Written by: Gyles Ward ‘21
Edited by: Jordan Feldman ‘24
If climate change is a crime against the environment, industrialized nations are the prime suspects. China, the U.S., and the European Union are the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters, responsible for a combined 46.36% of global greenhouse gas emissions.1 While these and other developed countries contribute to climate change the most, they're impacted by it the least. With fewer protective barriers to climate change, developing nations suffer the most.2 One might posit the question: how will they survive? The answer is simple, they don't.
A typical case is Malaysia, an emerging economy and developing nation.3 Malaysia only contributed 0.63% of total greenhouse gases in 2016, yet it finds itself at the center of climate change catastrophes.1 Characterized by an equatorial climate and annual northeastern and southwestern monsoon seasons, the country has been flagged as a global warming cataclysm. Mean daily temperatures have been on an uptrend since 1956.4 The rising temperatures can be partially attributed to El Niño, a natural climate event where wind shifts push warm surface waters in Indonesia eastward, resulting in higher temperatures and humidity in Pacific regions.4 5 However, according to Yap Kok Seng, the former head of the Malaysian Meteorological Department, these noticeable increases are more congruent with anthropogenic global warming trends.6 In fact, as earth’s temperature rises between 0.15 and 0.20 degrees Celsius per decade, temperatures increase by 0.25 degrees Celsius, 0.20 degrees Celsius, and 0.14 degrees Celsius per decade in Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak respectively.7 8
Countries with urban economies can more effectively recover from these environmental changes. However, in low-resource countries that rely heavily on agriculture, the stakes are much higher.4 In 2016, agriculture made up 8.1% of GDP in Malaysia.9 Higher temperatures in Malaysia, therefore, pose an imminent threat not only to societal structures, but also to economic systems. For instance, rice production is an essential Malaysian industry, supplying 75% of the local rice demands and providing much needed employment to farm workers.10 A 2011 study simulated rice yield under higher temperatures and increased carbon dioxide emissions and found that under global warming conditions, yield would decrease by 0.69 tons per hectare and cost the country RM299.145 (about 72.5 million USD) millions annually.11
Malaysian states are also menaced by rising mean sea level. In fact, the average annual rate of increase from 1984 to 2013 was 3.67 mm.12 Comparatively, the global sea level annual rate of increase was only between 1.7 mm and 3.1 mm. Furthermore, the frequency of heavy rainfall days, thunderstorms, and extreme wind events has steadily risen since the 1980s. For instance, in 2014, a series of EF3 tornadoes ravaged the states of Kedah and Selangor. Each tornado lasted 10-15 minutes and featured wind speeds of 240 km/h.4 If hotter temperatures can decrease agricultural yield, then extreme weather events can wipe out agriculture altogether, along with homes, communities, and clean food and water resources. Extreme flooding in Kelantan and Terengganu during the monsoon season in 2016/2017 is but one example. Damage to infrastructure, agriculture and tourism amounted to approximately $4 million.4 Surprisingly, dry spells have also become more prevalent since 1975, causing droughts and water shortages in some states; distinguishing Malaysia as one the only countries to experience extreme wet and dry seasons within the same year.6
Studies have also shown a correlation between climate change and the spread of vector-borne disease. Dengue fever, a virus carried by Aedes mosquitoes, is endemic to Malaysia.13 Heavy rainfalls during monsoon seasons provide the perfect environment for Aedes Mosquito development. Moreover, precipitation also augments humidity, which leads to a more hospitable environment for other disease-totting vectors like sand flies and ticks.14 15 Conversely, extreme drought during dry seasons in Malaysia could also increase indirect viral infection. Drought makes safe food and water inaccessible. As a result, populations may migrate to areas where diseases are more transmissible (lands with heavier rainfall).2
Malaysia isn’t the only developing nation suffering inordinately from climate change. Africa only contributes 2-3% of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions, yet it is considered extremely vulnerable to the changing climate; the continent is expected to see a rise in mean annual temperature by 2 degrees Celsius.16 Similarly, Bangladesh accounted for only 0.41% of greenhouse gasses in 2016 but is suffering a clean water crisis as a result of global climate change.1 17 These health and environmental problems also lead to restricted civil rights and gender and racial discrimination. For instance, most women in developing nations are tasked with gathering water. Droughts and extreme weather events complicate this task tremendously by desiccating water reserves. Consequently, women must travel farther distances, which increases the risk of injury. Climate change is not just an environmental problem, it reduces the quality of life on all fronts. 2
So, we know the problem, but what's the solution? Individual countries and regions can invest in and institute greener policies but that will only do so much. The problem is collective, so the solution must be too. Every country must act. Nevertheless, industrialized nations, like China, must act first. China must regulate their manufacturing and construction practices, which account for 6.16% of global greenhouse gas emission, the U.S. must adopt cleaner energy alternatives, and the European Union must shift towards low-emission transport methods.1 18 It must happen and it must happen now. Climate change is an urgent issue that requires an urgent response. The earth is ill, and we have the remedy, we just need to administer it.
1. Ge, M, Friedrich, J. 4 Charts Explain Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Countries and Sectors [Internet] [cited 2020 Nov. 7]. Available from: https://www.wri.org/blog/2020/02/greenhouse-gas-emissions-by-country-sector
2. Barry, L. et al. Climate Change, Human Rights, and Social Justice. Animals of Global health. 2015; 81(3), 310-322
3. Hedrick-Wong, Y. How Close Is Malaysia From Its Goal of Joining The OECD? [Internet] [cited 2020 Nov. 7]. Available from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/yuwahedrickwong/2020/03/04/how-close-is-malaysia-from-its-goal-of-joining-the-oecd/#591bd80c75fa
4. Ho, K, Tang, D. Climate change in Malaysia: Trends, contributors, impacts, mitigation and adaptations. Science of the Total Environment. 2019; 650(2), 1858-1871
5. Gerstengarbe, F.W., Werner, P.C. Encyclopedia of Ecology. Amsterdam: Elsevier; 2008.
6. Khor, M. Lessons from the great floods [Internet] [cited 202 Nov. 7]. Available from: https://www.thestar.com.my/opinion/columnists/global-trends/2015/01/19/lessons-from-the-great-floods/
7. NASA. World of Change: Global Temperatures [Internet] [cited 2020 Nov. 7]. Available from: https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/world-of-change/global-temperatures
8. Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment Malaysia. Biennial Update report to the UNFCCC. Malaysia, 2015.
9. Department of Statistics, Malaysia. Selected Agricultural Indicators, Malaysia, 2017 [Internet] [cited 2020 Nov. 7]. Available from: https://www.dosm.gov.my/v1/index.php?r=column/cthemeByCat&cat=72&bul_id=MDNYUitINmRKcENRY2FvMmR5TWdGdz09&menu_id=Z0VTZGU1UHBUT1VJMFlpaXRRR0xpdz09
10. Rahim, F. et al. Supply & Demand of Rice in Malaysia: A System Dynamics Approach. International Journal or Supply Chain Management. 2017; 6(4)
11. Vaghefi, N. et al. The Economic Impacts of Climate Change on the Rice Production in Malaysia. International Journal of Agricultural Research. 2011; 6(1), 67-74
12. Kamaruddin, A.H.M et al. Long-tern Sea Level Trend from Tidal Data in Malaysia. Control and System Graduate Research Colloquium. 2016; 7, 187-192
13. Hii, Y. et al. Research on Climate and Dengue in Malaysia: A Systematic Review. Current Environmental Health Reports. 2016; 3, 81-90
14. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dengue [Internet] [cited 2020 Nov. 7]. Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/dengue/
15. Campbell-Lendrum, D. et al. Climate change and vector-borne diseases: what are the implications for public health research and policy? Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. 2015; 370
16. Giesen, C. et al. Climate change and vector-borne diseases: what are the implications for public health research and policy? Pathogens and Global Health. 2020; 114(6), 287-301
17. Abedin, A. et al. Climate Change, Water Scarcity, and Health Adaptation in Southwestern Coastal Bangladesh. International Journal of Disaster Risk Science. 2019; 10, 28-42
18. European Commission. Transport Emissions [Internet] [cited 2020 Nov. 7]. Available from: https://ec.europa.eu/clima/policies/transport_en
[Image citation] Johor Flood 2007: Wikimedia Commons [Internet]. 2007 [cited 2020 Nov 30]. Available from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Johor_Flood_2007.jpg