September 14, 2023

Are we adequately grappling with climate change effects in Southeast Asia?

Climate change action through the development program is squarely back on the agenda: it’s a big focus of the new development policy, and ambitious program targets are underway. Add to this, Australia’s bid to co-host this year’s COP alongside Pacific Island Countries.

What we also know about Australia’s development ambitions is that a focus on Southeast Asia has returned, following the previous Government’s ‘step down’ there in favour of development assistance to the Pacific.

But the effects of climate change in Southeast Asia are wildly different to those in the Pacific, and climate action across the region will need very different approaches. So this week, we were left wondering: are we adequately grappling with climate change effects in Southeast Asia? To find out, we asked the experts.

Anastasia Kapetas
Advisor, Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy and Defence Dialogue

From a defence, diplomacy and development perspective, probably not. At least not yet in a way visible to the public eye. Although, we know that the Office of National Intelligence finished its classified assessment on climate and security earlier this year and that this assessment is helping guide a process across Government to understand how to build whole-of-nation resilience to the effects of climate change.

In terms of the public conversation, there’s a lot of focus on the Pacific; this is as it should be, given that climate change is truly and graphically existential there at the 1.5-2 degrees warming that is almost certainly locked in. But Southeast Asia is uniquely vulnerable to climate change, as both my former ASPI colleague Robert Glasser (see here) and the Climate Council’s Cheryl Durrant (see here) have pointed out.

Here’s just three of the many probable effects of 1.5-2 degrees warming, which could manifest as soon as 2030:

First, sea levels are rising in Southeast Asia four times faster than anywhere else and populations are extremely exposed – 60% of Indonesia’s population for example.            

And then there is the rising levels of ocean heating in the warm, shallow and ecologically fragile seas around Southeast Asia, which are accelerating the destruction of region’s coral reefs, one of the worlds’ great incubators of fish stocks.

Finally, extremes in rainfall and drought are expected to double in frequency and intensity. All of this loads more pressure on already stretched food, water and housing systems in the region. The parts of the region on the edge of subsistence are at risk of falling into precarity, with all sorts of unpredictable effects on political, economic and military systems.

All this is bad enough, but if heating goes beyond 2 degrees, Southeast Asia will probably lose its ability to adapt. And it will not be alone.

Although climate has been elevated to the top of the security agenda in the west, real investment understanding and acting on climate driven security issues – especially on resilience and adaptation - hasn’t yet moved much beyond the rhetorical space.

Anastasia is one of Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy and Defence Dialogue’s newest Advisors. In a (not so distant) past life she was National Security Editor at The Australian Strategic Policy Institute, advisor to the National Security College Futures Hub, intelligence manager at Defence, and editor-in-chief at The Diplomat magazine. Over the years she’s honed serious expertise in disinformation, climate and security, and the geopolitics of technology, and the Lab keeps a keen eye on all her analysis.

Elizabeth Morison
Researcher, Climate and Energy Program, The Australia Institute

Australia’s bid for COP31 in partnership with the Pacific has incited major scrutiny (how can Australia host COP in good faith while developing 110+ new fossil fuel projects and providing $11.1 billion in subsidies for the industry?), but Australia’s climate diplomacy in Southeast Asia has flown under the radar. Despite claims of being “ambitious for what we can achieve together… in confronting the challenges of climate change”, Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s approach to recasting Australia’s relationships in the region has been all gesture, no action.

In fact, while Southeast Asia’s potential emerges to be a leading global supplier of critical minerals for the renewable energy technologies of the future, Australia’s promises of being a “long-term energy security partner” for the region appear to hinge on securing ongoing markets for the emissions-intensive resources of the past: gas and coal.

In 2022, Australia contributed $56.5 million in climate finance to Southeast Asia: less than 1% of what it spends subsidising fossil fuels. This year’s announcements of a $200 million climate partnership with Indonesia and $105 million to support energy transition in Vietnam bump that number up to a (still wholly inadequate) 3%.

If Australia is serious about tackling climate change in Southeast Asia, providing 33x more funding for fossil fuels than for climate support and prolonging fossil fuel export markets in the region is a funny way of showing it. When you follow the money, it is clear that Australia is not adequately invested in this goal. It could be, though, and moving funding away from fossil fuels and towards sincere climate action would be a good place to start.

Beginning as their inaugural Anne Kantor Young Women Environmentalist Fellow, Liz is now in Australia Institute’s Climate and Energy Program. She draws on a background in research and data analysis, journalism, communications and community organising. She also holds an Honours degree in Conservation Biology, with a focus on the impacts of climate extremes on ecosystems. At the Lab, we really admire experts like Liz who’ve got that combo of both analytical know-how and comms flair that make policy engagement so effective.

Lia Zakiyyah
Graduate Research Assistant, George Mason Center for Climate Change Communication

In 2021 developed countries delivered US$34.5 billion in climate finance, falling very short of the US$100 billion annual climate finance pledge they promised to deliver each year from 2020 (which will expire in 2025). Meeting that promise would be the first (and basic) gesture to show that developed countries are indeed committed to tackling the existential threat of climate change. Failing to do so can halt the progress of climate actions and create distrust between developed and developing countries. This can lead to straining the international climate negotiations and cooperation, making it more challenging to reach consensus on future climate finance targets.

Australia, as part of the OECD Development Assistance Committee, has an important role in influencing its peers by setting the example to increase their climate finance to developing countries in the regions. This funding can be directed not only on the mitigative and adaptive aspects of climate change such as cutting carbon emissions through transitioning to clean energy, combating forest fires, or agricultural insurance, but also equally important is empowering various stakeholders to improve climate governance. For example, promoting more transparency in data related to climate governance (e.g. spatial planning data, GHG emissions by companies, campaign donations by fossil fuels and forestry industries to political candidates), it can inform other stakeholders to take actions to demand change should it deemed necessary as well as to inform voters on candidates’ climate stance.

And regardless of which areas donor countries such as Australia decide to focus on, they need to center the marginalized communities in the discussion. Climate change is a very interconnected issue hence funding and cooperation should help address the inequality. For example, investing in rural communities to own micro-hydro is deemed more favourable than investing in large scale renewable power plants that mostly benefit rich investors which will only exacerbate the economic inequality. We will not achieve meaningful progress if we are not inclusive and just in our climate actions.

Lia is an expert on climate change and sustainable development in Indonesia, currently completing a doctoral Presidential Fellowship at George Mason University. Previously, Lia’s had roles within Indonesia’s Office of the President's Special Envoy on Climate Change, and Universitas Indonesia’s Institute for Sustainable Earth and Resources. She’s also had a stint as a Climate Reality Leader in Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project. At the Lab, we love how Lia pairs empathy and authenticity with no-nonsense advice on addressing the climate crisis.

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