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Climate change in Southeast Asia: Where are we and what are we bound for? – The Manila Times

First of 2 parts

By Kwan Soo-Chen and David McCoy

KUALA LUMPUR: It is increasingly clear that human health and well-being are being threatened everywhere because of global warming and environmental damage. Extreme weather events, sea level rise, increasing scarcity of freshwater, drought and high temperatures, combined with loss of biodiversity and other aspects of ecological degradation such as soil erosion and coral bleaching are all features of anthropogenic self-harm and an increasingly inhospitable planet for human society.

The 2015 Paris Agreement established a target of limiting global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures. We are now at 1.1 C of warming. A special report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) paints a grim picture of what we would face should we reach 1.5 C of warming.

Crucially, failing to limit global warming to 1.5 C could result in the planet being pushed over a number of tipping points that would see accelerated and irreversible warming, with a variety of cascading effects (e. g., loss of the polar ice caps and massive dieback of the Amazonian rainforest) that would see billions of people facing an existential crisis.

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Not alarmist or exaggerated

Such concerns are not alarmist or exaggerated. The most recent set of Assessment Reports by the IPCC, released over the past few months, presents clear evidence that we are in trouble. Among other things, it projects that average global surface temperatures will most likely reach 1.5 C above pre-industrial averages before 2040.

The theme of World Environment Day this year — “Only One Earth” — correctly points out that all of humanity shares a common dependency upon a single planet. Perhaps nothing is more emblematic of the need for global solidarity and international cooperation than the planetary crisis we face. However, there are also regional differences in terms of both the impacts that will be experienced and the contributions that can be made to averting the crisis.

So, what can be said about Southeast Asia?

For one, in line with global warming trends and the continued rise in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the region has seen its annual mean temperature increase at a rate of 0.14 C to 0.20 C per decade since the 1960s. It is hotter than it used to be and the region can expect further increases in temperature. Southeast Asia is also expected to see an increased frequency of heatwaves.

The high humidity of the region will compound the high temperatures and increase the incidence of heat stroke and heat-related deaths. According to one study, heat-related mortality has already gone up by 61 percent in Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines since the 1990s.

Higher temperatures and heat stress at 3 C warming are expected to reduce agriculture labor capacity by up to 50 percent and reduce agricultural productivity and food production. According to one study, this will lead to a 5 percent increase in crop prices from increased labor cost and production loss.

Malnutrition, rainfall patterns

Rates of malnutrition will likely rise in the region, especially as crop production in other parts of the world come under stress. An example is the drought caused by 2015-2016 El-Niño in Southeast Asia, Eastern and Southern Africa which resulted in 20.5 million people facing acute food insecurity in 2016 and 5.9 million children became underweight. Rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere will also reduce the nutritional quality of certain crops and increase the likelihood of greater micro-nutrient deficiency.

The higher levels of energy and moisture in the atmosphere, produced by global warming, will translate into changing rainfall patterns. Increased annual average rainfall has already been observed in parts of Malaysia, Vietnam and southern Philippines.

Paradoxically, some parts of the region would observe a reduction in the number of wet days. According to the IPCC, the Philippines had observed fewer tropical cyclones, but they were more intense and destructive.

Changes to the hydrologic cycle will also impact on the availability of freshwater and undermine water security in the region. This will in turn lead to associated health problems due to lower levels of sanitation and hygiene.

In the Mekong River basin, due to both climate change and unsustainable levels of water consumption, it is projected that groundwater storage will reduce by up to 160 million cubic meters and that this will be accompanied by delta erosion and sea level rise, affecting coastal cities such as Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City.

Three quarters of the cities in Southeast Asia will experience more frequent flooding, potentially affecting tens of millions of people every year by 2030. In 2019, Southeast and East Asia had already recorded the internal displacement of 9.6 million people from cyclones, floods, and typhoons, representing almost 30 percent of all global displacements in that year. IPS

To be continued on Monday, June 6, 2022.

Kwan Soo-Chen is a post-doctoral fellow and David McCoy is a research lead at the United Nations University International Institute for Global Health (UNU-IIGH).

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