Planting the seeds of change


Dr Goh in a photo with students from Kuching High School and Chung Hua Middle School No. 1.

ON March 31, 2023, I had the privilege of speaking to over a thousand students from Kuching High School and Chung Hua Middle School No. 1 about the urgent issue of climate change.

It was an honour to address these young and ambitious individuals who will soon inherit our planet. It is crucial that they understand the reality of what is happening, the monster we have created that is now threatening our very existence.

Climate change is a matter that concerns every one of us, yet many may not fully comprehend the magnitude of the situation. Sarawak, home to these young people, is filled with wonder – from the soaring mountains and mighty rivers to the joyful city of Kuching.

For years, our youths have lived comfortable lives, not giving much thought to what the future may hold.

Sundaland, Holocene, and sea level change

To better engage with the students and give them an impression about sea level changes, I started by narrating the story of Sundaland that links my hometown, Penang, with Kuching. I was pleased to see some hands raised when I asked if anyone had visited Penang, a small dot compared to Sarawak.

Millions of years ago, Penang and Kuching were connected by land, as the sea level was much lower during glacial periods. The Sunda Shelf was exposed, and a sub-continent called Sundaland emerged, including Borneo, Peninsular Malaysia, Java, Sumatra, and other areas. One could theoretically walk from Kuching to Penang. The water that now separates us was once locked up in massive ice sheets on the northern and southern hemisphere.

Around 12,000 years ago, we entered a new geological epoch called the Holocene. As the planet became warmer, the massive ice sheets melted away. Sadly, Kuching and Penang were then separated by the South China Sea. However, this is how Borneo became the world’s third-largest island. New forests emerged, and life thrived in the relatively warmer and stable climate.

Humans have been around for two million years, but we have never had such a good time as the Holocene. In the last 11,000 years, we have made the most of it. We grew crops, made things, and exchanged them with each other. We built towns and villages, created art, and even formed grand civilizations.

Things were going pretty well for us – our ancestors began clearing forests to grow more crops and expand their territories, but much of the world was still covered in thick forests. Our impact on the environment was still relatively small.

The Industrial Revolution, carbon cycle, and climate change

Then, I introduced the students to the Industrial Age – a significant turning point in human history that started around 260 years ago. Prior to this era, handheld tools were the primary means of work. However, with the introduction of machines, new possibilities emerged, including mass production of goods. Unfortunately, this progress came at a great cost, as industrialisation led to the creation of the monster of climate change.

In this context, climate change refers to the relatively rapid rise in the Earth’s temperature caused by an increase in greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide, in the atmosphere due to human activities. Fossil fuels, such as coal, oil, and gas, are the remains of ancient plants and animals, primarily composed of carbon and naturally part of the slow carbon cycle.

However, by extracting and burning these fuels to power our machines, we have released vast amounts of ancient carbon into the fast carbon cycle, causing a substantial increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The greenhouse gases act like a blanket, trapping heat and causing the Earth’s temperature to rise.

It matters: Water, food, air, and health

Over the past two centuries, the Earth has experienced a temperature rise of over one degree Celsius, resulting in changes that make many regions less liveable. The impacts of this warming are vast and include the melting of glaciers, which leads to rising sea levels, as well as significant disruptions in the Earth’s systems.

Heatwaves are becoming more frequent and intense, resulting in significant health risks, particularly for vulnerable populations. In 2015, for example, over 2,000 people died in India due to a heatwave.

While our younger generations are so used to being indoors or having air conditioning, no one is exempt from the impacts of climate change. I used four examples to drive this point home.

Prolonged droughts can turn a simple shower or toilet flush into a luxury due to water scarcity. Crop failures causing food shortages can severely restrict your dietary options – you may not have your laksa whenever you want like now. Landscape fires resulting in air pollution can have detrimental effects on your health. Worse still, the loss of wildlife habitats may result in new pandemics, similar to the nightmare of Covid-19 that we experienced.

Hopes: Technologies, nature-based solutions, and behavioural changes

The kids looked worried, but I reassured them that there is still hope. With innovative technologies such as solar and wind power, it is possible to eradicate the use of harmful fossil fuels and achieve a sustainable energy system by 2050. However, it is essential to recognise that significant challenges remain, especially in terms of implementation.

I then introduced nature-based solutions to the students, using the example of whale poop that I had previously shared in one of my column articles. Whales act as bio-pumps, maintaining the nutrient and carbon cycle of the sea through their excrement. This story serves as a reminder that nature can regulate itself if we avoid disrupting it and fix the damage we have done.

I also shared the stinky story of the horse dung crisis in an earlier article, emphasising that behavioural changes are key to addressing difficult problems. The crisis was not solved by mass-producing cars with Ford’s assembly lines but by re-organising cleaners to do the job with shovels.

This has important implications for the climate crisis – simple, old-fashioned hard work that is achievable by every individual, such as reducing food waste, limiting the use of plastics, and optimising electricity usage, can have a significant impact.

Before closing, I emphasised that tackling climate change requires a mix of innovative technologies, nature-based solutions, and behavioural changes. Youths have a critical role to play and must acknowledge their responsibility in inheriting the planet.

“You are going to run the world in 10-20 years. The world is yours. It is really up to you.”

Dr Goh Chun Sheng is a researcher at Harvard University. He is interested in exploring sustainable development in both Malaysian and Indonesian Borneo.