The stakes at the Glasgow Climate Change Summit could not be higher. Scientists are clear and united in warning that if humanity fails to contain global warming, the impacts will be irreversible and cataclysmic.
Southeast Asia is one of the regions of the world most vulnerable to this situation. As we remain obsessed with Chinese military expansionism in the South China Sea, threats from violent extremist groups and other types of militants – or even the insecurity caused by military regimes turning guns on their own people for maintaining power – the biggest future security threat in Southeast Asia, by far, is climate change.
This is the first in a series of columns on how climate change will shape the security environment in the region.
If climate change continues unchecked, it will impact regional security in several ways:
First, rising sea levels will flood the region’s mega-cities, many of which are coastal;
Second, other named storms will hit the lower coasts of the region;
Third, the increase in temperature will affect food production;
Fourth, the costs incurred will force governments to spend limited resources, which will increase opportunity costs and exacerbate socio-economic tensions.
In October, the Office of Director of National Intelligence in the United States published its first report assessing the risks posed by climate change and the security implications. The report classified Indonesia and the Philippines as âhighly vulnerableâ and identified Myanmar as a âselected country of concernâ.
“Scientific forecasts indicate that the intensification of the physical effects of climate change through 2040 and beyond will be felt most severely in developing countries, which we believe are also the least able to adapt to such changes, âone of the main judgments of the 27-page article. report warned.
“These physical effects will increase the potential for instability and possibly internal conflict in these countries, in some cases creating additional demands on the diplomatic, economic, humanitarian and military resources of the United States,” he said.
Demographics is fate
Because humans will feel the impact of climate change, it’s worth considering this in the context of demographic trends in the region.
In 2020, the combined population of the 10 countries of Southeast Asia was 667.3 million people. The largest country was Indonesia (273.5 million), followed by the Philippines (109.6 million) and Vietnam (97.3 million).
By 2050, the region’s population is expected to grow by an average of almost 19%, reaching 792 million people.
During this 30-year period, only one country, Thailand, is expected to see its population decline. The population of all other Southeast Asian countries will drop from a low of 9.5% in Singapore to almost 32% in the Philippines. Indonesia’s population will increase by 21 percent.
The populations of a handful of countries – Brunei, Singapore, Vietnam and Myanmar – will peak around 2050. But some countries will not see their population peak until 2065 to 2075. These include Indonesia, Cambodia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Laos.
The increase in population will pose enormous challenges for most countries in the region. The youth explosion in the Philippines and Indonesia could be very destabilizing if there is not enough economic growth to absorb new entrants into the labor market.
And some will experience higher rates of unemployment and underemployment. Thailand and Singapore, for their part, have rapidly aging populations; Vietnam is also likely to get old before it gets rich.
When we talk about climate change, we also have to think about the growth of cities in Southeast Asia.
Over 50 percent of the region’s population (372 million) is concentrated in urban areas.
Since 1990, Southeast Asian countries have added 150 million people to their cities, the highest rate of urbanization in the world.
Southeast Asia is home to two mega-cities: Manila and Jakarta. Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City are set to become mega-cities by 2030, according to the The United Nations.
The United Nations predicts that by 2050, urbanization in the region will reach 68%, bringing the urban population to 538.6 million people.
This represents an increase of 44.5% compared to 2020.
Urban inequality, meanwhile, has declined across Southeast Asia, but at a much slower pace than rural inequality.
We have seen the growth of mass slums. An estimated 80 million people in Southeast Asia live in temporary housing or slums. In recent decades, governments have focused more on reducing poverty in the countryside because that is where the majority of their population lives.
As a result, governments are going to have to reallocate more money quickly to care for their growing urban populations. They will have to undertake the massive construction of urban infrastructure – from roads to schools, water, waste treatment and public transport.
Climate change – especially sea level rise – will exacerbate all of this. Already, this is happening in Southeast Asia at a faster rate than anywhere else in the world.
The four mega-cities I mentioned above are extremely vulnerable.
Jakarta, Manila, Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City are all at sea level. Indeed, parts of the four cities are below sea level, and all are sinking due to the depletion of their aquifers. These four mega-cities experience massive flooding for longer periods each year. Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, has also been hit by record flooding in the past week.
Governments are likely to spend money on developing infrastructure – where their key tax base resides – while underinvesting in the poorest neighborhoods of these cities. This will only exacerbate socio-economic grievances and inequalities.
Will there be enough food?
Population growth, in turn, will have real impacts on food security. Already the Philippines and Indonesia are unable to feed themselves and have to rely on food imports.
Climate change, warmer temperatures and changes in rainfall patterns will make the situation worse.
This will likely have a negative impact on agricultural production. Some agricultural lands will be threatened by more frequent flooding and saltwater intrusions, while areas will be hit by more frequent and prolonged droughts. Rising seawater temperature will devastate coral reefs and the already stressed bottom of the oceanic food chain.
The need to develop resilience
It is easy for countries in Southeast Asia and elsewhere to think that they have nothing to do with it.
In 2017, for example, the region accounted for less than 6% of the 36.2 billion tonnes of global carbon dioxide emissions. And yet these countries will deeply feel the impact, and the limited resources to respond.
Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, Myanmar, Indonesia and – in South Asia – Bangladesh are all extremely vulnerable to extreme weather events.
Asian governments are not ignoring this data. But in their quest for rapid economic growth, they have largely kept their heads in the sand; no one was proactive.
No country in its development plans has built-in resilience to climate change. No country has allocated sufficient resources to mitigate some of the impacts that are now being felt.
And, of course, no government is doing enough to wean its transportation sectors from electricity and fossil fuels.
All of this does not bode well for regional security. There is no existing security problem that will not be exacerbated by climate change.
Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and an assistant at Georgetown University. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the US Department of Defense, National War College, Georgetown University, or BenarNews.