IN 1988, former National Aeronautics and Space Administration scientist James Hansen raised the alarm on climate change by telling a United States congressional hearing that, with 99 per cent confidence, human activity was responsible for the rise in global temperature.
More than 30 years onwards, climate action is all the rage.
Perhaps most notably, led by the charismatic Greta Thunberg, schoolchildren around the world are skipping school in protest at climate inaction and defining the anxiety of a whole generation.
And yet, despite all the warnings, activism and emotive appeal, the science shows that we are not on track to combat dangerous climate change.
As a response, all countries agreed to adopt the Paris climate agreement in 2015, which aims to limit the temperature rise of the planet to 2° Celsius.
However, according to the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), dangerous climate change will occur with a global average temperature rise of 1.5° Celsius.
A report by the IPCC showed that even if we add up all the emission-cutting pledges made in the Paris climate agreement, it would still lead to a 52 to 58 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions a year in 2030, which is in line with a 3° Celsius temperature rise.
The message is clear.
While efforts to mitigate the problem — through reducing our energy usage and dependence on fossil fuels — should continue, we now need to brace ourselves for more extreme weather events. In other words, the focus now has shifted to include how to adapt to a changing climate.
But while the science is clear, humans are not as rational as we like to think we are.
Our rationality is often bounded to what we already know. When dealing with climate change, a complex issue which is often learnt rather than experienced, many are unlikely to internalise the problem sufficiently to translate them to actions.
This is what prominent British sociologist Anthony Gidden refers to as the Gidden’s Paradox. It states that since the threats of global warming are not tangible or visible in our day-to-day lives, people are unlikely to act until they occur.
By that time, it becomes too late to do anything.
The intangible argument of climate change, though, is fast losing ground as the climate crisis has already begun.
Last month was the hottest June ever recorded with heatwaves in Europe and North America. The United Nations secretary-general’s special representative on disaster risk reduction reported that one climate related disaster is happening every week.
While Malaysia has been blessed and relatively sheltered from extreme weather events, we are not immune to the impacts of climate change.
For example, the 2014 year-end floods led to damage to public infrastructure amounting to RM2.9 billion, affecting more than 200,000 people.
Projections of the future show that extreme weather events are likely to be more frequent and intense.
A study conducted by Professor Fredolin Tangang, Chairperson of the Centre for Earth Sciences and Environment of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), showed that temperatures are likely to increase from 2.3 to 4.4° Celsius by the end of the 21st century.
The impact to this rise in temperature depends on the region and season, but generally, Peninsular Malaysia is projected to become gradually drier, particularly between March and August. Sabah and Sarawak are projected to be wetter between the same period but drier between December and February.
More importantly, the findings show that both dry spells are likely to become longer in all seasons, while heavy rainfall incidents are also likely to become more intense and frequent.
Increased drought periods will affect our ability to produce food. Projections predict significant reductions in average rice yield productions, including in the Muda Agricultural Development Authority Area Granary, which is responsible for 40 per cent of national rice production.
Increase in heavy rainfall incidents will lead to more floods, landslides and mudslides. Extreme floods like the one in 2014 will become a new norm for many Malaysians.
We need to recognise that this is a major issue and hence, prepare for the worst of these climate incidents.
Moving forward, the first step is to make climate change more visible as a policy priority and as part as our everyday lives. This can be done through reigniting long-term policy planning.
As the end of Vision 2020 beckons, we now have better tools to peer into the future and better predict the risks and opportunities to chart our longer-term development beyond 2020.
Through an evidence-based approach, there is no doubt that adapting to climate change would emerge as one of the core development challenges of our time.
Any long-term vision though needs to be connected to implementation. While this is no easy task and requires coordination at multiple levels and across various stakeholders, using science as a basis for planning and coordinating action would be a good place to start.
As a nation, we have a choice to make. We can either continue on the current path, boldly but blindly, and simply see where we end up; or we can use the science and knowledge available to plan a different path towards a climate resilient development.
Every second of action and inaction matters, and the time is now ticking.
This article first appeared in New Straits Times on July 23, 2019.