In recent months, biblical flooding in Houston, a devastating string of hurricanes in the Caribbean and deadly wildfires in California have thrust the discussion of climate change, once largely relegated to academic circles and political debates, into our daily consciousness.
Meteorologists are always careful not to attribute single weather events to climate change. But the overwhelming majority of scientists agree that the warming of our planet caused by manmade greenhouse gas emissions is fueling stronger, more frequent storms, historic spikes in seasonal temperatures and other disruptive weather patterns.
While record-breaking heatwaves and Category 5 hurricanes often garner headlines, climate change is a slow-moving train-wreck. Perhaps nowhere is this gradual but alarming phenomenon more evident than in the rise in global sea levels, as higher temperatures trigger more, and faster, polar ice melt and expanding warmer water.
According to NASA’s satellite data, since 1993, global sea levels have been rising at a rate of 3.4 millimeters per year. That may not seem like much, but this steady rise means big trouble for coastal populations as encroaching waters swamp habitats, homes, businesses infrastructure and the economy.
Climate change has the potential to cut global GDP by more than 20 percent by 2100, according to a study publicized by the Brookings Institution. This is up to 10 times greater than previous estimates.
And while rising sea levels and natural disasters that strike parts of the developed world such as U.S. East Coast tend to attract the most attention, it is developing nations that will be hit hardest by the effects of climate change.
Perhaps nowhere is this creeping catastrophe more insidious than in Southeast Asia, which has among the highest levels of sea rise in the world and is emblematic of the struggles that emerging countries face between the push for economic growth and the new realities of a warming world.
“Sea-level rise and other climate change impacts could be devastating for emerging economies in the region,” Pradeep Kurukulasuriya, head of climate change adaptation for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), wrote in an email to The Diplomat. “It’s not just economic development we are talking about. It’s also about human development. The impact of sea-level rise will worsen inequalities (already a serious issue in many countries), increase food insecurity (by increasing food prices), worsen gender equality and other goals outlined in the [U.N.] 2030 Agenda [for Sustainable Development] and Paris Agreement.”
According to the April 26, 2017, report “Asia’s Creeping Catastrophe” by Jonathan Hillman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “Asia is the world’s most vulnerable region to a one-meter sea level rise, given its exposure in terms of population, economic activity, and landmass.”
Rising sea levels directly affect coastal populations by decreasing the amount of habitable land. About 8.7 million people will be displaced by 2050 due to rising sea levels, according to a study cited by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in its January 2017 report “Impacts of Sea Level Rise on Economic Growth in Developing Asia.”
An earlier 2010 report by USAID cited even direr predictions — with a one-meter rise in sea levels displacing roughly 24 million in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines alone.
A report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change cites the following numbers of people who will be affected by rising sea levels in the region: 5.5 million in Bangladesh; 7.1 million in India; 2 million in Indonesia; 2.9 million in Japan; and 17.1 million in Vietnam.
Far-Reaching Economic Impact
Southeast Asia is one of the fastest-growing, most dynamic regions in the world. Together, the nations of the 10-member ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) boast the planet’s fifth-largest economy, with a combined GDP of $2.4 trillion, and the world’s third-largest population.
Yet there will be an 11 percent decline in Southeast Asia’s GDP by 2100 due to climate change, the ADB predicts.
Increasing global temperatures will trigger not just sea-level rise but also more heat stress for coastal populations, which will decrease a country’s productivity. By 2045, Singapore and Malaysia will take the biggest regional hit in terms of climate change-related decreases in productivity — up to 25 percent, Global Risk Insights reported. Productivity decreases are predicted to be 21 percent in Indonesia; 16 percent in Cambodia and the Philippines; and 12 percent in Thailand and Vietnam.
Rising sea levels and shifting weather patterns associated with climate change have far-reaching economic effects, beyond the direct costs of coping with flooding and more intense storms. For example, rising sea levels cause ocean acidification that kills off marine populations, which in turn threatens the fishing industry. It also affects agriculture. Vietnam is especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
“The key is you have two major river deltas, the Red River Delta and the Mekong Delta, that would both be subject to saltwater intrusion and flooding that comes with storm surges exacerbated by sea-level rise, and the question of saltwater intrusion is already affecting Vietnam and will probably diminish their agricultural productivity,” Linda Yarr, the director of Partnerships for International Strategies in Asia at the George Washington University, told The Diplomat. “The River Delta and Mekong Delta are two of the major rice baskets of the world, particularly in Vietnam. Vietnam is the second-leading exporter of rice. When you have diminished productivity in rice for Asia — you have 90 percent of the world’s rice production and consumption there — you can have major disruptions in food security for the region and the world.”
UNDP has been supporting Vietnam’s efforts to adapt to climate change. “Given that agriculture employs 47 percent of the total population (as of 2013), climate change could have a direct impact on Vietnam’s labor market, as well as the nation’s ability to achieve development goals,” Kurukulasuriya wrote to The Diplomat.
The impact of climate change on crop yields, however, is unpredictable at the moment. “With rainy and dry seasons’ rainfall patterns changing, both as a result of increased temperatures but also as a result of higher sea levels and higher sea temperatures, this could actually mean increased productivity on the farm in the dry season, but potential decreases in the rainy season,” Kurukulasuriya explained. “It’s this unpredictability that is really concerning. If farmers, international exporters and commodities traders can’t accurately predict agricultural yields, then markets will face increased uncertainty. And in the end, uncertainty, higher risks and more unpredictability have negative consequences on all, especially the poor and vulnerable and those who are forced back into poverty, as important previous gains in opportunities are eroded.”
The amount of freshwater available for both agriculture and human consumption will decrease as saltwater moves further inland with rising sea levels. Vietnam and Myanmar, in particular, have large areas of low-elevation delta that can be affected by salinity intrusion, David Raitzer, an economist at ADB, told The Diplomat in an email. “Salinity intrusion happens when saline seawater covers greater land areas and intermixes with freshwater aquifers…. This poses a risk for both agricultural production and drinking water,” he wrote.
Tourism will be another heavily affected part of the economy. “Tourism will be adversely impacted not only as beaches are inundated, but because temperatures become too hot to be attractive, coral reefs die out as the oceans warm and acidify, and the frequency of disaster events rises,” wrote Raitzer.
Warming temperatures affect coral reefs, which are already undergoing bleaching events that are killing off coral as warmer temperatures and a more acidic ocean take their toll on these fragile and essential coastal ecosystems. The World Bank reports that there is a 50 percent probability of annual coral bleaching events occurring as early as 2030, and estimates predict that all coral reefs in Southeast Asia are likely to experience severe stress by 2050. These reefs provide a critical source of food, protection from natural disasters and livelihood (through tourism and fishing) for coastal populations.
Adaptation, Resiliency: Challenges and Strategies
Infrastructure is one of the primary challenges that must be addressed when it comes to climate adaptation. Southeast Asia already needs to invest heavily just to keep up with growth; throwing in expensive climate-adaptation measures ratchets up the costs.
In general, developing countries in Asia need to invest $1.7 trillion a year in infrastructure until 2030 to maintain growth, tackle poverty and respond to climate change, according to the ADB. That adds up to a staggering $26 trillion between 2016 and 2030 — double what these countries are currently spending on infrastructure.
Port infrastructure, for example, will be affected as sea level rises. “There are different ways of climate-proofing ports,” Jonathan Hillman, the director of the Reconnecting Asia Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The Diplomat. “Indonesia is building a large sea wall, and that’s a pretty extreme example. That’s going to be tens of billions of dollars. Often, places have to make decisions like: Should we raise the level of our terminals? It doesn’t always make economic sense to do that. They’d be better off building a new port in a different area,” he explained, noting that new projects can benefit from climate change prediction data to select better building sites.
Oftentimes, however, the need to deliver economic growth clashes with the need to curb greenhouse gas emissions. A prime example of this development dichotomy is electricity, a pathway to opportunity in emerging nations.
“Balancing the need to provide electrification with the imperative of reducing emissions is a real challenge,” Stephen Groff, vice president of operations at ADB, told The Diplomat.
More broadly, climate mitigation, adaptation and resiliency strategies must be integrated into national development strategies, said Groff. All of this comes with a hefty price tag.
Take roads, for instance. Increased flooding associated with climate change means roads must be built to withstand the new normal. Roads might need to be raised, and the construction material must be more durable to brave the elements. Deciding how much money to invest means weighing immediate needs with long-term concerns.
“You want to think not just from a short-term cost perspective but life-of-investment perspective,” Groff said. “How do you build something that’s fully resilient to climate impacts and being mindful of the cost? What’s the best balance of cost versus resiliency?” Striking this balance is essential for governments of developing countries, which are likely going into debt to finance these projects.
Climate-sensitive sectors such as agriculture, forestry and fisheries should also get more attention, said Raitzer. These sectors typically employ impoverished people. “As these sectors decline as a share of overall economies when economic growth is rapid, policymakers are often prone to ignore investments in their long-term productivity,” he wrote to The Diplomat. “This should change, and investment in agricultural research, water-efficient irrigation, detailed weather forecasting, and governance of land and water resources should be ramped up.”
Investing in Change
The ADB is a major player in climate change-related financing, with a goal of increasing such financing in developing Asia to $6 billion annually by 2020, of which $2 billion is for adaptation. Last year, it committed more than $1 billion for adaptation. The bank is also leveraging private investment for climate resilience.
The Green Climate Fund, which helps developing countries limit or reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate change, is another significant source of financing. As of September 2017, it has disbursed $10.3 million for readiness and mobilized $10.3 billion in resources.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative, with investment funding possibly in the trillions of dollars, is an additional vehicle for financing climate change-related projects.
Societal investments, such as improving education so that young people can broaden their employment options, can also help developing countries deal with the challenges of climate change, Yarr suggested.
“Another place of investment is working out processes of early warning and on a regional cooperative basis so there’s sharing of disaster risk and response capabilities,” she said. “That’s an investment in diplomacy, an investment in countries using international organizations in a way that’s effective.”
Climate change experts agree that the challenge must be a shared load. “The main challenge we face here is one, ultimately, of full awareness and making sure we are going into these challenges with our eyes wide open, that we are ready to make the investments necessary to protect populations from the worst impacts of climate change,” said Groff. “That will happen through investments in infrastructure, flexible financial products that can help countries adapt when disaster strikes and cooperation among countries.”
He added: “No country is immune. We’ll need to come together to work on this. This is the most significant challenge that we as a collective community face in the coming decades.”
About the Author
Aileen Torres-Bennett is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.