(File pix) The debate on climate change in Malaysia is still somewhat muted, despite evidence of impacts such as more frequent floods. Sea levels and temperatures are rising, but most Malaysians don’t link this to climate change, and few seem to know of the problem at all. NSTP/Sharul Hafiz Zam

THE world’s leading climate scientists have warned we have only a dozen years to cap global warming to a maximum of 1.5°C. Beyond that, even half a degree will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people.

The stark warning was issued this month in a special report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The report emphasises that urgent and unprecedented changes are needed to reach the target, which the authors of the report say can be done, but involve taking some of the most ambitious actions in a range laid out under the Paris Agreement, which aims to keep any future temperature increase to between 1.5°C and 2°C.

“It’s a line in the sand and what it says to our species is that this is the moment and we must act now,” said Debra Roberts, a co-chair of the working group on impacts.

Policymakers commissioned the report at the Paris climate talks in 2016, but since then the gap between science and politics has widened. Dismissing the warnings, President Donald Trump has started the process of withdrawing the United States — the world’s second biggest source of emissions today after China and the largest historical emitter — from the accord.

The IPCC makes it clear that climate change is already happening. The world is currently 1°C warmer than it was in pre-industrial times. The consequences are evident in the ever more devastating hurricanes and typhoons, record droughts in places like Cape Town, and forest fires in the Arctic.

The IPCC has upgraded its risk warning from previous reports, stating that every fraction of additional warming would worsen the impact.

The scientists said that at 1.5°C, the proportion of the global population exposed to water stress could be 50 per cent lower than at 2°C. Food scarcity would be less of a problem at 1.5°C and hundreds of millions fewer people, particularly in poor countries, would be at risk of climate-related poverty.

The strength of the research response to IPCC’s call for input to its latest report surprised even the authors, who initially worried that they would have limited literature to draw on. The report was based on a review of some 6,000 references.

Many important gaps in this month’s report — in areas such as terrestrial and ocean sinks — will be addressed next year by two more special reports, which will benefit from access to additional new studies — a reminder of the power of the IPCC process to drive research.

The new report will feed into the process of producing IPCC’s much-anticipated Sixth Assessment Report. It will also play a key role in the pursuit of the sustainable development goals.

Furthermore, it serves as a stark warning that trade-offs — which will be difficult to avoid— must be properly managed to meet critical development priorities such as food production, health, and poverty eradication.

The world’s leading scientific authority on climate change has delivered a clear message on the vital importance of setting higher ambitions.

But this lighthouse of a report only has value if captains heed its warning and turn the wheel to avoid shipwreck.

Will governments and people redouble efforts? All eyes now turn to Katowice, Poland, where nations will gather in December to finalise the work programme that will allow the Paris Agreement to take effect in 2020.

The debate on climate change in Malaysia is still somewhat muted, despite evidence of impacts such as more frequent floods. Sea levels and temperatures are rising, but most Malaysians don’t link this to climate change, and few seem to know of the problem at all.

In fact, some recent surveys put the level of awareness of global warming among Malaysians at a meagre 32 to 40 per cent.

There’s some light at the end of the tunnel. The new minister of Energy, Green Technology, Science and Climate Change, Yeo Bee Yin, is surely on the right track when in a recent interview she expressed concern on the severe understaffing of the climate change unit in her ministry, and how “two years after the country signed the Paris Agreement, nothing much has been done”.

“We really need a plan on mitigation and adaptation,” Yeo stresses, revealing that at the moment, Malaysia neither has a plan nor capacity for proper carbon accounting.

We look forward with hope to a well-thought out national strategy on how to cope with climate change, taking into account our needs and priorities while balancing global aspirations at the same time.

Zakri Abdul Hamid, a senior fellow of the Academy of Sciences Malaysia, is the founding chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, a sister organisation to the IPCC

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