Global Warming’s Clear and Present Danger to Southeast Asia
U.S. military leaders appreciate that the Indo-Pacific region is a maritime domain, and they have long testified before Congress on the need for strong naval and air forces to defend U.S. interests in a region where even fictional Sicilian strategists abide by the maxim “never fight a land war in Asia.” But there is another aspect to the region’s watery nature that policymakers must not overlook. The population of the Indo-Pacific region is clustered within 50 miles of the coast. This is especially true for the 640 million who live in Southeast Asia, where long coastlines and heavily populated low-lying areas make the region vulnerable to weather extremes and rising sea levels. Many large cities – Bangkok, Jakarta, Manila, Haiphong – are less than 5 meters above sea level while others – Hanoi, Rangoon, Phnom Penh – are subject to seasonal flooding. Rising sea levels and extreme weather are not only a challenge to the well-being of the nations of Southeast Asia, they are a threat to their very existence. The rise of China may have been the most significant event of the 20th Century, but for Southeast Asia the rise of the ocean will be the defining geostrategic event of the 21st Century.
Scope of the Climate Challenge
According to “Global Warming of 1.5 Celsius,” the authoritative 2018 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Global warming has reached 1.0 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and is projected to reach 1.5 degrees C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate. A 2016 report by the Japan Meteorological Agency noted that annual mean temperatures were significantly above normal across East Asia, with 2016 breaking all previous records. Looking back to 1988, a pattern emerges: except for 2011, as each new year is added to the historical record, it becomes one of the top 10 warmest on record at that time, but it is ultimately replaced as the “top ten” window shifts forward in time.
Average temperatures in Southeast Asia have risen every decade since 1960. Vietnam, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Thailand are among 10 countries in the world most affected by climate change in the past 20 years, according to the Global Climate Risk Index (pdf) compiled by Germanwatch, an environmental group. According to the IMF, “Southeast Asia region could shift to a “new climate regime” by the end of the century, when the coolest summer months would be warmer than the hottest summer months in the period from 1951 to 1980, says a 2017 study by the ADB and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.”[i]
Climate change is already playing havoc across the Indo-Pacific, from draught and forest fires in Australia to crop-threatening salinization in the Irrawaddy and Mekong river deltas to glacial melt in the high Himalayas. Global warming has the capacity to deprive three billion people of fresh water, displace tens or even hundreds of millions of people living on low-lying coastal plains, shatter nations, and spark major wars between great powers over scarce supplies of fresh water and arable land. Of the top 20 cities with the largest increase of annual losses from flooding between 2005 and 2050, 13 are located in Asia: Guangzhou (PRC), Mumbai (India), Kolkata (India), Shenzhen (PRC), Tianjin (PRC), Ho Chi Minh City (Viet Nam), Jakarta (Indonesia), Chennai– Madras (India), Surat (India), Zhanjiang (PRC), Bangkok (Thailand), Xiamen (PRC), and Nagoya (Japan).[ii] If not addressed, urgently, and through global collaboration led by the two largest emitters of greenhouse gases (China and the United States), climate change will impose terrible human, economic, and security costs across the Indo-Pacific region, imperiling all the progress that has been made during the long peace since the end of the second world war.
One of the consequences of high temperatures is more violent tropical cyclones due to above average ocean temperatures. But more intense storms are just the appetizer for what is in store for the region. The main events – too much salt water from sea level rise and too little fresh water from glacial melt and climate change – are already underway, but their full impact won’t become obvious for a few more decades. As described in a recent NOAA report, “The high heat capacity of water means that ocean temperature doesn't react instantly to the increased heat being trapped by greenhouse gases. By 2030, however, the heating imbalance caused by greenhouse gases begins to overcome the oceans' thermal inertia, and projected temperature pathways begin to diverge, with unchecked carbon dioxide emissions likely leading to several additional degrees of warming by the end of the century.”[iii] The experts have concluded with high confidence that global warming, even if mitigated by changes in greenhouse gas emissions, will cause persistent sea level rise for centuries, if not millenia.
Southeast Asia as epicenter
In addition to being one of the regions more vulnerable to climate change, the Indo-Pacific is also where the bulk of new greenhouse gases will be emitted barring urgent action – action that requires not only a change in the behavior of the nations in the region, but also the cooperation (technology, financing, aid) of the United States, Japan, and other developed nations. China today accounts for roughly one-fourth of the world’s annual carbon emissions, and China accounted for 73% of the rise in global carbon emissions between 2010-2012. China’s emissions are projected to increase by 50% between 2016 and 2030 absent new corrective action. On the plus side, China has become the world’s largest producer and consumer of renewable wind and solar generated power. But as impressive as China’s investments in green energy are, they fall far short of what is needed meaningfully to slow, much less reverse, the increase in emissions.[iv]
The picture is even bleaker in Southeast Asia than in China, and energy consumption is the primary culprit. CO2 emissions grew faster in SE Asia (Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam) between 1990 and 2010 than any other world region, and are continuing to rise at least 5% per year as the region burns fossil fuels to provide electricity for economic activity and to support improvements in standard of living. The Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts energy demand will grow as much as 66 percent by 2040, with coal accounting for almost 40 percent of the increase as it overtakes cleaner-burning natural gas in the energy mix. Vietnam’s coal-power capacity under active development is the third largest in the world after China’s and India’s, according to a March 2018 report (pdf) by environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and Greenpeace. Indonesia and the Philippines rank fifth and tenth, respectively.
The economic impact of climate change on the nations of Southeast Asia by 2100 will be catastrophic – subtracting as much as 11% from GDP output each year – the sort of head-wind that would erase decades of growth that have lifted tens of millions out of poverty.[v] Absent dramatic action, Southeast Asian states will confront a mean sea level rise of 70 cm by 2100.
As the IMF has warned, “In the absence of technical breakthroughs, rice yields in Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam could drop by as much as 50 percent by 2100 from 1990 levels. Hotter weather is also pushing tropical diseases such as malaria and dengue fever northward to countries like Lao P.D.R., where they were formerly less prevalent.”
When attempting to head-off the worst outcomes from this slow-moving train wreck, time is of the essence. To avoid going over 1.5 C temperature rise, carbon emissions must decrease from 2010 levels by 45% by 2030. To avoid a 2.0 C increase, emissions must decrease by 25% by 2030.[vi] A 10-year delay in climate stabilization policy would increase the costs of climate change in 2050 by 60 percent.[vii] There is simply no excuse for inaction, and the United States has a vital role to play in focusing attention on climate change as the defining geostrategic threat to U.S. interests in the Indo-Pacific and marshalling the resources needed to fashion an effective U.S.-led effort to mitigate the damage.
Given the scope of the challenges posed by climate change, a broad range of responses – mitigations efforts, clean energy strategies, environmental protection, governance reforms – are required to avoid worst case outcomes. These approaches are not mutually exclusive, and would best be deployed in combination with one another and in concert with other nations, particularly Japan and China. Such policy coordination may prove difficult for the United States, which has announced its intention to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accords. But if Joe Biden wins the presidential election in November, he has proclaimed his intention to rejoin the Paris Accords and make climate change a high priority issue for his first term. He would be wise to reach out to Japan and then to China to seek concensus on an agenda for urgent action.
[iv]https://www.belfercenter.org/sites/default/files/legacy/files/China%20Carbon%20Emissions%202016%20final%20web.pdf “China Carbon Emission Report 2016” Zhu Liu (Harvard Kennedy School - Belfer Center)
[v] https://www.adb.org/sites/default/files/publication/42811/assessing-costs-climate-change-and-adaptation-south-asia.pdf Mahfuz Ahmed, Supachol Suphachalasai (Asia Development Bank);
IPCC, 2018: Summary for Policymakers. In: Global warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty [V. Masson-Demotte, P. Zhai, H. O. Pörtner, D. Roberts, J. Skea, P.R. Shukla, A. Pirani, W. Moufouma-Okia, C. Péan, R. Pidcock, S. Connors, J. B. R. Matthews, Y. Chen, X. Zhou, M. I. Gomis, E. Lonnoy, T. Maycock, M. Tignor, T. Waterfield (eds.)]. World Meteorological Organization, Geneva, Switzerland, 32 pp.
[vii] https://www.adb.org/sites/default/files/publication/178615/sea-economics-global-climate-stabilization.pdf “Southeast Asia and the Economic Impacts of Global Climate Stabilization” (2015) David A. Raitzer, Francesco Bosello, Massimo Tavoni, Carlo Orecchia, Giacomo Marangoni, and Jindra Nuella G. Samson (Asia Development Bank)