The rising stake of Human Security amid Climate change in the Indo-Pacific Region

Sanchita Chatterjee
January 26, 2020


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Climate change has been steadily portrayed as a security issue in recent years, with some analysts even going further to term it as the 21st century’s most pressing security issue. Amid Australian bushfires, we need to reengage talks to clarify where we stand on the mutual relation between climate catastrophes, climate change, and human security. One of the most vulnerable areas to climate is the Asia-Pacific region, which is home to 60 percent of the world’s population. Climate change is known as a risk factor for violent conflicts. Furthermore, economic status, social cohesion levels, and the effectiveness of decision-making processes around a state are also essential factors in predicting the threat posed by climate change. 

The Asia-Pacific region is particularly vulnerable to environmental disasters, which severely hamper efforts to reduce poverty and sustainable development in the region. With long coastlines, high population concentration, economic activity in coastal areas, heavy reliance on agriculture, natural resources, and forestry, South-East Asia is one of the most vulnerable regions in the world to climate change. There is already an on-going process of impact observed in this decade, which has seen extreme weather events such as rising heat waves, droughts, floods, and tropical cyclones. It intensifies water shortages, hampers agricultural production and puts food security at risk, triggers forest fires and coastal erosion, and raises health risks.

If emissions continue to rise, the average annual average temperature in Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam is projected to rise from 1990 level by 4.8 degrees Celsius by 2100; the average global average sea level is projected to rise by 70 cm during the same time, with dire consequences for the region. In the next 20 to 30 years, Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam are expected to see increasingly drier conditions. Rising sea level will submerge much of the Maldives in more extreme climate change scenarios and flood up to 18 percent of Bangladesh’s territories. Climate change can alter the demographic situation, can induce forced migration, and fuel social insecurities, loss of land, and livelihood. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported in a landmark report last year ‘that the global sea levels are rising faster than expected’. There is a direct correlation between the cause and consequences which need comprehensive, integrated strategies that could identify possible collaborative action to lessen its impacts on people and communities. Floods and landslides caused by torrential monsoon rains swept through India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, leaving destruction and hundreds of deaths in 2019. Last year, China, Vietnam, Japan, India, Bangladesh, South Korea, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines were all hit by tropical storms and typhoons or cyclones, causing dozens of deaths, hundreds of thousands displaced, and millions of dollars in damage. Indonesia also plans to move its densely populated capital, Jakarta, to Borneo in order to protect its people from devastating floods.

Another critical threat to climate refugees is also exacerbated by the fact that people who are forced to migrate because of changes in the local environment are currently not recognized under international law, noting that other nations could deny from their responsibilities to grant ‘climate refugees’.i In Australia and other parts of the Indo-Pacific region, the essence of the impacts of climate change is consistent with its current role as a risk intensifier rather than a direct cause of conflict. The combined threat of social, economic, and climate-related migration to human security is expected to increase in this region. In the Indo-Pacific region, where reduced access to essential resources serves as a point of dispute, climate change further pulls down the risk to lower levels. The threat posed by this environmental phenomenon to global security is greatly heightened by a significant population boom, which also contributes to increasing pressure on the region’s water resources. According to the United Nations Development Program, adapting to the rising sea levels will be a crucial challenge for Asia-Pacific. Measures include defending coastlines and infrastructure, mangrove restoration, and identifying areas at risk from flooding. Due to the complex and wide-ranging implications of climate change on international security, both national and international issues, need to be addressed. Preparing for more extreme weather costs money and wealthier nations are being called upon to provide funding and infrastructure for smaller economies to rebound from the impacts of the climate crisis.

In December 2019, the UN Climate Change Conference revealed the considerable disconnect between the world’s largest polluting countries and demands for change from the global community. This year, numerous conferences, summits, and promises have made public calls for climate action. The Asian Development Bank predicts the cost of US$ 40 billion annually in order to adjust to climate change for Asia and the Pacific between now and 2050. Nonetheless, multilateral Asia-Pacific development banks are currently allocating just US$ 2.5 billion to the region. While many people in developed countries see the climate crisis as an immediate, yet a futuristic problem, it is already affecting every part of life for millions living in the Asia-Pacific. Japan will be among 31 Asia-Pacific countries in the January 2020 Asia Pacific Parliamentary Forum in Canberra where it has tabled a draft climate change resolution. Australia has tabled its edition, omitting any reference to disasters. The main challenges facing this approach are the unequal nature of the ties and commitments between the countries and the absence of a broader structure for cooperation. As far now, after the Australian bushfire crisis, a group of financial academics has proposed the setting up of a regional fund to mitigate the Asia-Pacific impact of climate change. Under the Paris consensus scenario, an increase in temperature between 1.5°C and 2°C will present significant challenges for the region. Given that the coming decade is critical for implementing effective mitigation steps to deliver on the Paris Agreement, high priority must be given to investments leading to the rapid decarbonization of the Asian economy. 

In the end, it’s high time for all the stakeholders to come forward to make existing policies effective. At the same time, adaptation measures need to be implemented to protect the region’s most vulnerable populations.

*** The author is currently pursuing Ph.D. as a Junior Research Fellow (JRF) in the Centre for Inner Asian Studies, School of International Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University (New Delhi). She completed her B.A. (hons) and M.A. in Political Science, Jadavpur University (Kolkata) and her M.Phil. from Centre for Inner Asian Studies, SIS, JNU (New Delhi). ***


1. Barnett, J and Adger, N (2007), “Climate change, human security and violent conflict”, Melbourne: the school of Social and Environmental Enquiry, University of Melbourne