Climate change is the fight of our lives – and young people have been on the frontlines leading the charge for climate justice. The unrelenting conviction of young people is central to keeping climate goals within reach, kicking the world’s addiction to fossil fuels, and delivering climate justice.
- António Guterres, United Nations Secretary-General
Celebrating International Youth Day, we showcase Malaysia's impactful climate organisations. They empower and mobilise young individuals for community action and national policy advocacy, fostering a sustainable and equitable future.
These groups equip youth with essential skills to combat climate change, paving the way for a more just and sustainable world. This article delves into the pivotal role of young Malaysians in shaping a sustainable future, their crucial skill set for a fair transition, and their expanding climate literacy engagement.
The role of young people in making a sustainable future a reality
In the last three years, 9 out of 10 youths in Malaysia have experienced environmental and climate-related effects . According to the National Youth Climate Change Survey, Malaysia 2020 by UNICEF Malaysia, UNDP Malaysia, and Ecoknights, 92% of young people think climate change is a crisis .
It has become more apparent that young people play a critical role in the stake for a sustainable future as they will endure severe climate events longer. Tasha Sabapathy, Programme Outreach and Communications from Zero Waste Malaysia (ZWM), explains it more smoothly as the youth also have the power to become future leaders of tomorrow:
Young people must come together and realise that climate action is essential for our individual and collective futures. It is crucial to change the minds of the youth when it comes to sustainable living because they’re experiencing more and more effects brought by climate change. With the current generation and young people's skill set, there are endless possibilities to communicate about sustainability, share knowledge, and take action. The age of digital media provides endless knowledge to explore.
Echoing the current generation of young people having endless possibilities to communicate about sustainability, the Co-Founders of Youths United for Earth (YUFE), Nurfatin Hamzah and Max Han, share with us some of the ways that young people can contribute to the pursuit of a sustainable future:
Advocacy and Awareness
Education and Empowerment
Participation in Policy Making
Volunteering and Community Engagement
Through these various ways, the key here is the role of youth in the act of participation itself, with both Co-Founders stressing that their transformative role is "possible through our engagement, activism, and innovation, especially in driving positive change in various aspects of society such as environmental protection and conservation, climate action, and social equity."
Meanwhile, Alvin Chelliah, the Chief Programme Officer of Reef Check, thinks that young people are also "the driving force in making sustainability a reality. They play a vital role in innovation, social change and by pushing sustainability in the political arena".
"A lot can be done...." As exampled from the recent Climate Finance Summit, organised by the Perdana Fellows Alumni Association (PFAA) & Chevening, the Director Muaz Mohd explained that:
Youths are vital in ensuring our current leaders are accountable for their promises. They are crucial in putting pressure on having more ambitious climate targets with implementable plans. Raising awareness of climate and sustainability issues has always been a strength among youth. I hope this continues as we reach a critical juncture regarding climate change.
Similarly, Natasha Zulaikha, the Co-Founder of Coralku, stresses that on top of having the privilege of being curious, young people have the space to challenge and reflect:
The role of young people is to be curious & questioning things around them constantly. If something is not achieving the sustainability standards, we should ask why, what are the ways forward, how we best do something, and most importantly, reflect on our actions and ask if it worked and how we could improve it. Being young, you can always question and learn from your own experiences and others. Besides, young people are the drivers of change when they share ideas and start an open dialogue about a topic. Being in a space where your ideas are challenged is a healthy place to be, and including others in the sustainability conversation is the only way we can move forward.
What kind of skills do youth need to lead sustainable and just transition?
On a larger scale, the direction towards youth empowerment towards the climate may seem easier said than done. Still, on a smaller individual level - the expectation for skills is much more surprising, with a few mentioning empathy as one of the critical skills youth need.
As explained by Tasha Sabapathy:
Being in an organisation run by young leaders, we recommend having an open mind and empathy as critical characteristics in leading just and sustainable solutions. An open mind is crucial as sustainability doesn’t just have one guidebook but multiple ideologies that point towards the same goal.
Empathy is equally important; we don’t expect everyone to go to zero waste overnight. Different people have different obstacles with their transition to a sustainable lifestyle, and they should be acknowledged and supported, not discriminated against.
Similarly, Alvin Chelliah also stresses empathy:
They need to be inquisitive, innovative, and have empathy. They need to believe that a sustainable future is possible and be able to come back from setbacks and failures.
Meanwhile, Nurfatin Hamzah and Max-Han approach empathy with holistic problem-solving:
Climate change and environmental impacts do not affect everyone equally. People from different backgrounds and identities may face distinct consequences and have different capacities to adapt. Intersectional approaches help solve these variations, creating more effective and inclusive strategies.
Holistic Problem-Solving is only possible with systems thinking. With systems thinking, youth will be able to see the bigger picture and understand the interconnectedness of environmental, social, and economic systems in devising comprehensive solutions that address multiple aspects of sustainability.
At the same time, Natasha Zulaikha stresses the value of having high emotional intelligence and good communication skills:
To lead a sustainable and just transition, there are many parties and considerations you will have to listen to. These concerns may not exactly point to an environmental problem but rather a human behaviour problem. With good listening skills, openness, and the ability to talk and transfer knowledge to people, you can address sustainability at the root of the issues.
On a larger scale, Muaz Hasnol believes that all-type of skills are needed, but the core is to have a good understanding of the situation:
Everyone has a role in ensuring we shift towards a sustainable and net zero future. A common topic in the space is how we achieve a just transition, i.e., how do we ensure nobody gets left behind, especially in a developing country like Malaysia? The shift requires all sorts of skill sets and professionals, i.e., a renewable energy engineer would require a different skill set than an aspiring policy maker. Hence, it wouldn't be fair to put a specific skill set on what's needed. But whatever the skill may be, I'm positive the youth can take it up. The important thing is to have a good understanding of the situation we're in currently.
Encouraging Youth Engagement
Each organisation featured in this article has been critical in developing and encouraging youth engagement in the climate narrative at different levels in Malaysia.
For one, Zero Waste Malaysia focuses on developing awareness of waste management at the early stage of primary school students:
ZWM is run by a full-time team alongside over 25 passionate volunteers, many of whom are young leaders. This year, ZWM is working on an education programme called the Green Wira Programme.
Secondly, Reef Check focuses its youth engagement based on its location:
We work very closely with youth in all locations where we are present. We upskill them and include them in the activities and programmes we run. Reef Check is a huge advocate of co-management, and we want to see the youth be a vital part of the sustainable management of coral reefs in Malaysia.
Thirdly, YUFE explores lowering the barrier to the climate discourse:
There is a gap in accessing the local context of climate change. These are influenced by media coverage bias, language barriers (Much of the climate discourse and coverage occurs in English), and limited resources for understanding local challenges. We localise the climate and environmental narratives to address this gap, as people are more likely to act upon familiar issues. We do this through two avenues: 1. Featuring inspiring local young environmentalists 2. Amplifying existing campaigns that rally local environmental issues
A good example was how YUFE has successfully increased the climate context towards the proposal of the new International Airport in Tioman by relying on partnerships and strengthening the reach toward public awareness:
We’ve also run campaigns, such as rallying public awareness against the underreported destruction of corals in Pulau Mabul, collaborating with Penang activist groups for the Penang Tolak Tambak campaign against the Penang South Islands reclamation and engaging with Reef Check Malaysia to oppose the establishment of an unnecessary second airport at Pulau Tioman. Seeing our project grow into this movement, with young people nationwide signing petitions and emailing our MP to voice our concerns, was fulfilling.
On top of that, YUFE also approaches collaboration at a higher level by securing youth talents with green skills with their nationwide mentorship programme:
Kickstarting Malaysia’s first and largest nationwide sustainability mentorship programme was meaningful. It’s a great form of intergenerational collaboration in shaping the next generation of environmental leaders while combating Malaysia’s brain drain. It was the pandemic's peak, and everyone struggled to get internships and their first jobs. Many youth environmentalists said it was even more challenging for this developing field. What does a green job look like with the rise of ESG and climate regulations spurring new jobs? How do we get enough talent to fill the gaps? We’re on our fourth cycle now, and we’ve since connected 140 Malaysian professionals worldwide to 210 undergraduates going into green jobs.
Similarly, the members of the Climate Finance Summit are also expanding youth engagement with a diverse set of stakeholders:
We recently organised the inaugural Climate Finance Summit (CFS), featuring high-profile speakers such as the Minister of Natural Resources, Environment & Climate Change, Chairman of Bursa Malaysia, CEO of HSBC, CFO of PETRONAS, and more. The aim was to bring together a diverse set of stakeholders to discuss issues and solutions on climate finance. I was pleased to see many youths partake in the summit's organisation and be there on the day. Moving forward, we aim to organise more events around climate literacy that will benefit the youth of Malaysia. Stay tuned for the next edition of CFS - which will focus on adaptation & resilience financing!
Finally, Coralku is focusing on their youth engagement in coral conservation by providing a space to learn more about the process itself with their Adopt a Coral campaign:
We encourage youths to adopt a coral with us to learn more about the process of coral restoration. Through the adoptions and the updates received, adoptees better understand the species they adopted and the survival rates, and it introduces a new dialogue about the hardships of coral restoration. Occasionally, we have booths and clay workshops to tell our story to a wider audience. Besides that, we try our best to share as much as possible on our social media to keep everyone updated with our work and the news on coral conservation. We also wish to host workshops and training to increase youth's participation in coral conservation, so keep an eye out on our pages for that!
Overall, young Malaysians play a pivotal role in shaping a sustainable future and the skills they need to lead a just transition. As these organisations have shown, climate narrative and youth engagement go hand-in-hand, but it requires support from all stakeholders, including young people.
We encourage readers to get involved in climate action and to support these organisations so we can take meaningful action to address the climate crisis and prioritise the needs of young people in their decision-making.
👇 Check out their social media accounts below!
 UNDP, UNICEF & EcoKnights (2020). Change for Climate: Findings from the National Youth Climate Change Survey Malaysia. Putrajaya. November 2020, page 5.
 UNDP, UNICEF & EcoKnights (2020). Change for Climate: Findings from the National Youth Climate Change Survey Malaysia. Putrajaya. November 202, page 7.