Climate Change: The Implications for Regional Security

Commentary by Zachary Abuza
Climate Change: The Implications for Regional Security Residents travel by boat in Bulacan, one of the provinces north of Manila where some areas have sunk by four to six centimeters (1.5 to 2.4 inches) a year since 2003, according to satellite monitoring, Feb. 3, 2019.

The stakes at the Glasgow summit on climate change couldn’t be any higher. Scientists are clear and united in warning that if humanity fails to contain global warming, the impacts will be irreversible and cataclysmic.

Southeast Asia is among regions of the world most vulnerable to this. While we remain fixated on Chinese military expansionism in the South China Sea, threats from violent extremist groups and other kinds of militants – or even insecurity caused by military regimes turning guns on their own people to maintain power – the biggest future threat to security in Southeast Asia, by far, is climate change.

This is the first in a series of columns on how climate change will shape the security environment across the region.

If climate change goes on unchecked, it will have an impact on regional security in several ways:

First, sea-level rise will inundate the region’s megacities, many of which are coastal;

Second, more named storms will batter the region’s low-lying coastlines;

Third, temperature rise will affect food production;

Fourth, the incurred costs will force governments to spend scarce resources, which will increase opportunity costs and exacerbate socio-economic tensions.

In October, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in the U.S. released its first report assessing the risks posed by climate change and the security implications. The report listed Indonesia and the Philippines as “very vulnerable,” and identified Myanmar as a “select country of concern.”

“Scientific forecasts indicate that intensifying physical effects of climate change out to 2040 and beyond will be most acutely felt in developing countries, which we assess are also the least able to adapt to such changes,” one of the key judgments in the 27-page report warned.

“These physical effects will increase the potential for instability and possibly internal conflict in these countries, in some cases creating additional demands on U.S. diplomatic, economic, humanitarian, and military resources,” it said.

Demography is destiny

Because humans will feel the impact of climate change, it’s worth considering this against the backdrop of demographic trends in the region.

In 2020, the combined population of the 10 countries of Southeast Asia stood at 667.3 million people. The largest country was Indonesia (273.5 million), followed by the Philippines (109.6 million) and Vietnam (97.3 million).

By 2050, the region’s population is expected to increase by an average of nearly 19 percent, to 792 million people.

In that 30-year period, only one country, Thailand, is expected to see its population shrink. The population of every other country in Southeast Asia will grow from a minimum of 9.5 percent in Singapore to nearly 32 percent in the Philippines. Indonesia’s population will grow by 21 percent.

The populations of a handful of countries – Brunei, Singapore, Vietnam and Myanmar – will peak around 2050. But some countries will not see their population peak until 2065 to 2075. These include Indonesia, Cambodia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Laos.

The increased population will pose enormous challenges for most countries in the region. The youth bulges in the Philippines and Indonesia could be very destabilizing if there isn’t enough economic growth to absorb new entrants into the workforce.

And some will suffer higher rates of unemployment and under-employment. Thailand and Singapore, for their part, have rapidly aging populations; Vietnam too is likely to grow older before it gets rich.


When talking about climate change, we also need to think about the growth of cities in Southeast Asia.

More than 50 percent of the region’s population (372 million) is concentrated in urban areas.

Since 1990, Southeast Asian countries have added 150 million inhabitants to their cities, the highest rate of urbanization in the world.

Southeast Asia is home to two megacities: Manila and Jakarta. Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City are on track to become mega cities by 2030, according to the United Nations.

The United Nations is predicting that by 2050, urbanization in the region will reach 68 percent, bringing the urban population to 538.6 million people.

That is a 44.5 percent increase from 2020.

Urban inequality, meanwhile, has decreased across Southeast Asia but at a much lower rate than rural inequality.

We have seen the growth of mass slums. An estimated 80 million people across Southeast Asia live in temporary housing or slums. During the past few decades, governments have focused more on poverty alleviation in the countryside because that’s where the majority of their populations lives.

As a result, governments are going to have to reallocate more money quickly to take care of their growing urban populations. They will need to undertake massive construction of urban infrastructure – from roads, to schools, to water, to waste treatment, and public transportation.

Climate change – in particular the rising of sea levels – will exacerbate all of this. Already, this is occurring in Southeast Asia at a faster rate than anywhere else in the world.

The four mega cities that I mentioned above are extremely vulnerable.

Jakarta, Manila, Bangkok, and Ho Chi Minh City are all at sea level. Indeed parts of all four cities are below sea level, and all them are sinking because of the depletion of their aquifers. All four of these megacities experience mass flooding for longer periods of time each year. Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, has also been stricken with record flooding during the past week.

Governments will likely spend money on developing the infrastructure while under-investing in poorer parts of those cities. That will only exacerbate socio-economic grievances and inequality.

Will there be enough food?

The growth in populations, in turn, will have real impacts on food security. Already, the Philippines and Indonesia are unable to feed themselves and must rely on food imports.

Climate change, warmer temperatures and changes in rain patterns will exacerbate the situation.

That will likely have an adverse impact on crop production. Some farmland will be threatened by more routine flooding and salt-water intrusion, while other areas will be struck by more routine and prolonged droughts. Increases in sea-water temperature will devastate coral reefs and the bottom of the oceanic food chain, which are already under stress.

The need to build resiliency

It’s easy for countries in Southeast Asia and elsewhere to think that they don’t have to do anything about this.

In 2017, for example, the region accounted for less than 6 percent of the 36.2 billion tons of global carbon dioxide emissions. And yet, these countries will feel the impact profoundly, and have limited resources with which to respond.

Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, Myanmar, Indonesia and – in South Asia – Bangladesh are all extremely vulnerable to extreme weather events.

Asian governments are not unaware of this data. But in their quest for rapid economic growth, they have largely kept their heads in the sand; no one has been pro-active.

No country, in its development plans, has built-in resiliency to climate change. No country has allocated sufficient resources to mitigate some of the impacts that are now being felt.

And, of course, no government is doing enough to wean its transportation sectors off the electrical grid and fossil-based fuels.

All of this bodes ill for regional security. There is no existing security challenge that won’t be made worse by climate change.

Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and an adjunct at Georgetown University. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College, Georgetown University or BenarNews.


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