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Climate change: The future is here

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We urgently need to get to zero carbon emissions and embark on ambitious drawdown activities, if we are to offer hope to the next generation, writes Sonia Randhawa

There are times when I feel I’ve been cheated.

By now, yes, we should have flying cars; we should have at least interplanetary travel; and we should have hoverboards. Instead, we have increasing inequality and a hopelessness about the future. One of the most important legacies my parents gave me was a belief that my life would be better than theirs and that my children’s lives would be better yet.

Obviously, this optimism has never been universal. For indigenous people, whether the Aboriginal peoples of Australia or the Orang Asli of Peninsular Malaysia, the trend has been one of increasing alienation of land and culture. And it was mostly a purely material vision rooted in the post-war experiences of hunger, insecurity and lack.

Yet, optimism has driven so much of human culture. It was the lack of an ability to envisage the future or a place for themselves that proved deadly for so many Native Americans at the turn of the last century, when their cultural competence was no longer valued and they could not see how they could pass on the meaning of their lives and their world to future generations.

It would be huge arrogance to imagine that I, as part of the internationally mainstream, dominant culture, could feel alienation in the same way. And yet, I find it increasingly difficult to give my children that hope and optimism that has been such an important part of my life.

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Instead, we are bequeathing our children a world of fire and smoke. Last year, my pregnant sister and her son were breathing in the smoke from fires in Indonesia. This year, my family is breathing in the smoke from fires across Australia, smoke that is circumnavigating the globe and due back in Western Australia around a week after it left these shores. [And now firefighters are battling a prolonged fire at a landfill in Kedah in northern Malaysia, where rice farmers are already reeling from a drought.]  

What’s worse, the fires of 2019, whether in the Arctic and Siberia, the Amazon, Indonesia or Australia – intensified by the global heating caused by the increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – are visible feedback loops. As the fires burn, they release more carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, increasing global heating and increasing the chance of fires in the future. These fires are a taste of what will come.

In Australia, the visions have been apocalyptic. Darkness spreading at dawn as the smoke from the fires blanketed towns. A 19-year-old woman dying from asthma in her bed, prolonged exposure to the dust and smoke the most likely culprit. Over a billion animals dead, the survivors at risk of starvation in a landscape scorched bare.

The land that has burned has included acres upon acres of farmland – land that produces the food that the cities rely on. Although we aren’t faced with a situation of food insecurity, the rising prices of fresh fruit and vegetables are going to put healthy food out of reach of the poorest in society. 

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The smoke is already taking its toll on the young. There have been stories shared on both social and mass media about miscarriages and premature births, possibly linked to the smoke from the fires.

In these circumstances, the need for concerted political action has become more visible. A world of 1.5C warming would see even more of these catastrophic fires: It is unlikely that a world of 1.5C warming would stay there. We are already outside any safe climate zone; there is no carbon budget.

We need to urgently get to zero carbon emissions and embark on ambitious drawdown activities. In these, Malaysia has a natural advantage. The warm, wet climate is ideal for growing things, the oldest and most important form of wealth. Malaysia is already at the forefront of the solar industry; it can also be at the forefront of drawdown.

If we are to bequeath at least a safe future to our children, we need to be exploring these initiatives. But we cannot do this while our politicians focus on the chimera of economic growth and increasing exploitation of nature. We need concerted political change, concerted political effort – and then, perhaps, our children will be able to offer their children the most precious gift of all: hope.

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