Climate change is a low priority in Southeast Asia. The region's climate always changes, from year to year, with the unreliable monsoon. It's hot already. The ice sheets may be melting but they are a long way away. Only in the Philippines did Greta Thunberg's call for international protest gain much response. But maybe this complacency is due to change.
The hard work on assessing and synthesising the science on climate change has been done by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In its fifth report published in 2014, the IPCC for the first time provided analysis by each of the world's regions. This showed the average temperature in Southeast Asia had increased by 1C since 1901, and the rainfall had trended upwards, but the changes were mild compared to regions nearer the poles. Projections for the coming century were also less dramatic than elsewhere.
But the report concealed another message. It included a table showing its confidence in the data available. For Southeast Asia, 42 out of 60 topics were classified as "Limited information/no data; critical knowledge gaps, difficult to draw conclusions". The projections for the future were rated as no firmer than "likely", and many sub-regional projections were skipped on grounds of "insufficient evidence". Particularly on the weather, IPCC seemed to be struggling. It reported that "Regional circulations, such as the monsoon, are expected to change," but offered no indication of how they might change. On Enso -- the El Nino/La Nina effect which causes unusually dry or wet years -- it found no evidence that warming caused by greenhouse gases had changed its "natural modulation". And it found no trend in the incidence of cyclones.
All countries of the region signed on to the Paris Agreement in 2015, and set out preliminary targets for reducing carbon emissions over the coming years. Most of the countries now have a long-term plan for mitigation and adaptation to climate change. Thailand's plan extends to 2050. But little is being done to turn intentions into actions. Thailand's medium-term plan for electricity generation, recently updated, is totally incompatible with the long-term plan on climate change.
In Europe, Japan, the US and Australia, the present-day impact of climate change has become steadily more obvious over recent years. People can see it and feel it in their everyday lives. In Southeast Asia, less so. The region is accustomed to the instability of the natural environment. Droughts and floods are normal. Cyclones are erratic. Earthquakes are common. A little extra instability has been hard to detect.
The limited state of knowledge on climate change in the region should be troubling, but in practice makes the issue easier to ignore.
But the situation is now changing. The year 2015 saw an unusually severe El Nino effect. In 2017 and again in 2018, the cyclones pounding the Vietnamese coast were more numerous and more violent. This year is again a strong El Nino, causing widespread droughts.
Germanwatch, an NGO, constructed a Global Climate Risk Index based on the costs incurred by extreme weather events since 1998. Among 124 countries in the index, several in Southeast Asia ranked high: Myanmar 3rd, Philippines 5th, Vietnam 9th, Thailand 13th, and Cambodia 19th. Only the Caribbean has suffered more. The preliminary reports from the IPCC's sixth round show that the impact in tropical and subtropical zones will be much worse than earlier predicted.
Local research in the region has begun to fill in some of the gaps in knowledge. Researchers in Thailand now believe that the Enso effect has become more erratic over recent years, and is likely to go on doing so. They predict that the monsoon will become stronger and more erratic, delivering fewer rain events but much greater intensity, meaning more flooding and more drought. In the last few weeks, what this means has been dramatically demonstrated. In the middle of a dry El Nino year, two tropical storms dropped so much rain on the Mun River basin that Ubon Ratchathani and parts of adjacent provinces became a huge lake. Just days earlier, parts of Khon Kaen had been flash-flooded, forcing many families to take refuge on roof tops.
In the region, climate change is not a big issue. Southeast Asia is a minor contributor to global emissions (12% of the total). Governments see little reason to act when there is no popular support. Why should these countries invest in reducing carbon emissions when the impact may be cancelled out by increasing emissions by the rich countries?
The impact of climate change does not arrive as a "big bang", as a sudden disruption, but as a gradual intensification of existing problems and trends. The countries of the region in general already suffer from over-exploitation of natural resources; growing water shortages; deterioration of the rivers and seas; uncontrolled deforestation; rising inequalities; dislocation, migration, and human trafficking; and chaotic urbanisation.
Climate change is already worsening these trends in ways that cannot be isolated and identified as being the result of climate change. And this will continue. The costs of coping with extreme weather and health care will gradually rise. Revenue from tourism will slowly decline (because of impacts like haze).
Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit are renowned scholars. This article is adapted from a keynote speech at the symposium on 'Climate Change, Natural Disaster, and Security in Southeast Asia' at Kyushu University, Fukuoka, on Sept 11.