Why people need to start early to address climate change

When I was in junior high school, my teacher put on a video about global warming and how the polar bear is losing its habitat. It stirred some emotion in me, but that subsided quickly as I imagined that I, a small individual, could not do anything to change its fate.

I realise that my ignorance was to blame. However, this is a common scenario when it comes to young people in my country, Thailand. Therefore, I think it’s worth any discussion of sustainable development starting with awareness and inclusivity.

Global warming is not something new, of course. Awareness of it has been circulating in society for a decade, but does that change how the majority of us behave? I believe not, and that is partially because we feel like it is irrelevant to us. The effect of global warming will grow stronger as time goes by and most likely will affect the next generation more than our own.

Humans are known to be self-centred, but even so, when we think of our future selves, compared with our present selves, we tend to perceive our future self as a stranger, someone we care less about, according to Jane McGonigal, research director of the Institute for the Future.

And if we think of our future self as being of low importance, we will scarcely care about those in the next generation. In economics, we have a term that covers this kind of thing, called ‘temporal discounting’; the tendency of individuals to value the desired future result less than the desired present result.

Need for inclusivity

Another thing I would like to mention is inclusivity. Inclusivity in this context means making individuals, especially students, feel like they can be a part of the solution.

When I was a young girl, I was told to turn off the water when I brushed my teeth and never to leave the light on when I was not in the room to save energy. It became a habit. But is this enough? I don’t think so, honestly.

One short plane flight has a carbon footprint that is more than one average person in some countries makes in a whole year, and thus, some might feel that a small habit like mine, meant to atone for such energy use, is useless. Similarly, there’s an argument that an individual's contribution to the cause of climate change is way less significant than that of a corporate.

However, I would argue that both can have an impact. Corporates operate under capitalism, and we, the consumers, can reduce the pollution that is the result of manufacturing.

How to get more people to contribute

As we all realise, climate change is not something that can be changed by one organisation or group like the government or scientists: it requires every stakeholder to play their part. Below are my proposed ideas for how we can tackle climate problems.

Firstly, climate changes should be integrated into the school curriculum seamlessly. What I have been noticing as a student is that most of the time we learn about climate change and move on. We learn about facts and numbers and, mainly, we are taught to memorise these facts for a final exam, which is something that education in my country has been struggling with.

I believe that by being taught about it as a separate course, it is hard for students to see the bigger picture and how everything links together. In my opinion, what we could do is merge this topic into each class, or even a major for university students.

Economics students should get to learn that while we are trying to make the best use of limited resources, we should also consider the impact of that on the environment. The same goes for engineering students, who should get to learn how construction sites or the expansion of the city can harm the ecosystem and how they can help to prevent that.

Secondly, regulators and government should take charge of how to guide society. It is fine to try to influence an individual’s behaviour, but regulators have an important part to play.

For example, biking in the Netherlands. The country is well-known for being a bike country and that does not happen miraculously. It takes a good infrastructure to facilitate bikers around the city. Not only that, it is also about traffic rules. Bikers in the Netherlands need not worry about their safety because the law makes sure that people are prioritised above vehicles when an accident happens and the Netherlands certainly enforces this law strictly.

These are things many countries in Southeast Asia still lack.

Thirdly, transformation is needed in how climate change is portrayed in the media. The media has shaped our way of thinking for decades, from who we should elect to be the next prime minister to what cereal to eat in the morning.

Therefore, I think that, with the right communication, such as about the short-term effects of climate change in an impactful graphic and frequent repetition of this, we can create significant change. Furthermore, highlighting certain actions in the graphic can be used as a good trigger for people to become more aware of the consequences of their actions.

This is similar to how the packaging of cigarettes displays the diseases that are caused by heavy smoking. According to a study by Surapong Chudech and Piyapong Janmaimool, the severity of the health issues that come with smoking can alter the fear level of smokers, which results in more hesitancy when it comes to smoking.

To sum up, the crisis that we are facing is bigger than all of us and yet it can only be solved with each of our hands joining forces. Therefore, cooperation between agents and countries is vital.

However, I, as a part of the ASEAN community, think that we have not yet fully leveraged the power we have to come together to tackle these problems. I believe that we are stronger together and I believe in our potential, especially the power of our youth, as the youth will be the ones to experience the impacts of climate change in the years to come if we don’t start acting today.

Worawalun Yarn-arpha is a Batch 4 SHARE EU-ASEAN scholarship awardee. Her undergraduate major in economics has led her to work in a central bank in Thailand, while at the same time it has sparked a passion for economic development. Her next goal is to explore ways to bring the behavioural sciences to bear on increasing the efficiency of public and monetary policy.