Climate change must always be viewed from somewhere

By Rory Padfield, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, and Kate Manzo, University of Newcastle

A palm oil plantation (left) borders a degraded peat forest swamp in South Selangor, Peninsular Malaysia. Source: (c) Rory Padfield.

A palm oil plantation (left) borders a degraded peat forest swamp in South Selangor, Peninsular Malaysia. Source: (c) Rory Padfield.

In March 2016 two newspapers on opposites sides of the world covered stories on climate change but with contrasting perspectives. The UK’s Daily Mail painted a picture of impending doom and global catastrophe as climate change is predicted to cause the death of half a million people in 2050 due to food shortages. Regions most vulnerable to climate change induced starvation were reported to be in Asia and the Pacific, although the problem will also affect some richer countries. Conversely, a national newspaper from Malaysia – a country in Southeast Asia at risk from ‘impacts to food production from climate change’ as reported in the Daily Mail – presented both concern at the expected impacts of climate change but also the various opportunities in store. The article in the New Straits Times (‘Adapting to climate change’, March 14, 2016) argued that climate change mitigation and adaption presents an opportunity to invest more substantially in research and development in fields such as biotechnology. Reflecting on the different and at times polarized geographical representations of this important environmental issues, Professor Mike Hulme, from King’s College London, observes: “Climate, and hence climate change, must always be viewed from somewhere”.

Recognising the importance of situated knowledge and cultural politics in framing climate change media narratives, our research, published in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, examines representations of climate change in Malaysian media. We investigate the ways in which climate change is framed in five English-language media sources in Malaysia over a three year period, 2009 – 2011. We were interested in the salience of a North–South perspective on climate change in Malaysia and the extent to which the problems of climate change have been reframed as an opportunity for particular modes of development.

The results of our study were interesting on a number of levels. First of all we found that climate change is being framed not only as an environmental issue of concern for society but as a positive opportunity, particularly for neoliberal market forces. Here, Malaysia’s emerging ‘green growth’ policy agenda is shown to be supported by the expectation for greater investment in environmental sectors following climate change mitigation and adaption policies. We found evidence that similar trends exist in other Asian countries, such as India, China and South Korea.

Second,we show that climate change represents an opportunity for geopolitical actors interested in restructuring the international political economy along lines reminiscent of the new international economic order (NIEO) demands of the 1970s. Key themes emergent from this part of the analysis were ‘climate capitalism’ and ‘green nationalism’. Palm oil – one of the most important commodities to national economic development in Malaysia – was illustrative of the interaction of these themes. The Malaysian media was shown to strongly defend the position of palm oil in the global commodities market against perceived injustices and unfairness, such as trade barriers linked to climate policy.

Finally, our analysis brought together the frames of opportunity and responsibility in a frame referred to as a structuralist model of green development. Here, we argued that a hybridisation of different development models (and not just of climate change frames) is at work in Malaysia which support opportunities for so-called ‘green business’, responsibilities for various actors and also emphasizes a key role for the developmental state – in formulating policy, facilitating investment, accessing finance, and lobbying for changes in international relations of power.

For Malaysia, therefore, climate change policy action has not just stimulated a form of internal ‘ecological modernisation’ but it has presented an opportunity to press historic demands for changes in the international political economy.

About the authors: Rory Padfield is a Senior Lecturer at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia. Kate Manzo is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Newcastle. 

60-world2 Ibrahim A 2016 Adapting to climate change New Straits Times Online 14 March 2016

books_icon Manzo, K. and Padfield, R. (2016), Palm oil not polar bears: climate change and development in Malaysian media. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. doi: 10.1111/tran.12129

60-world2 Swan R 2016 Climate change ‘will kill half a million people’ by 2050: global warming will ruin crops leading to disease and malnutrition Daily Mail online 2 March 2016

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