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. At times, survivals 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 to 20 years today, and still the impacts of the climate crisis, if anything, has 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 last year. The so-called “once in a thousand years flood” had literally happened back-to-back in China, Germany and New York just this year alone. Typhoon Rai has just killed about 400 people in the Philippines while hundreds of thousands more have been displaced. Where will they go? These are just some headlines that are dominating our news today. Make no mistake: the climate crisis is here.
The recent release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 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 also 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 of years left to keep temperatures from increasing beyond this magic number or risk facing the tipping point where we will all be witnessing a significant increase in the frequency of catastrophic events.
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!
But there is still 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.
“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now”, the modern saying goes. Extreme weather events used to cover only 0.1% of the Earth’s surface but that number has increased by about 14% 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 start-ups that would provide solutions to improve crop resilience. We need to find ways to transform our current energy systems moving from a heavy reliance on fossil fuels to clean, renewable sources of energy. Our housing infrastructure and the way we travel needs to change drastically. The banking and finance industry needs to evolve: instead of pumping in money to support dirty 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 was named Tatler Asia's Most Influential: Malaysia 2021 as a champion of climate action in Malaysia and in the region. Dr Siew is a climate-change adviser at the Centre for Governance and Political Studies, and is also the first certified expert member of the Malaysian World Economic Forum on sustainable development in Asia. He is the co-founder of the Accelerating Climate Action initiative, and is also the global lead for the Climate & Action Steering Committee in Asia-Pacific. He is also the youngest co-chair of the Climate Change and Disaster Risk Management Working Committee of the Global Young Academy, a network of the top global scientists working to address the climate crisis.