Climate action leader Dr Renard Siew explains why the fight is intensely personal—as it must be for all of us

When I was a young boy of 10, the storm that hit the small town where I lived was so strong that I remember it vividly to this day. A very close friend of mine was swept away by the strong current and drowned.

It was probably my first encounter with death and the fragilities of life. I remember being completely devastated; I cried for weeks. I felt that it was so unfair that the future of such a bright young boy was cut short.

I’d loved growing up in Kuantan along the East Coast of Peninsular Malaysia, listening to the sound of waves crashing on the shore and running around the beautiful pristine white sandy beaches with the green hills as my backdrop. But as much as I enjoyed my childhood, at a very young age, I also lived face to face with nature’s wrath.

Prolonged rains during the monsoon season would regularly leave our village would be flooded. I remember the screams and cries of villagers to “Evacuate! Evacuate!” when water levels started reaching above knee level. I bore witness to the terrible devastation, the aftermath of these floods where people would lose a lot of their assets: television, furniture, and for the unfortunate ones, their homes.

See also: Environmental Activist Renard Siew On The Urgency Of Climate Action

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Dr Renard Siew, climate reality advisor at the Centre for Governance and Political Studies in Malaysia
Above Dr Renard Siew, climate reality advisor at the Centre for Governance and Political Studies in Malaysia

At times, survivors of such catastrophes would have to go on days without food supply simply because road access had been blocked off. These floods happened so frequently it almost felt normal.

Fast-forward 20 years to today, and the impacts of the climate crisis has, if anything, become more prevalent.

Just last week, Malaysia was hit by one of the worst floods in history with more than 70,000 evacuated to date and a significant number of deaths reported. More than a billion wildlife was lost in the tragic Australian bushfires in 2020. So-called “once in a thousand years” floods happened back-to-back in China, Germany and the US last year, while Typhoon Rai killed about 400 people in the Philippines last December and left hundreds of thousands of others displaced. These are just some of the headlines that have been dominating our news.

Make no mistake: the climate crisis is here.

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The recent release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, an account by our world’s leading scientists, confirmed this and made it extremely clear that this crisis we are facing is man-made. Unfortunately, often it is the marginalised—those living in rural poverty, the elderly and the disabled—that end up suffering the most. I see myself in each and every one who has lived through such traumatic experiences. This is now our shared story.

The Conference of Parties (COP26) that took place in November 2021 in Glasgow, in the presence of some of the most prominent world leaders, had been heavily criticised. It barely kept the “1.5 degrees Celsius” ambition alive. And time is running out.

Scientists have warned that we have less than a dozen years left to keep temperatures from increasing beyond this magic number or risk facing the tipping point, where we will all witness a significant increase in the frequency of catastrophic events.

We already know the dangers that lie ahead of us—there is no more room for the excuse of being caught by surprise

- Renard Siew -

But there is hope. And to keep this hope alive, we must respond to the call for intensified climate action. We must continue to put pressure on governments to commit to both mitigation (cutting down on carbon emissions) and adaptation (preparation plans for worse case scenarios) efforts seriously. Otherwise, rising temperatures will mean that tropical storms will only become stronger and more violent. With rising sea levels and heavier floods to come, more people will be displaced, more food sources will be destroyed in Asia.

The warning signs are clear: in this region, we will be facing both a food security issue as well as a population displacement issue. Roads that are normally used to transport imported goods from ports to the cities will be disrupted. Enormous costs will be incurred to replace them. With lingering floods, Asia’s healthcare system will also be burdened with an expected rise in dengue and Zika fever.

As the modern saying goes, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

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Extreme weather events used to cover only 0.1 percent of the Earth’s surface, but this number has increased by about 14 percent in the last couple of decades. The science is evident.

We need to ensure our coastlines, which many cities in Asia are based can deal with sea-level encroachment. We need to better manage our forests as they mitigate the impacts of carbon as well as floods. We need to prepare for reduced water availability and food shortages in the event of a bigger region-wide catastrophe. We need new innovative startups that would provide solutions to improve crop resilience. We need to find ways to transition our current energy systems from using fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy. Our housing infrastructure and the way we travel need to change drastically. The banking and finance industry needs to evolve; instead of pumping in money to support highly polluting industries, it’s time to divest from them.

The victims who lost their lives did not die because of natural disasters, they died because of our failure to act promptly and urgently. We need to change this narrative and turn this moment of despair into a moment of hope. We already know the dangers that lie ahead of us, there is no more room for the excuse of being caught by surprise. Fight back we must! No one should ever have to go through such catastrophic experiences especially when it is avoidable.

It is time to put an end to this. Will you join me on this mission?

Renard Siew is an environmental activist and a leader in the fight against climate change, who is a 2019 Gen.T honouree and part of Tatler Asia's Most Influential: Malaysia 2021. He is also a climate-change adviser at the Centre for Governance and Political Studies and the first certified expert member of the Malaysian World Economic Forum on sustainable development in Asia. He co-founded the Accelerating Climate Action initiative and is the global lead for the Climate & Action Steering Committee in Asia-Pacific.

This essay is part of an op-ed series written by Asia's Most Influential 2021 honourees.

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