The Indo-Pacific’s climate time bomb

Image credit: Charles Wiriawan (Flickr: Creative Commons)

The Indo-Pacific is one of the world’s regions most at-risk of suffering the negative effects of climate change predicted to unfold over the coming decades. The “threat multiplier”, whereby climate change exacerbates existing threats, presents a clear security threat to both the Indo-Pacific region and the rest of the globe. Australia is no exception.

In 2017, the Climate Risk Index (CRI) published the top ten most climate affected countries between 1996 and 2015. Of these, six were located in the Indo-Pacific. Due to its low-lying land and already warm climate, the region is at high-risk of extreme weather events, including flooding, tsunamis, cyclones and extreme storms. Of the 25 cities most exposed to a one-metre rise in sea levels, 19 are in Asia, with seven located in the Philippines alone. Global rankings calculating vulnerability consistently identify some of the world’s largest and fastest-growing economies as some of the highest at-risk countries. Notably, the world’s soon-to-be most populous nation and top four economy, India, is the second most at-risk country in the world.

There are many convincing moral and ethical arguments for providing support to the Indo-Pacific and working to reduce carbon emissions; but if these arguments are not enough, the security and financial risks posed to Australia while the Indo-Pacific remains under such critical threat should give policymakers pause to think. This threat is irrefutable and real, and such is its scale that it demands immediate action.

The Paris Agreement of 2015 highlighted the important role that Asia and the Pacific must play in combatting climate change, calling for private and public investment in both decarbonising Asia and mitigating the effects of climate change – in short, to provide aid in the event of severe disasters, and to contribute to building defences.

In addition, Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper noted the nation’s commitment to its leadership role in responding to disasters, particularly in the Pacific, and acknowledged that climate change will increase the prevalence of such disasters. Flooding, cyclones, typhoons and severe storms, experienced particularly in the Indo-Pacific due to its already tropical environment, have negative impacts on growth, cause economic disruptions and destroy infrastructure.

These disasters carry with them obvious and immediate consequences, such as the cost of rebuilding, rescue and recovery, providing logistical support and developing preventative structures. However, long-term inaction in this space threatens much larger consequences. As climate change continues to develop, natural disasters will become more severe and more frequent, and as the demise of newly rebuilt areas becomes inevitable, the incentive to rebuild reduces. Damage then becomes frequent at best, and permanent at worst. This has the potential to undermine institutional capacities, particularly government and public services.

In a snowball-style deterioration, lack of services and efficiency, coupled with exposure to the harrowing effects of climate change, will likely increase political and social unrest, and in extreme circumstances, cause domestic conflict as services and protection became inefficient and/or scarce. In these instances, Australia is committed to providing support. This would increase foreign aid costs, reducing funds available in other areas of government spending.

Permanent damage also has the potential to incite mass migration and refugee crises in some of the world’s most vulnerable areas. As the Indo-Pacific contains low-lying land, rising sea levels and intense flooding from severe storms may render swathes of land uninhabitable. It is likely that populations will seek to relocate before this point. 13 of the top 20 cities with the largest growth of annual flood losses between 2005 and 2050 are in Asia and the Pacific, including Ho Chi Minh City, Jakarta, Mumbai, Bangkok, and Xiamen. The 13 are currently home to over 100 million people. If these populations spill into surrounding areas, which are some of the poorest in the world, already high levels of poverty will increase drastically, putting extreme pressure on services, governments, and aid. Ultimately, this will result in mass desperation and conflict, and quite possibly war as instability increases in areas that have experienced huge influxes of environmental refugees. Australia is the closest safe haven for many of these cities, with a huge land mass and relatively little exposure to flooding. Not only would this significantly increase aid costs for Australia, the influx of refugees would also put large strains on institutional capacity to process migrants and refugees, if Australia were to accept them at all. This poses a huge security threat to its borders that would be difficult to manage in a timely manner.

Australia has a direct interest in mitigating climate change for many reasons. It needs to invest in developing policies that not only provide aid and defence to areas exposed to climate change, but in real and global measures to prevent the growth of climate change itself. Reactive policies like defence and aid are needed in the current climate, but Australia has to continue to invest in proactive measures that reduce carbon emissions across the globe if the policies and efforts in providing aid to its neighbours are to not be in vain.

Emily Wise is the Indo-Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.