Youths and Climate Change: “We Didn’t Start the Fire”


IT IS ANTICIPATED that Millennials will bear the full brunt of climate change in their lifetime. We live in the Anthropocene era, an age during which human actions have become the dominant force in changing our environment and climate. While this mastery has brought our species many benefits, we are also now faced with perhaps one of the most detrimental and far-reaching consequences of our actions.

To be sure, this unease is one that is tangibly felt. In an online survey conducted by Penang Monthly last July, it was found that the majority of Malaysian youths (71%) between the ages of 15-30 strongly agree that “climate change is a very important issue”, with 74% either strongly agreeing or agreeing that they “will be negatively impacted by it”.

Comments surrounding this view are telling of the anxiety many are experiencing with regard to this crisis. “Climate change does not discriminate. Unless we take massive steps as a population, we are all doomed,” laments one respondent. Another adds, “Only the wealthy can ride out the effects. Those from the middle- and working-class communities would not have the wealth or resources to survive.”

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From these results, it can be deduced that Malaysian youths are somewhat invested in the fight against climate change, with 29.5% of the respondents having previously taken part in climate change activism. Activism in this case refers to participating in rallies/protests, raising awareness, community action (e.g. planting trees), and raising/donating money to environmental organisations. However, the apparent inaction by the majority of respondents contrasts sharply with the concerns with which climate change is viewed by these youths.

The strangeness of this situation is exacerbated by the results of another survey question. When quizzed about how much they agree with the statement “There is nothing I can do to stop climate change”, 34% somewhat disagreed, 23% disagreed and 19% strongly disagreed with the sentiment, confirming the assumption that young people do believe that individual action is important to combat climate change.

As a whole, three conclusions can be drawn: i) Young people do care about climate change; ii) They believe they can take action in attempting to reverse its effects; but puzzlingly iii) Most aren’t doing so.

How can these contradictions be reconciled?

To Act or to Not Act?

This seeming inaction is not a phenomenon exclusive to Malaysian youths. In fact, one social  theory suggests that many remain complacent because the way they understand climate change is inherently flawed.

As philosopher Timothy Morton explains, people have trouble imagining what climate change actually is and the damage it can wreak on humankind because the process is happening so very slowly and on such a massive scale that even if we technically know of its existence, we have trouble comprehending its enormity, let alone the fact that we are accomplices to its rapid acceleration.

The monster Cthulhu in H.P. Lovecraft’s most famous work The Call of Cthulhu. Photo: PR1NTS

In a sense, climate change can be likened to a Lovecraftian monster more than an observable phenomenon. In his most famous work The Call of Cthulhu, the characters in H.P. Lovecraft’s stories may have had the monster Cthulhu standing before them, but it is a creature so beyond human comprehension and imagination that it is impossible for them to acknowledge its presence.

Rather, it is easier for us to imagine that climate change is something “over there”, an entity that is independent of our actions. By comparison, matters like unemployment, poverty and crime take on more precedence; this too is reflected in the survey. One participant comments, “There are more important things for me to worry about.” While another adds, “Though I’m aware of climate change, I have little interest in fighting a matter that is invisible in nature.”

Allen Tan, the managing director of The Habitat Penang Hill agrees with Morton’s viewpoint. “In Penang we are very lucky because we have grown up with easy access to nature. But this doesn’t always translate into an awareness of its importance and what nature does for us,” he says.

Managing director of The Habitat
Penang Hill Allen Tan.

This should not imply that apathy towards our environment is universal. Indeed, it may be a common enough response, but there are youths who do care about the climate and are trying their best to shed light and clarity on the matter, even if they have come up against numerous brick walls in the process. But their resignation is obvious. Responses such as “I do care about climate change but there is little I can do for now” and “Planting trees might help a little, but if factories are still emitting toxic gases into the atmosphere, planting a billion trees is still no use” testify to this.

As individuals, these youths do not have much of an impact on climate change. But many are, at the very least, conscious of lifestyle changes they can be taking to be more eco-friendly, albeit such a lifestyle is not a common practice in Malaysia.

Natasha Krishnan, a postgraduate student at Universiti Sains Malaysia, explains her frustration with the limits of her own influence. “It’s very trying because I personally see recycling and using less plastic as very simple things to do. When you go out, don’t ask for a plastic bag. When they give you one, decline it. I know for a fact that I can separate my trash and take it to a recycling centre, but I rely on the local government to handle the waste. I realise I don’t have much control over that.”

Looking at the Bigger Picture

This leads to a larger overarching issue. A meagre few incentives are offered in Malaysia to promote an eco-friendly lifestyle. Though Penang’s recycling rate stands at 42.69%, almost double the national average, practising recycling becomes difficult when plastic materials abound.

Supermarkets and hypermarkets have attempted to discourage customers from using plastic bags by imposing a fee of 20 cents apiece, but as this is a relatively small amount of money to pay, many would not think twice on spending, underscoring the fact that locals are not easily dissuaded from plastic usage, especially with the current Covid-19 pandemic and when it is the cheapest packaging option. It is worth mentioning, however, that some supermarkets do provide cardboard boxes free-of-charge for customers, including Sunshine Jelutong and Mydin.

Some pertinent and necessary measures are being taken by the State Government, through its agency the Penang Green Council (PGC), to raise awareness with regard to environmental issues. General manager Josephine Tan explains, “PGC conducts a wide variety of programmes and through them, we are encouraging Penangites to slowly develop and embrace eco-friendly habits.” There is even a Junior Green Camp programme which emphasises combining fun with eco-friendliness. But for all its efforts, PGC is the only government-funded environmental organisation in Penang, and for this reason, its scope of influence is naturally limited.

Furthermore, even if these government programmes do increase in scope and size, their overall impact is still liable to scepticism and questioning. More often than not, programmes on climate change focus on very specific topics such as recycling and lessening plastic consumption. While these factors in themselves are important, they distract from the larger overall picture, and that is climate change is so intrinsically weaved into many facets of our lives that attempting to address the issue through reductive rather than holistic measures may prove ineffective.

Junior Green Camp organised by the Penang Green Council.

To understand just how interconnected climate change issues are, the fishing industry can be used as an illustrative example. In 2017 alone, the industry contributed RM1.4bil to Penang’s economy1. But the ripple effect of global warming has also caused a steady decrease in daily catch, and less fish translates to lower profits for local fishing businesses. One of the easiest ways to cut corners is to pay fishermen a lower wage for working longer hours. But this can very possibly violate labour laws as well. If their poor working conditions are brought to light, and if justice is sought, these fisherfolk may risk losing their rice bowls. The easy solution, therefore, is to hire undocumented migrants. Though, this would certainly pose challenges of its own, namely in a rise in local unemployment and labour exploitation of poor migrant workers.2

Cheng Mun is the senior assistant of co-curriculum activities at SMK Convent Butterworth.

This interconnectedness is not a common narrative in the education on climate change. On one hand, it places too much emphasis on facts and statistics and on the other, the syllabus highlights abstract, far-away concepts of melting ice caps for example, that fail to resonate locally. To be fair, while there are topics covering conservation and preservation of living organisms, there is currently nothing in the Integrated Curriculum for Secondary Schools that specifically addresses climate change3. Any education students do have on the issue usually depends on teachers purposefully including it in class.

Cheng Mun, the senior assistant of co-curriculum activities at SMK Convent Butterworth, confirms this. “In Malaysia our curriculum is very exam-oriented. Teachers always try to chase the syllabus, finishing whatever is required. In-depth on issues such as the environment or climate change… it’s rather touch-and- go.”

Climate change and environmental education in general is not yet the norm in Penang. Based on the survey, only 28.7% of participants reported having learned about climate change in Primary School. Young adolescents (aged 10-13) are at the ideal stage of neurocognitive development in being able to comprehend the ramifications of climate change. Perhaps, it is during this age that climate change education should be introduced; as it stands, environmentally conscious children are more likely to grow into environmentally conscious adults4.

Students are exposed to climate change education at SMK Convent Butterworth.

Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest that children are uniquely positioned to inspire a change of attitude in adults who may not have reaped the benefits of environmental education. This is termed “intergenerational learning” and although it is mainly used in the context of older generations influencing their young, recent research finds that child-to- parent intergenerational learning is effective in myriad forms (and not just in bridging the digital divide!).

Environmental education programmes directed at children which are designed with intergenerational learning in mind have in many cases resulted in the successful transfer of said education to adults. This includes knowledge on flood education and general environmental conservation, and behaviours on waste education and energy conservation5.

... three conclusions can be drawn: i) Young people do care about climate change; ii) They believe they can take action in attempting to reverse its effects; but puzzlingly iii) Most aren’t doing so.

But to iterate, starting them young may not, on its own, be enough. The issue is not that young people are not aware of climate change; what is troubling is that in spite of their awareness, youths often fail to act. A relevant question to ask is how climate change education is “framed”? Framing refers to how specific pieces of information are presented to people, and this can have a great deal of influence on how they respond.

Over the past decade, climate change education has been framed primarily around scientific (facts and statistics) and economic problem-solving methods, leading to an almost clinical approach in getting the message across. Why such a method is ineffective may be that it does not account for the strong emotional responses students often have to this subject, and more worryingly, it does not provide them with healthy methods for dealing with these emotions.

… And How Do You Feel About This?

The most common responses to climate change fall under six general emotions: anxiety, frustration, being overwhelmed, grief, guilt and hope. These are observed in the survey, but the question remains as to why they occur and how they can be resolved. If the goal of climate change education is to inspire action, then the most important emotional response to address is that of apathy, which is understood to be caused by a lack of an emotional connection to climate change.

To spur people into action, there is a general belief for concern to be inspired in them6. But more recent research into this theory suggests a backfiring. Emotions such as anxiety and guilt, rather than inspiring action often lead to a “shut down” which causes us to avoid situations/messages that evoke these negative feelings. Continuously stressing how catastrophic climate change could potentially be in the future, while technically true, is therefore not particularly effective7.

Emotions such as anxiety, frustration and being overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of climate change are all associated with a lack of control. This leads back to likening climate change to Cthulhu, an entity so large, we are but ants before its might. It is this loss of power and agency that can lead to the disintegration of a sense of agency. Young people have grown up in a world where human domination of the planet appears to be the natural order of things. Having this entitlement challenged can be quite a shock.

As humans have trouble imagining the scope of climate change, it is essential that climate change education reframes the issue on a more localised scale. The benefits of this are that firstly, the effects of climate change are made direct and personal. This raises the relative importance of climate change and avoids the issue of Cthulhu, keeping climate change on a level that is easily comprehensible.

Secondly, with the issue shrunk to a local scale, people are given the ability to act. Charles R. Snyder theorises that both agency, the ability to participate in solutions, and a concrete pathway to such solutions are needed to avoid despair and encourage hope8. Therefore, climate change education must focus not only on presenting facts, but also on providing concrete ways in which students can help, and see the impact of their actions. This is a difficult task as such pathways are naturally limited by the influence each individual has. Still, this is not altogether impossible.

The localisation of climate change to Malaysia is not yet the norm, but steps are being made. Rexy Prakash Chacko, co-author of Creating Future-Proof Cities: How to Navigate the Climate Crisis has been active in this pursuit. “We [with coauthor Murali Ram] wrote this book with Penang as an example. We narrated it with very specific examples so that when a city policy-maker reads it, he knows what to do. When individuals read it, they know that climate change is not rocket science and that there are things they can take action on.”

Encouraging younger generations to engage in climate change and environmental action is undoubtedly critical in ensuring that we are all prepared for its impact in the mid-21st century. The depths of the sinking current may not drown us yet.

Kim Evers is a student of International Relations and Politics with various interests in other fields such as Psychology, Philosophy and Media studies.


1 Vaghefi, N., 2019. Penang’s Fisheries Industry In Numbers. [online] Penang Monthly. Available at: <> .
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3 2002. Integrated Curriculum For Secondary School. [ebook] Kuala Lumpur: Ministry of Education Malaysia. Available at: <>.
4 Harker-Schuh, I., 2019. Why Is Early Adolescence So Pivotal in the Climate Change Communication and Education Arena?. In: W. Leal Filho and S. Hemstock, ed., Climate Change and The Role of Education. [online] London: Springer, pp.279-290. Available at: <>.
5Lawson, D., Stevenson, K., Peterson, M., Carrier, S., Strnad, R. and Seekamp, E., 2018. Inter-generational learning: Are children key in spurring climate action?. Global Environmental Change, [online] 53, pp.204-208. Available at: <>.
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8Lopez, S. and Snyder, C., 2011. Handbook Of Positive Psychology. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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