Malaysia faces escalating climate hazards such as inundation, heat and storm surges that have far-reaching effects on the economy, local communities and the built environment.

Moreover, they unveil systemic vulnerabilities such as inadequate risk governance, lax development control and the marginalisation of vulnerable communities. Climate risks also transcend borders, affecting trade and the domestic supply chain.

This year, Argentina’s historic drought reduced corn production and increased chicken feedstock prices while India saw limited onion exports due to erratic weather, which contributed to the rising food price.

Minister of Natural Resources, Environment and Climate Change (now Minister of Natural Resources and Environmental Sustainability) Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad has consistently spoken on the importance of adaptation throughout the year. This emphasis, however, has not necessarily translated into concrete interventions on climate action so far.

This year, adaptation received less policy focus and initiatives compared to mitigation, which saw the launch of the National Energy Transition Roadmap, the Low Carbon Transition Facility and tax incentives for electric vehicles.

This trend is not unique to Malaysia, as climate priorities often lean towards mitigation. This is partly driven by the country’s relatively lower vulnerability to climate change, the complexities and cross-cutting nature of adaptation, limited public climate literacy, and a global climate agenda and processes favouring mitigation, shaped partly by Western interests.

More proactive intervention needed

This is not to say that no action is being taken on adaptation. The government has been allocating additional funds for flood mitigation and disaster relief, including in Budget 2024. However, the overall effectiveness of these reactive actions, which are often framed as adaptations in reporting, is debatable.

A more proactive intervention, such as a comprehensive adaptation strategy, is still lacking, and the National Adaptation Plan is not expected to be ready until at least 2025. The 12th Malaysia Plan mid-term review retains crucial measures for disaster risk reduction, water governance and natural resource management, contributing to resilience.

However, key initiatives from the original plan, such as disaster risk transfer or insurance, have surprisingly been excluded in the review despite being mentioned by Nik Nazmi in Dewan Rakyat this year.

Notably, there are advancements at the sub-national level, such as the ongoing multilaterally funded Penang nature-based climate adaptation programme since 2022. States such as Selangor are autonomously developing adaptation strategies, while some other states are conducting climate risk and vulnerability assessments. Sectoral plans, such as the National Industrial Master Plan, highlight actions to protect industries against climate stress and shocks while emphasising the importance of cultivating an adaptation industry for Malaysia.

Malaysia is moving on the right track with its climate action. But despite strides made in decarbonisation, in particular the energy transition, there is an increasing imperative to adapt that looms larger than ever since the effects of global warming have barely slowed down — the global temperature breached the key 1.5°C warming mark for a record number of days this year — and is predicted to rise by 2.9°C by this century.

In the face of escalating climate change, Malaysia must not just weather the storm but navigate it strategically to protect the nation’s strategic and security interests related to economic competitiveness, trade, energy and food security, productivity, and internal displacement.

The future we envision is not cities full of banners proclaiming themselves to be “low carbon cities”, but ironically flooded, with solar farms and EV charging stations underwater because of the lack of foresight to anticipate the black swan that threatens our existence.

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly on December 25, 2023 – January 7, 2024

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