Weathering Climate Change—A Battle Fatal to Lose

By Dato’ Dr. Ooi Kee Beng

April 2024 EDITORIAL
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I REMEMBER STRUGGLING with the terms “weather” and “climate” in primary school.

And as with most related words, it was about knowing when to use one and not the other, not so much about understanding each of them properly or deeply.

I did say this was during primary school days.

Proper usage comes before proper understanding. Just like with my newest handphone, just like with AI programmes. In fact, just like with my old (vintage) car.

Now, half a century after trying to learn when to say “weather” and when to say “climate”, I find that the two have become more intertwined in meaning than ever.

You get what I mean? If the climate in the place where you live is highly unpredictable, and prone to drastic changes, then how is it different from the weather in the place where you live? I exaggerate the overlapping, admittedly, but less and less so as time goes by. tells me that weather is “the state of the atmosphere with respect to heat or cold, wetness or dryness, calm or storm, clearness or cloudiness”. It also informs me that climate is “the average course or condition of the weather at a place usually over a period of years as exhibited by temperature, wind velocity and precipitation”.

The climate of a place is decided backwards, of course. It is averages measured and calculated “over a period of years”, which then give us a sense of what to expect in terms of temperature and precipitation, et cetera. But if the weather—I am sorry, the climate—changes radically and in often unpredictable ways, then can we still say the same thing in passing to our neighbour the way we used to: “Lovely weather today”? Or should we just as easily say “Lovely climate today”?

Your caring physician could once confidently tell you to move to some place with a climate probably more suited to your health. I am sure he is not feeling as confident about giving you that kind of apple-a-day advice today. You may be better off moving to some place with a weather that is comfortable to you for that day or that week.

Weather forecasters must be having a lot of fun nowadays. Their work cannot be as boring as before. Sadly, they can no longer become celebrities by merely promising good weather to their listeners. What they can offer instead is a promise of adventure and of uncertainty. Capriciousness is the essence of adventure, after all.

But to be fair to the notion of “climate”, perhaps we should also remind ourselves how often in days gone by—like a decade ago or so—we had trouble predicting the weather as well. Did we use to exaggerate the predictability of the weather, or of the climate even?

Perhaps. Definitely to some extent. The weather is prone to change, and it was always a difficult thing to measure. But climates are based on long-term averages, and when these change radically or become unpredictable, given the limits to human resilience in the face of environmental changes, it is only rational that each and every one of us take proper note.

Ostriches with their heads in the sand just adds to the seriousness of the crisis.

As with all processes in a globally connected world, we need to collectively manage the challenges coming from climate change in a multi-dimensioned and multi-levelled fashion. If not, we will come to believe that there is nothing we can do: “We may have upset the environment but we cannot repair it.”

That would be the height of cynicism and passivity, not to mention self-servitude.

Whose fault it all is no longer really matters. What will make a difference is consciousness and mindfulness over the worsening crisis. As thinking individuals, as consumers and producers, as parents or as future parents, and as policymakers and influencers, we will have to assume a desperate and proactive stance towards environmental challenges… and hope that the collective effect will be enough to make a critical difference.

As an individual, we have to adopt sustainable habits, practise rational consumption and reassess our values. As collectives, we have to demand mindfulness of others and of policymakers. As humans, we have to rein in our impulses and allow for other species to survive.

It is already very late in the day; if that weren’t so, we wouldn’t be talking about sustainability all the time.

In the end, it is not about the survival of the Earth, but about the long-term survival of us humans—this insatiable and selfish ape with an enormous brain now clearly proven to be wrongly wired. Can this hairless ape weather Climate Change? The answer cannot be a simple “Yes.” Not even close. At most, it’s a “More or less.”

Dato’ Dr. Ooi Kee Beng

is the Executive Director of Penang Institute. His recent books include The Eurasian Core and its Edges: Dialogues with Wang Gungwu on the History of the World (ISEAS 2016). Homepage: