Burning questions... answered

Confused? We take on common questions that youth have when starting out in environmental action and shed light on a few myths along the way.

Climate change is a problem for the faraway future, right?

Nope. For generations, we have been thinking of the environmental crisis as being in the ‘distant future’. Now, the ‘future’ is upon us. You’ve heard about the deadly floods and landslides in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand as well as the devastating typhoons in the Philippines in recent years. All of these can be traced back to climate change.

According to the National Youth Climate Change Survey Malaysia in 2020 by UNDP and UNICEF with support from EcoKnights, nine out of 10 Malaysian youth have experienced environment and climate-related effects in the last three years. This includes haze, water pollution, floods and drought.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned that the world has only until 2030 to keep global warming to a maximum of 1.5°C. If this goes higher, there’s a critical risk of global food scarcity, water stress, extreme heat, and natural disasters, among others (as if those aren’t terrible enough!).

We are the last generation to save our home from man-made climate crisis. Now is the time to act!

Yikes! But I’m only one young person. How can I help tackle such a huge issue?

It’s easy to feel small; the environmental crisis is a monster of an issue. Some people also think that individual actions are meaningless because most of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from big corporations. Yes, corporations are responsible, but we, as consumers, are not off the hook. After all, we’re paying for the products and services of these corporations.

So individual actions do matter. Collectively, they make tidal waves of change! The National Youth Climate Change Survey Malaysia showed that over nine out of 10 youths in Malaysia are already taking personal action to reduce their carbon footprint, including reducing, reusing and recycling, planting trees, being conscious of electricity consumption, and changing to a plant-based diet.

Don’t brush these actions off. Through leading by example, you can gradually encourage your family and friends to pick up similar green habits. Then, they can influence others to do the same. With time, imagine the ripple effects your personal action can cause!

You can also amp up your contribution by volunteering or working for an environmental organization. Connecting with other youth environmental leaders to learn from them and exposing yourself to more opportunities in the space can even help alleviate climate anxiety. Where to find them? Start with the YELL directories of environmental organizations and youth environmental leaders!

I’m not 100% green in my daily life yet. Will I be a hypocrite to pursue environmentalism?

Doing what you can is better than not doing anything at all. No one, not even seasoned environmentalists, are totally environmentally friendly.

Yet, every step you make in reducing your carbon footprint, and the challenges you face in doing so, allows you to better understand the realities of environmental work and the problems that need solving. Joining environmental programmes can also guide you on how to do more, effectively!

Can young people really make a difference in environmental work? We don’t really get a say in deciding national policies or worldwide environmental solutions.

Yes, sadly, young people are largely excluded from conversations on climate policies and solutions. Children are also often positioned as victims of climate change, not stakeholders with a seat at the decision-making table.

Still, youth have the potential to make a great impact. In Malaysia, youth account for 43% of the country’s population. They are the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, which means they can also be the loudest voice to generate societal responses to combat climate change.

Since 2018, world renowned teen activist Greta Thunberg has shown that young people can bring unstoppable momentum to drive pressure for climate action—her one-person protest in front of the Swedish parliament has evolved into a Global Climate Strike involving millions.

In fact, in 2019, 16-year-old Thunberg lambasted world leaders at a UN climate summit for failing to tackle greenhouse gas emissions—proving that age is no barrier for speaking truth to power.

All we hear about is Greta Thunberg. Her European urban background seems so different from mine. Is environmentalism more for Westerners?

Not at all! There are many young environmental heroes from Southeast Asia who may not be as internationally recognized, but have made impressive strides in their fight for a safer future.

One of them is Aroe Ajoeni, co-founder of Klima Action Malaysia (KAMY), who held her own solo environmental protest in front of her college despite warnings from her institution to stop. She went on to help lead the Global Climate Strike in Malaysia.

Sahana Kaur, a 17-year-old Malaysian student, founded Project All for All to empower young people to take part in civic engagement and advance the sustainable development goals (SDGs). Her effort has reached more than 5,000 people around the world.

Mogesh Sababathy, a marine biology graduate , co-founded the ocean conservation NGO Project Ocean Hope that reached more than 10,000 people in 15 countries. Mitzi Jonelle Tan, the international spokesperson for Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines, organized several protests despite the hefty risks of being an environmental rights defender in the Philippines—29 were killed in 2020.

You can read the comics of two local youth leaders’ journeys, and more stories in the YELL directories.

Okay, I want to take action, but I feel alone. How can I get to know more people in environmentalism?

You are not alone in feeling alone! Many young environmentalists in Malaysia said they started out feeling isolated, but they credited social media for helping them connect to like-minded people.

Browsing through the YELL directories of local youth leaders and environmental organizations can be a great start. Read their stories, follow their social media pages, and perhaps strike up a conversation or two—just remember to keep the chat cool and courteous no matter how fired up you are.

Wait, does taking action mean I have to pick up a placard and protest? That’s not really my thing.

Nope, there are other ways to take action. Have time to spare? Volunteer for local environmental groups (here’s a list). Are you artistic and social media savvy? Design compelling social media posts on environmental issues to educate the public (just make sure your references are reliable and that you credit the source).

Are there grants you can access? Conduct research. Know of an unused space? Reclaim it to plant trees. Have a way with words? Write to your local government or start a petition to propose a policy change. The sky’s the limit!

I want to work full-time in the environmental space. But what paths are there?

Good on you! There is a pressing need for environmental specialists in non-profit organizations, social enterprises, the government, corporations and even academic institutions. You can get a sense of the programmes and areas that local NGOs and social enterprises focus on in our directory.

Besides that, urban planners, food scientists, environmental legal and policy experts, environmental scientists, environmental engineers, conservation scientists, foresters and biochemists all play a major role in the race towards managing and reducing the impacts of climate change in the government, academia and consultancies.

The private sector is also doubling down on sustainability as investors are growing keen on businesses with an eco-focus. So, environmental experts with a corporate calling can make a decent living too.

For example, according to a recent posting on job portal Jobstreet.com, the monthly salary for a sustainability manager for an investment holding company in Kuala Lumpur is RM6,000 to RM10,000, while an environmental specialist for a multinational computer hardware company can earn between RM6,000 to RM8,000 per month.

Do I need a science studies background to do environmental work?

Not at all. Many other arts and humanities disciplines are also invaluable to help the sector grow. For example, Macaranga is a journalism portal that highlights environmental and sustainability issues in Malaysia. Graphic design capabilities are also much needed in developing captivating social media content to educate and inform the public.

Environmental law experts are crucial for litigation, such as on indigenous land rights or the pollution of natural resources. Political science or public policy experts are required for government and corporation engagement to push through environmental agendas. Environmental economists apply principles of economics to the development and management of scarce resources, allowing for ringgit-and-cents discussions with government and corporations. The possibilities are endless!

How high does my level of education need to be in order to build a career in environmentalism?

It is possible to build a career in environmental work without tertiary education. For example, Adzmin Fatta, programme manager at Reef Check Malaysia and co-founder of Green Semporna, only finished secondary school education (read the comic of his full story).

He was formerly with another big-name organization, WWF Malaysia—an indication that the lack of a college degree did not hamper his career much. But, according to him, many NGOs still prefer to hire candidates with at least a degree. So, while a tertiary education qualification is not the be-all and end-all of one’s job prospects within environmentalism, it does lend one an advantage.

All this talk about the climate crisis is making me feel anxious, angry, and sad. Does taking environmental action mean having these emotions all the time?

We’re going to be honest: distress, anger and despondency do hit those working with the environment at varying levels.

The psychological impact of fearing an ‘environmental doom’ has been documented in a survey of 10,000 young people in 10 countries. The highest proportion of respondents who reported feeling ‘very worried’ or ‘extremely worried’ by climate change came from the Philippines (84%), India (68%) and Brazil (67%)—these are also nations that have been worst hit by climate change.

When asked how they dealt with such emotions, several young environmentalists in Malaysia said seeking support from a close network of friends and mentors helped them through the dark times.

Another way is to break down the huge environmental crisis into smaller, actionable chunks. For example, the problem of capping worldwide global warming to a maximum of 1.5°C seems insurmountable. But running a 3R (reduce, reuse and recycle) programme in a local neighbourhood is much less daunting.

Some also found success in transforming their anger and anxiety into action. The good news is that 90% of young people in Malaysia are overwhelmingly confident in their abilities to make a difference with regards to climate change, according to the National Youth Climate Change Survey Malaysia by UNDP and UNICEF.

Still, if you are experiencing overwhelming emotional distress or are having suicidal thoughts, please call Befrienders Malaysia (24-hours) at +603-76272929 for free or email them at sam@befrienders.org.my. Their phone lines are manned 24/7 by trained volunteers who are ready to listen and provide support.

You can also call Buddy Bear, which supports children and teens experiencing emotional distress. They are available at the toll free number 1800-18-2327(BEAR) every day, from 12pm to 12am.