“A hundred years ago, today was the future.” Emblazoned on a shopper’s tote bag here in the Thai capital Bangkok, the words acquire a slightly ominous tone when one takes them in amid the steady drip, drip, drip of news reports and social media posts about the havoc underway across the globe due to climate change.
The future has, in many ways, been fast-forwarded to become the present. Climate change is no longer a far-off topic for scientists or government officials in air-conditioned halls, or just a protest campaign for noisy activists. The changes it has brought to human existence and the challenges to our ways of living, and to the natural world we wreck at our own risk, have arrived at our doorstep.
What was once seen as being of marginal concern - something worrisome only for small island states imperiled by sea-level rise or mountainous regions near glaciers - has become quite an urban concern in the last two or three years,
Today, communities are no longer just reading about something that may unfold someday; many are experiencing it. The language around the words ‘climate change’ is also changing, being replaced by the phrase ‘climate crisis’, ‘climate disaster’ – or ‘climate emergency’.
Information in the form of international reports, statistics and graphic descriptions and viral photographs, along with accounts of disasters extreme weather incidents, have been appearing much like unrelenting posts in the shared news feed of the 7.7 billion people in this planet.
“Many farmers in the mountains know the snow is receding, glaciers are shrinking, the weather is erratic but hadn’t linked them to climate change,” said Kunda Dixit, editor of the English-language ‘Nepali Times’ newspaper who had done photo essays showing growing melt pools in glaciers amid vanishing icefalls and retreating glaciers, including in the Mt Everest area. “But now there is much reference to global warming in the news that many now know what is happening.”
Climate change was not mainstream news even till two decades ago, agrees Dixit, author of the book ‘Dateline Earth: Journalism as if the Planet Mattered’. “Twenty years ago when I wrote ‘Dateline Earth’, it was pretty rare to talk about climate. It still was till 10 years ago. But in the past three years, climate is now trending. This is because of the fires, record temperatures, blizzards, droughts, heat waves,” he explained.
Indeed, climate change used to be seen as a not-really-news topic. ‘That’s news only for you in the alternative media’ was a comment familiar to those of us working in development-oriented news outlets in Southeast Asia.
LESSONS FROM PLASTIC?
These days, however, some might even take heart from the increased public awareness about plastic pollution, and how it has moved quickly, just over the last year or so, from the sidelines to the center. It is among today’s most popular, and accessible, environmental issue, its reach multiplied by visual proof of plastic waste swirling in oceans, never quite to decompose, and of dead whales found with a huge amounts of plastic in their stomachs (up to 40 kilograms of plastic waste inside one whale in the southern Philippines in March).
In what would have been unthinkable even in the very recent past, staff in convenience stores and malls now say ‘thank you’ when customers do not take their plastic bags, straws or plastic utensils. The list of bans and restrictions on the use of single-use plastics continues to grow in different countries.
In less than a year’s time since it was first proposed by Norway, a global agreement was reached in May among 187 countries to reduce pollution from plastic waste and track their movement outside their waters. The legally binding agreement used mechanisms under the Basel Convention, which aims to protect human health and the environment against hazardous wastes.
In Southeast Asia, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), held its first special ministerial meeting on marine debris, mostly plastic waste, in March. Its member countries Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, and Malaysia are often described as among the biggest producers of plastic pollution that goes into the seas.
The change underway in plastic habits among urban, middle-class consumers may well reflect a much larger shift underway that may be a useful factor in pushing climate change from the arena of knowledge, information and awareness, to that of action. Could this indeed be so? And if so, can this shift define responsible environmental behavior as a desirable social and political value, a norm shared by a seemingly growing number of publics?
TOO MUCH KNOWLEDGE
There has never been a time where so much science around climate change and its impacts are known, and have been measured over time. But action and action, whether on the individual, regional or global level, trails behind, while the slow destruction caused by our activities, the way we live, produce and consume, continues.
“Many Thais, even local people in rural areas understand about climate change,” said Suphakit Nuntavorakarn of the Healthy Public Policy Foundation in Bangkok. “But like many other environmental issues, we tend to perceive that it is important, but among many other important environmental problems and issues.”
There is a need to “make climate change related to people’s daily lives, not as a ‘global’ issue,” Suphakit said. He cited the example of how in early 2019, air pollution from high levels of fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) became just about everyone’s concern in Thailand because there was little escape from it. “PM2.5 is a good example when people feel that it's related to their daily life.”
Still, there is often quite a long way to go between the knowing, seeing and feeling impact of climate change to what individuals do, especially in the case of urban residents. “They are so remote from the natural environment. They are also immersed in consumer culture and the commodification of nature,” reflected Toshiyuki Doi of Mekong Watch Japan, who has worked with communities in the Mekong region for two decades. At the same time, “their concerns over health issues making them aware of environmental issues more recently.”
NOT SO LONG AGO
As it is, the world has taken decades to get to this point. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the organization of 195 states and groups that summarize and provide the world’s governments scientific data on climate, is just 31 years old. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change marked its 25th anniversary in March this year.
The first global targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which reflect the commitments that were politically palatable enough for governments to hammer out, were set in 2015 - only four years ago. This is the Paris Agreement, under which governments signed in with nationally determined contributions (NDCs) toward the goal of keeping global temperature rise within this century to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. This includes trying to keep the rise in global warming to 1.5 Celsius, which the IPCC said in September 2018 is nowhere on track.
Climate change has been listed by the UN’s latest report on global biodiversity as one of five main drivers behind the unprecedented changes in biodiversity and ecosystems on Earth - and this happened just over the last 50 years. One million species face extinction in just decades, says the summary of the Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services that was released in May.
Significantly, the report puts as much emphasis on the fact that it is human beings who are responsible for this situation - which will harm our economies, livelihoods, food security and quality of life - as much as it does on the extent of the destruction of natural species.
Another report got less media coverage when it was released in February, but is as worrisome in revealing the damage that the Earth’s warming has done. The Himalayan mountains will lose more than one-third of their ice by the end of the century, according to the 627-page report ‘Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment: Climate Change, Sustainability and People’ that was produced by the Kathmandu-based International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).
Much attention goes to the melting of the Greenland ice sheet and the retreat of glaciers in the Arctic and Antarctica. But the melting of Himalayan glaciers is firmly within Southeast Asia’s radar, not least because the Himalayas feeds Asia’s major rivers and water systems, including the Mekong. Himalayan peaks are warming between 0.3 to 0.7 degrees Celsius faster than the global average, according to the ICIMOD report, and the loss of ice in the Himalayas would have devastating impacts for some 1.6 billion people in the mountains and downstream countries.
LIVING IN CLIMATE RISK
For Southeast Asia, along with the larger Asia-Pacific, climate change and its impacts have been playing out in the present tense for some time, including through extreme, untypical weather events and climate-related displacements of populations.
In the 14th annual report of “real-world impacts” of extreme weather events linked to climate change, the 2019 ‘Global Climate Risk Index’ of Germanwatch found that four of the 10 most affected countries are in Asia, of which two, Vietnam and Thailand, are in Southeast Asia. The CRI quantifies the impacts of extreme weather events to explain countries' exposure and vulnerability to climate-related risks based on the world’s most reliable databases on natural catastrophes, the Munich Re NatCatSERVICE.
The Climate Risk Index (CRI), using 2017 data, ranks Vietnam as sixth in the list, with 298 deaths from “persistent weather extremes” that induced storms, typhoons and droughts and losses of more than 4 million dollars. Thailand, hit by extreme rainfall and heavy floods, ranked 10th in this list, with 176 deaths and 4.37 million dollars in losses.
When the same index looks at the 20-year period from 1998 to 2017, three Southeast Asian countries are among the most at-risk countries - Myanmar is third, the Philippines is fifth and Vietnam ninth. The 1998-2017 period includes 2008, when Cyclone Nargis, a Category 4 storm (the highest category is 5) lashed across Myanmar, in what was among the worst disasters to hit the country and caused some 140,000 deaths.
Extreme weather incidents take a much heavier toll on developing countries, including in the Asia-Pacific.
“Particularly in relative terms, poorer developing countries are hit much harder,” the report explained. “Loss of life, personal hardship and existential threats are also much more widespread especially in low-income countries.”
Even when disaster events like cyclones subside, displacement and disruption do not. “The poorest and often most vulnerable people have less costly property that may be damaged by a hurricane, but the catastrophic impact on their livelihoods is much greater,” the CRI report for 2019 added.
“Communities that have been hit by cyclones are often led more vulnerable to other hazards and impact of climate change. Furthermore, they have fewer resources available to respond to future impacts and lack the ability to deal with such events adequately as they lack the institutional, financial of technological capacity to do so,” it said.
While it is not easy to draw a direct causal line between certain weather events and climate change, the IPCC in 2014 pointed out that climate change-related impacts have indeed been occurring, stemming from events like extreme rainfall, heat waves and coastal flooding that are expected to increase in frequency as the global mean temperatures continue to rise.
Rising sea-surface temperatures are already a factor in increasing storm wind speeds and rainfall. The year 2018 was the hottest year ever recorded for the world’s oceans. Consider this: Storms absorb the abnormal amounts of moisture that evaporates from warmer seas, amid warm humid air, and acquire more ‘power’ as they make their way across oceans to coastal areas. Upon landfall, they then release massive amounts of rain that can cause devastation.
Today, more people are being displaced by disasters - most of them climate-related - than by conflict and violence, according to the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC). Out of 28 million newly displaced people in the world In 2018, 61% (17.2 million) were displaced by disasters compared to 39% (10.78 million) displaced by conflict and violence, reported the IDMC’s just-released Global Report on Internal Displacement 2019.
There is more: Of all the people displaced by disasters, 93.6% (16.1 million people) were displaced by climate-related ones - mostly due to storms, followed by cyclones, hurricanes and typhoons and floods.
East Asia and the Pacific accounted for 34% of the total number of people displaced in 2018, or 9.568 million, the largest figure among all the regions in the IDMC report. A total of 97.5% of its displaced population was displaced by disasters, a statistic that reveals how the displacement of people in East Asia and the Pacific is so much more tied to disasters than Africa’s, which are mostly due to conflict.
The Philippines, China, Indonesia, Myanmar and Japan are the top five countries accounting for the most new displacement in 2018 in the region. The Philippines alone accounted for 3.8 million newly displaced people due to disaster, of which 1.6 million (40%) were displaced by the strongest typhoon that year.
Even in 2016, the 10 largest displacement events were climate-related, a trend expected to increase. From hereon, the IDMC estimates that an average of 5.4 million people would be displaced by floods each year in East Asia and the Pacific.
At this point, the 0.5-degree Celsius difference between a 1.5 degree rise in global mean temperature from pre-industrial times and a 2-degree one is a game changer. From the IPCC’s 2018 special report, global mean temperatures continue to rise and the sharp curve downward needed to stay at a 1.5 degree change is not in sight. In fact, the same report says that the 1.5 degree increase in temperature could be reached in as little as just 11 years - and almost certainly within 20 years without major cuts in carbon dioxide emissions.
“Assuming that all the governments around the world agree and honor pledges, we are still very far from averting this crisis,” Albert Salamanca of the Stockholm Environment Institute Asia, based in Bangkok, said at an April workshop for journalists reporting on ASEAN issues.
For ASEAN countries, the impact of this slow-burn crisis requires them to adapt and develop ways to reduce vulnerability and boost resilience. A changed, unfamiliar climate context is a development risk factor. It has implications for poverty reduction, health, labor productivity, as well as agriculture, which contribute significantly to livelihoods and economic growth in Southeast Asia.
IN SEARCH OF ADAPTATION AND ASEAN’S ROLE
“Our net contribution to greenhouse gas emissions is actually very small, but when it comes to the impacts of climate change, we suffer more. So the issue for us is not actually mitigation, but adaptation,” Salamanca explained.
A review of ASEAN countries’ adaptation-readiness levels shows that those most affected by extreme weather, like Vietnam and the Philippines, are “adaptation pioneers”, Salamanca added, since “they have suffered a lot of disasters so they have gained a lot of insights on how to respond”.
Others, like Cambodia, Indonesia and Myanmar, fall under the group of “emerging champions” that are aware that they need to know how to deal with the impacts of climate change that are already underway, he continued. He says the rest, like Laos, Malaysia and Thailand, are “wait-and-see adaptors” that have so far not experienced the worst disasters. (Thailand, however, has seen extreme weather in recent years.)
Interestingly, 51.6% of respondents from ASEAN countries chose climate change to be among the top three security concerns facing Southeast Asia, in the ‘State of Southeast Asia: 2019’ report produced by the ASEAN Studies Centre at the Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. Threats from “more intense and frequent weather events resulting from climate change” outranked worries about an economic downturn, military tensions and terrorism. From 61.2 to 62.9% of respondents from Laos, the Philippines, Vietnam and Singapore chose climate change as their top security concern.
As a regional community, ASEAN does have a bureaucracy around climate change, has issued statements that send political signals and, under Thailand’s chairmanship in 2019, is pushing that catchy word ‘sustainability’. Proud of its relevance in the regional and global architecture, it has not, however, developed its centrality on the issue of climate change, even if its own members bear its toll and their constituencies appear to be worried by it.
Even making room for ASEAN’s nature as an inter-governmental body that is not known for speedy radical action, ASEAN’s handling of climate change has not exactly been path-breaking in picking up the signals from its community and pushing what appears to be in the region’s common interest.
It has not used its weight much to initiate or negotiate a regional norm, or push its interests on behalf of its member countries hardest-hit by climate-related disasters, Salamanca pointed out. ASEAN’s approach has been “very silo, very compartmentalized”, he said. The ASEAN Secretariat’s working group on climate change does not engage much with those handling related issues such as marine environment and environmental education, for instance, he added.
Global negotiations have not seen an ASEAN approach on climate change matters in international fora, something that climate campaigners attribute to factors such as conflicting interests among member states in different stages of development and their differing contributions to greenhouse gas emissions.
Yet, Salamanca points out, countries such as those in the Alliance of Small Island States have used their group as a platform to lobby, successfully, for the inclusion of the “loss and damage” concept in the Paris Agreement because they bear the brunt of sea-level rise. “What seems to be missing in climate change is really that ASEAN presence,” he said.
ASEAN’s brand of integration is different from the European Union’s, which involves setting common regional policies binding on member states. But Salamanca asked: “Is ASEAN as a political grouping actually setting the norm when it comes to the climate change crisis? They have statements. But are statements enough, to change the behavior of each of the member states?”
“You can almost ask what is the point of a regional body, if it does not set the norm,” he said.
Are states inherently slower than their citizens, who appear to be increasingly able to draw a straight line from how they consume or use things, in a very capitalist mindset, all the way to environment destruction?
WANTED: MORE OUTLIERS
The status quo brings with it an inertia that pulls the world down like gravity does and makes drastic changes difficult, even if these may be shaping up to be the politically savvy option. But this same inertia has also bred outliers - those who buck the system - who emerge and try to shake off this inability to move.
In more signs of changing times, which show that decarbonisation is indeed in, more countries are doing the untypical and quitting coal in the next few decades, including Italy, the Netherlands, Canada. Belgium closed its last coal power plant in 2016. Costa Rica says it aims to be carbon neutral by 2021, and New Zealand aims to be using renewables for all its energy needs by 2035.
Probably the most known outlier in terms of environment issues is 16-year-old Swedish student Greta Thunberg, who was so disturbed by the lack of climate change that she started to skip school to go on a climate strike outside the Swedish parliament. Her school strike was copied in many parts of the world on March 15, and led to the UN calling for - somewhat predictably - a climate summit in September.
Could these mean that more quixotic, impractical actions are needed, and are even becoming popular, so that the definition of being a decent citizen, whether at the individual, country, regional or global level, would include a consciousness of everyone’s relationship to the whole?
Thunberg’s context is different from Southeast Asia’s. But could the response to her untypical action point to some redefinition of how we define our place as human beings on the planet, in contrast to approaching it as territory to be conquered?
It is a tempting question to think about: whether the tipping point for social-political action or movement to reduce the worst impacts and habits related to climate change lies somewhere in the no-longer-so-unimaginable future.
“It will take several decades for some of us in Asia to react like the Europeans, who are changing lifestyles and reducing their carbon footprint because of historical guilt, awareness about what warming is doing globally, and the belief that everyone should do their bit,” said Dixit.
“This may sound like word play, but to me, unless awareness translates into action, it is not awareness,” said Doi. “It’s probably merely information sharing or dissemination.”
Increasing awareness includes challenging current ways of thinking and dealing with sectors that hold power - and these are not always states and governments. Just 100 companies or ‘carbon majors’ from the industrialised and developing worlds account for more than 70% of industrial greenhouse gas emissions since 1988, mostly from the extraction of fossil fuels, says the ‘Carbon Majors Report’ for 2017.
In 2016, a group of Filipinos and civil society groups lodged a complaint with the country’s Human Rights Commission against 47 carbon majors, saying that their production of greenhouse gases has caused harm that violates their human rights.
“Policies and public campaigns can do a lot in changing people’s behaviors, However, what needs to be changed are really big industries, and policies and systems which support them,” added Doi. “Changes in individual behaviour are meaningful especially among urban residents, because we also support big industries, and can demand them to change. But individual change can take us only so far without demanding structural changes.”