I realise that they are actually talking about the phenomenon of climate change, but via more common, layman’s language. It shows that despite living away from metropolitan cities and being unexposed to the discourse of climate change, they still nonetheless experienced the effects of such change.

In general, the level of awareness among the public on the challenges of climate change is still relatively low. A study conducted by WWF Malaysia and Partners in 2007 reported that only 45% of adults and students are aware of the causes of environmental problems. Similarly, a study in 2010 found that school students’ knowledge of environmental related issues is still very low.

There are two reasons for this. First, according to behavioural psychologists, the underestimation of climate risks is caused partly by the low level of emotional response evoked by these risks. Climate risks seem to be too far away, both in space and time to trigger the emotional feeling of risk.

Francis Fukuyama in his book “Identity” argued that feeling is associated with a higher probability of human response than any rational calculation of probability-weighted costs and benefits. And if we are to communicate the message well, it is suggested to inform the general consequences to the masses, in a way that can invoke an emotional feeling of fear or sadness.

Secondly, the worry response to climate change is relatively low because we have a group of people who adamantly claims that such phenomenon is a hoax. Known as the climate deniers, they do not believe that the Earth is experiencing global warming – or as The Guardian renamed it, global heating – and associate the belief in such phenomenon with an interest in political or economic pursuit.

The estimated number of climate deniers is relatively high. A survey conducted by the YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project has revealed that Indonesia leads the highest number of climate deniers with 18% out of total respondents, while Saudi Arabia and the US both recorded 16% and 13% respectively. These people do not simply deny without having arguments on their side. They also do science. Now the question is, is our climate really changing?

Scientists say yes

Few days ago, a man died in Kuwait out of heatstroke. The forensic reports pointed to overexposure to the sun as the cause of death. Al-Qabas newspaper also reported that the temperature during the day in Kuwait on the 8th of June has reached 63°C under direct sunlight. Now when a country has broken the record as the site of the highest temperature, and a man has died because of it, what other hypothesis can be drawn by the scientists than to propose that the climate has changed?

Unfortunately, Malaysia is not left unaffected by this global phenomenon. A plethora of studies have shown that the dual monsoon season in Malaysia – the North-east and South-west – has changed in its intensity and magnitude. This phenomenon has resulted in the common occurrence of longer dry spells, extreme rainfalls and high waves, as anecdotally experienced by the fishermen and farmers I spoke with.

Scientists overwhelmingly agree that these changes are human-driven through the exponential increase of greenhouse gas emissions over the years. Gasses emitted by the burning of fossil fuels, land-use changes associated with deforestation, logging and development all contribute towards the warming of the earth’s atmosphere, with the last 4 years recorded as the hottest. It is based on this, among other data, that almost all scientists agree that there exists a causal relationship between human activities and climate change.

Three vulnerable aspects of life

What kind of world will climate change bring us to? Scientists have theorised on the possible devastating outcomes climate change will cause. Based on various researches and reports, it is predicted that climate change will have far-reaching effects on 3 primary aspects of life: the weather, biodiversity and the well-being of humankind.

Significant change in weather is among the immediate effects climate change will cause. In the case of Malaysia, a large proportion of its population will be vulnerable to longer droughts and recurrent floods. The uneven occurrence has a close link with rising sea levels. It was reported that the coast of Tanjung Piai in Johor has experienced a 1.3mm rise in sea level per year from 1986 to 2006. 

The rise of sea levels will ultimately lead to shoreline erosion, increased saline intrusion, causing a submergence of vulnerable islands, loss of fisheries resources and mangrove forests, as well as possible relocation of coastal infrastructure.

Climate change also poses a serious threat to biodiversity. The Living Planet Index reports a 60% decline in average abundance of species since 1970. Accelerating pace of biodiversity loss is attributed to climate change which directly affects their ecosystems, genetic diversity within species, and their ecological interactions.

In the human food chain, biodiversity loss is impactful to the health and socioeconomic development of human beings. The impact assessment studies conducted by the National Hydraulic Research Institute of Malaysia (NAHRIM) reveals that some granary areas are expected to experience significant water deficits that will disrupt planting seasons. As a result of this change, the yield of palm oil, rice, rubber and cocoa will also decrease.

The well-being of humankind depends on the well-being of the ecosystems in which they live. If the ecosystem thrives, humankind will benefit the most. But if they do not, then human beings will be the most affected.

We have to act now

Given these serious threats posed by climate change, it is thus imperative for a significant plan of action to be devised in order to mitigate the risks. Malaysia has shown its commitment to countering this problem by incorporating it into the portfolio of the Ministry of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change (MESTECC), helmed by two Malaysian superwomen at its forefront.

However, the public demands to know what the plans are for Malaysia to be part of the global solution to this challenge. Time is running out to make a change, and as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has bluntly expressed, we have at most 12 years to make drastic and unprecedented changes needed to prevent average global temperatures from rising beyond the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C target.

Necessary solutions can be achieved given the willingness of government to garner support from the people, and consulting with relevant NGOs and stakeholders in line with the spirit of democracy. Responding to climate change is not only about drafting the policies, but also changing our behaviour and the way we think about natural resources. If we communicate the message in the right way, with an appropriate amount of emotions, we will be able to spread the awareness more efficiently to every accessible corner. 

And if we are to take action now, I am sure our fellow fishermen and farmers will be the first to stand with us!

Hilman Fikri Azman is a Research Assistant at EMIR Research, a think tank focused on data-driven policy research, centered around principles of Engagement, Moderation, Innovation and Rigour.

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