Writers: Saef Wan, Syaqil Suhaimi, Robiatul Saad, Robin Goon.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), countries around the world need to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 Celsius to fall within the ‘safe zone’ of climate change and prevent catastrophic changes to the planet. Currently, the combined rate of global emissions stands at 52 gigatons of equivalent carbon dioxide (GtCO2e) annually. In order to have a chance of limiting temperature rise to 1.5 Celsius, the international community will need to halve global annual emissions by 2030 to the rate of 25 to 30 gigatons of equivalent carbon dioxide (GtCO2e).

Should countries fail to rise to the challenge and prevent a radical change in the climate, the youth generation will suffer the brunt of the climate crisis as a result of the older generation’s apathy. Of course, such a horrifying future cannot be left solely at the hands of the older generation who, quite simply, do not have a stake in this game. For this, it is vital for the youth to mobilize and get involved in decision making so that national and international policies capture our needs, and ensure that our interests are safeguarded.  

In Malaysia, the existence of contemporary climate-focused youth organisations  was made possible by the larger umbrella of environmental movement before its time, beginning since the 1970s. Examples of these organizations include the  Environmental Protection Society Malaysia (EPSM) founded in 1974 and the more globally tuned Global Environmental Centre (GEC) which came  into the scene later in 1998. Notable to mention, the initiation of other organisations such as Yayasan Anak Warisan Alam (YAWA) which highlighted the need for environmental education among children in the 1990s.

The landscape of youth climate activism really started to take the distinctive form that we know today around 2008 – 2009 with scattered Malaysian youth figures at the time participating in climate conferences held regionally and internationally such as COP 14 in Poznan (2008), UN Climate Negotiations in Bangkok (2009) and COP 15 in Copenhagen (2009). The Malaysian Youth Climate Justice Network (MYCJN), a first ever local youth collective which focused on climate change was formed in 2009 by youth figures who were directly influenced by the global trend of youth movement trailblazed by Powershift Network or Energy Action Coalition in the US in 2004, and other such coalitions which consequently propped up in Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom from 2006 until 2008. 

At the time, MYCJN took to task diverse forms of activities ranging from policymaking to capacity building to demonstrations. The youth collective built their capacity by joining international youth coalition events, sent Malaysian youth delegates to COP 15, held awareness campaigns, and organized educational forums. Later, as MYCJN’s presence faded into the background, its efforts were continued by Powershift Malaysia, formed in 2013 as a result of Global PowerShift project’s second phase after an impactful conference in Turkey. With an almost similar modus operandi to MYCJN, Powershift Malaysia’s operation was divided into several arms of distinctive niches, only one of which has endured the test of time, the current Malaysian Youth Delegation (MYD).  

Inheriting the genetic makeup of MYCJN and Powershift Malaysia, MYD particularly focuses on policy-centred activities by having a team dedicated to policy research work, aside from producing position statements and policy articles. It also routinely organizes training series and produces attractive media content to spread knowledge about various topics related to climate change. Today, the youth climate scene is made more energized by the presence of other peer organisations such as KAMY and EcoKnights which have distinctive approaches in the fight against climate change. 

Environmentalist groups holding placards to demands greater Government action on climate change-based initiatives and policies during #MYClimateRally organised by pressure group Klima Action Malaysia (Kamy) at Dataran Merdeka, Kuala Lumpur. adib rawi yahya/theSun

KAMY for example, focuses on empowering vulnerable and marginalised groups by conducting bottom-up strategies to empower communities through multi-language advocacy, climate protests, workshops, and community awareness programs. Meanwhile, EcoKnights also works with key stakeholders to empower sustainable actions by focusing on public outreach, education and youth development. By engaging with relevant stakeholders of different levels, these youth organisations emphasize the importance of including the youth’s perspective and agenda in the government’s plans concerning climate change. They act as catalysts for youth empowerment in Malaysia in the effort to urge all levels of society, especially the government, to address more issues related to climate change. This elaborate history of the climate movement edifice in Malaysia reminds today’s youth activists that their movement is a coalition of international origin and that, therefore, they have never been and are not alone in this fight. 

Other than the presence of the aforementioned youth network, there is a bigger than ever impetus for youngsters today to join the climate movement. From the gradual relaxing of restrictive legislations such as AUKU, to post-Malaysia Baru’s more intensive support for free speech, young people nowadays enjoy a sense of empowerment unparalleled to the days of past when youth activism used to be nipped in the bud by more authoritarian laws. The installation of a young, precocious MP to the powerful position of a cabinet minister which had even spurred international interest, became emblematic of this new momentum achieved by the Malaysian youth.

Subsequent to this was Undi18’s phenomenal success which secured the right to vote in the general election for 3.8 million youths aged between 18 to 21, additionally invigorating their agency in determining the nation’s direction. Today, with talks about creating a youth-centred political party, the youth of Malaysia truly are in a more leveraged position, unimaginable even 5 years ago, to push forward the climate narrative. This progress is more than enough reason for young people to be inspired to seize the opportunity and take on the mantle of activists for the climate.  

To get more involved, youngsters should check their local area for climate or environmental organisations such as MYD, KAMY, EcoKnights and many others. These organisations usually hold useful webinars or study sessions and thus, they provide access to those interested to learn about the different aspects of climate action. Even better, young people can play their part in fighting climate change by applying to become members of said climate organisations. On a more personal level, a simple effort would be to sign a pledge or petition supporting relevant progressive causes, whether to fight single-use plastics, or to stop deforestation. Every signature will definitely help. 

Another method is to make use of social media platforms to voice out opinions related to climate initiatives or policy in Malaysia. This helps increase the public’s awareness as the action collectively saturates the nation’s social media traffic with important climate issues. On a daily level, the youth can proactively try to live a sustainable lifestyle. From consuming less energy, using public transportation, refusing single-use plastics to opting for zero waste household goods, every little action counts. More importantly, young people who are eligible to vote should support politicians and parties that have more environmentally focused agendas. This is by no means an exhaustive list of things us youth can do to contribute, but it is a great stepping stone for our climate journey.  

Without a doubt, today’s youth and the climate are inseparable. In this sense, the youth play an integral part not only in the fight against climate change, but also in the fight for their own survival. While Malaysian youth’s climate activism is not yet mainstream, it is gaining traction fast. Ultimately, the participation of more young people in this fight will strengthen national and international climate coalitions and enable them to demand serious commitment across governments and implement more ambitious actions for the climate.