It is particularly exposed to rising sea levels with its archipelagic countries, small island states and large coastal population centres, while extreme heat is impacting large geographic areas and densely populated urban settlements.
The region faces huge challenges not only in dealing with the geophysical effects of climate change, but in terms of fragility risks such as adaptation capacity, lower economic development and governance. For countries in the region that have ongoing domestic conflicts, the economic and cultural effects of climate change, such as the forced displacement of vulnerable groups and communities, are likely to compound the conflicts.
Despite the plethora of robust scientific studies, global summits and conferences on climate change, the urgency in dealing with the climate emergency is often lost in the technical details. The kinds of framings associated with climate change also inform the nature of policy responses. Policies to address climate change are framed within the environment and sustainable development, green growth, circular economies, resilience and climate justice. What has been missing in the policy debate is the language of security — climate security. This framing could help elevate this issue to the highest priority in the political and security agendas of states.
For non-security analysts, linking climate change with security often raises concerns about the unintended consequences. There are concerns that climate security may become a military-driven agenda, given that this kind of framing is now seen in military circles. It could justify an increased role of the military in ‘non-military’ matters.
Getting the militaries of like-minded states to work together on climate security may also be viewed as reinforcing alliances or defence arrangements like the Quad. Despite the expansion of the Quad’s agenda beyond naval exercises, it has not been able to shake off the perception that its purpose is to contain China. Climate security becoming part of the Quad’s agenda could risk reinforcing major power competition instead of cooperation.
While climate security sits well with the conventional considerations of the climate’s impact on national security and defence, security threats from a human security perspective are equally — if not more — compelling. Climate change affects all aspects of human security. The wide-ranging security impacts can be seen in times of extreme weather events. In 2021, 174 natural disasters were reported in the Asian region, with around 66.8 million people affected, including over 12 million displaced in East Asia and the Pacific region — all significant increases on previous years. Between 2017 and 2021, approximately 36,000 lives were lost because of natural disasters.
The economic loss of these disasters has been staggering. Thailand’s floods in 2011 caused more than US$45 billion in economic loss and damage. As the flood inundated large parts of human settlements, farms and infrastructure, close to 10,000 factories were affected — seriously disrupting international supply chains.
The IPCC report noted that the impacts of climate change on food security can be seen in declining crop yields and quality of produce, increasing incidence of pests and diseases, stunted growth, livestock mortality and low farm incomes. In China, flooding patterns are expected to alter crop areas and land use. Within Southeast Asia, areas in Cambodia, Northwest Vietnam, Northeast Thailand and the Philippines are expected to have significant yield reductions, although these are within longer timeframes.
Climate change poses threats to human health as environmental changes can affect the occurrence of communicable and non-communicable diseases. Dengue cases are expected to become more severe and health issues relating to increased heat are set to become more prevalent. The ongoing COVID-19 health crisis has also flagged the increasing incidence of infections of zoonotic origins. The COVID-19 pandemic was not just a global health crisis but also an economic crisis. Global poverty rose significantly with 150 million more people falling into extreme poverty and 100 million more undernourished people globally.
The magnitude of the climate emergency is such that its effects extend well beyond food, the environment and health. The Indo-Pacific region is a geostrategic arena for geopolitical tensions and competition between major powers in the region. This explains why the Secretary General of the United Nations has called the climate emergency a danger to global peace and security. There is urgency for the region to engage proactively on climate security.
For a region where ideas of comprehensive security, human security and non-traditional security are deeply ingrained and seen in states’ practices, advancing the agenda of climate security goes a long way in helping states address climate-related security risks while promoting regional cooperation. Regional organisations like ASEAN should be at the forefront of climate security engagement and urge other regional institutions to integrate climate security in their respective agendas.
These regional organisations should put more effort into ‘climate-proofing’ areas of cooperation, which include economic cooperation, trade and investment, food, energy, health and the environment. Existing regional mechanisms like the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief, the ASEAN Plus Three Emergency Rice Reserve and the ASEAN Centre for Public Health Emergencies and Emerging Diseases should be strengthened. More attention should be given to building regional capacity in adaptation, including climate financing. More investment is also needed to support energy transition, such as building sustainable infrastructure in renewables.
Inter-agency learning would also be useful and should take a leaf from how the military sector has advanced operational preparedness in emergency responses in a changing climate. Military investments in green technology and adaptation of military training to navigate exposure to extreme weather events reflect how seriously they take the security threats of climate change. Efforts by South Korea and Singapore to bolster ‘military greening efforts’ and use renewable energy are noteworthy.
Given that climate security is cross-cutting, governments should build partnerships with civil society groups, academic and scientific communities and the media. Countries in the region should be thinking about what needs to be put in place today to protect and ensure the security of their peoples and states, prevent conflict and sustain peace in a climate change world.
Mely Caballero-Anthony is Professor of International Relations and Head of the Centre for Non-Traditional Security Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
This article appears in the most recent edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Comprehensive Regional Security’, Vol 14, No 4.