Southeast Asia’s Coming Climate Crisis

By David Dennis

In recent months, Southeast Asia, like the rest of the world, has marshalled its resources to deal with the acute public health crisis presented by Covid-19. Even as the present crisis drains the region’s resources and challenges its capacity, the looming danger of climate change remains ever-present. Already this year, more than 500,000 people have been displaced by weather-related natural disasters across the region. Typhoon’s Phanfone and Vongfong have struck the Philippines, while Indonesia’s capital has twice been inundated by region-wide flooding.  Although these have been discreet weather events, widespread displacement by weather-based natural disasters is increasingly the norm in Southeast Asia. According to new data from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, 54.5 million people were displaced by weather-related natural disasters across Southeast Asia between 2008 – 2018. While many have convincingly argued that the long-term response to both Covid-19 and climate change are inherently linked, the United States’ delayed and inward-looking response to Covid-19 must not set the precedent for its climate change engagement in the region.

Climate change represents one of the greatest threats to long-term regional stability in Southeast Asia. Although people who are involuntarily displaced by natural disasters tend to be short-term internal migrants, the combined impacts of new climatic conditions will likely cause widespread permanent migration that transcends international borders and increases the likelihood of regional instability. Even if we collectively manage to hold the average global temperature increase to 2.4° C, the 50-70 centimeter rise in sea levels expected by the end of the century will increasingly threaten the 77 percent of Southeast Asians who live along the coast or in low lying river deltas. By 2050, daily high tides will flood the areas where over 48 million people in Southeast Asia now live, while predicted average annual flood levels would inundate the homes of over 79 million. At the same time, the direct threats of sea-level rise and superstorms will compound food and water insecurity throughout the region. All of these impacts, which will disproportionately  affect the poorest and most marginalized communities, will contribute to political instability and damage local and national economies. ASEAN’s greatest success since the 1990s has been eliminating the perennial conflict within the bloc to allow regionwide stability and economic growth. Unchecked, the most serious impacts of climate change in Southeast Asia will threaten this hard-won stability. 

Considering the realities of global progress towards lowering greenhouse gas emissions, initiatives focusing on climate adaptation and climate resiliency are increasingly important. Such initiatives, however, are inherently complex. While climate impacts are highly localized, most funding and expertise on climate change are found at the national or international levels. Increasing climate adaptation funding and expanding initiatives with Southeast Asian nations that focus on capacity building could provide the United States with a cost-effective way to build relationships in Southeast Asia that both promote its long term interests and go a long way towards mitigating the worst impacts of climate change. 

An Emphasis on Adaptation and Disaster Preparedness 

Although the current Covid-19 crisis has demonstrated ASEAN is not well suited to collectively address sudden acute shocks, the relatively long-term nature of the climate crises means ASEAN can play an important role in setting the tone and developing regional goals. ASEAN has been fairly responsive as a bloc, releasing joint declarations and statements on climate change almost annually since 2007. Joint statements with strategic partners, such as that on climate change during the ASEAN-U.S. Summit in November 2014, have been a regular fixture of ASEAN meetings. 

While ASEAN can play a guiding role, the geography of Southeast Asia and the localized nature of climate impacts means most action on climate change will need to take place at the national and sub-national levels. All ASEAN nations have committed to substantial emissions cuts in their 2015 Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) with Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos planning to expand their NDC’s in 2020. Similarly, government documents, such as Vietnam’s 2019 Defense White Paper, have listed climate change as an existential threat to the nation. Most national plans, however, emphasize climate change mitigation with a strong focus on developing energy and infrastructure projects at the expense of adaptation and climate resiliency. In many cases, those projects listed in their NDC’s pre-date the documents themselves. Additionally, while regulations are on the books and projects planned, inadequate regulatory capacity and limited funding hinder full implementation.   

The United States: Climate Adaptation Funding and Capacity Building 

Considering the complexity and scope of climate change impacts in Southeast Asia, projects on adaptation and climate resilience will largely be funded through the dozens of international and national climate funds that have been established. One of the largest of these is the Global Climate Fund, which was established by the 2015 Climate Agreement and aims to help poor nations adapt to climate change. Although the international community collectively pledged $9.8 billion to the fund in October 2019, both the United States and its close regional partner Australia were conspicuously absent. 

Similarly, unilateral U.S. investment in projects focusing on disaster preparedness, a core element of climate resiliency, remains drastically underfunded. Of the $996 million in total U.S. government disbursements to Southeast Asia in 2018 (last complete year), only $14.5 million was given to projects focusing on disaster preparation or preparedness. This accounts for only 1.5 percent of all aid over the period. While humanitarian aid is often reactionary, an emphasis should be placed on preventative measures as every $1 in disaster preparation and prevention is equivalent to $6 spend on disaster cleanup.  

The lack of U.S. leadership on this issue has sent a strong message of disinterest to many in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands who view climate change as an existential threat. Although the ongoing Covid-19 crisis has hindered U.S. engagement with ASEAN, including through the cancellation of the mid-March U.S.-ASEAN special summit, inconsistencies in U.S. policies have sown uncertainty about U.S. commitment in the region.  

Engagement centered around adaptation and climate resilience in Southeast Asia provides the U.S. with an opportunity to reaffirm U.S. engagement in the region, including military-to-military cooperation, that is not based around China or the South China Sea. Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) is already a core part of regional engagement which can be readily be expanded to include more adaptation-oriented projects. The contribution of similar goodwill programs towards the development of the current U.S.-Vietnam relationship (joint UXO removal and U.S. serviceman body recovery initiatives) demonstrates the possibilities of such engagement. The nearly universal impacts of climate change, combined with the relatively low cost of implementing such programs, make this an area ripe for expansion beyond traditional partners. The drive behind such new engagement is well in line with the United States Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy.  

Considering the dire need for external funding and support, failure by the U.S. to engage on this issue will only cede ground to others in the region with dissimilar interests. The United States should increase its contributions to international climate funds and bilateral initiatives and increase its capacity building programs within Southeast Asia. Even as the United States has rightfully increased aid and focused attention around the Covid-19 crisis, it must not forget its long term commitment to regional stability. As with every response to the climate crisis, the longer U.S. leaders wait to act, the more dire the long-term consequences may become – in this case for both ASEAN partners and the United States’ long-term strategic interests.  

David Dennis is a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a former research intern with the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.