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Workshop on 'Starving Tigers? Impact of Climate Change in Southeast Asia'

Date: 26-27 January 2010
Venue: The Sentosa Resort and Spa, Singapore

Executive Summary

The Copenhagen Summit in December 2009 failed to yield a concrete, politically-binding agreement among states to reduce carbon emissions in order to mitigate climate change. This is so despite the widespread recognition of the potential risks of climate change. The lack of consensus is due to diverse and often conflicting national interests and priorities. With an international collective action deemed virtually unlikely, the onus is on states to implement national and regional adaptation measures to combat climate change.

Phenomenal trends associated with climate change are sufficient cause for concern and prompt action by states. Sea level rise is projected to increase, and if uncertainty factors were incorporated in the estimates – such as stored carbon and water vapour content – this might even be higher than expected. Given the rather imprecise science of estimating sea level rise, it is prudent to include these uncertainty factors in order to provide a clearer, more accurate picture of future sea level rise scenarios that can facilitate national or collective adaptation measures.

In fact, climate change and its impact had its roots in the ancient times. Scientific studies performed show a clear relationship between alterations in climatic patterns and socio-economic-political upheavals in the ancient dynasties of China, for instance. Periods of high rainfall helped in the national prosperity of the Northern Song Dynasty, while severe droughts were found to be the cause of subsequent political upheavals in the Tang, Yuan and Ming Dynasties. Also, it has been shown in studies that changes in climatic patterns in one region could have potential spillover effects onto another, with potential ramifications on interstate relations.

Fast forward to contemporary times, the impact of climate change on national well-being cannot be underestimated. The world is already experiencing rapid population growth (in Southeast Asia especially) and this creates a strain on existing food supplies. Climate change can potentially aggravate this situation by affecting agricultural growth.

Using modern modelling techniques, it has been shown that the world will suffer a loss of 300 million metric tonnes of grain production by 2050 compared to 100 million metric tonnes in 1995 as a result of climate changeinduced changes that lead to increased temperatures that inhibit proper plant growth, affect rainfall patterns and inundate coastal croplands as a result of rising sea levels. This issue is particularly pertinent for agriculturedependent Southeast Asia.

It is plausible to adapt to climate change conditions in order to safeguard food security. However, such adaptation measures carry with it additional costs to be factored into food production. As a result, rising grain production costs may potentially impinge on less-endowed, less-developed countries in Southeast Asia. Nonetheless, adaptation measures in agricultural production, such as research and development (R&D) – in particular genetically modified organism (GMO) techniques – as well as infrastructure enhancement, constitute an essential and crucial means to overcome the potential food security problems that can be brought about by climate change.

Another area of food security concern with regard to climate change impact is the marine fishery and aquaculture sectors. Fish is a key source of animal protein for the Southeast Asian populations and serves as a vital source of economic livelihood. In recent times, overfishing has led to a steady decline of capture fish stocks. Climate change-induced ocean acidification brings about adverse impact on the marine ecosystem and thus places further stress on the sustainability of fish stocks. The countries most vulnerable to climate change-induced impact on fish stocks are found to be those which are the least developed, in Southeast Asia. Rising populations in this region, coupled with human- and climate change-induced impact on capture fish stocks, can bring about likely food security risks. A range of adaptation measures, such as aquaculture, may help alleviate some of these problems in the foreseeable future.

With problems associated with sea level rise and climate change-induced food security woes comes the potential risk of increased environmental migration as a form of adaptation means undertaken by affected peoples. Poverty constitutes a central issue revolving around population vulnerability to climate change and environmental migration patterns. The huge rural/coastal populations in Southeast Asia are particularly exposed to such dangers. To date, however, lack of data and research capacity hamper adequate preparations against such contingencies in the region. This is further compounded by the paucity of regional and international cooperation on migration issues in general.

As such, in view of the phenomenal patterns in climate change, the ensuing potential security risks and the dim prospects for an internationally-agreed framework of cooperation, it becomes imperative for individual countries to exercise initiative in implementing viable adaptation measures. However, due to the complex range of uncertainties (such as the contestability of scientific methods used to project climate change impact estimates) found in climate change scenario projections, it might be more realistic for policymakers to focus on short- and medium-term adaptation. In addition, climate change adaptation and mitigation not only have to involve government policymakers and the private sector, but non-governmental organisations (NGOs) as well.

The translation of scientific knowledge to actual policymaking also deserves greater attention. There is a need to bridge knowledge with policymaking, in order to ensure coherence between scientific evidence and correct policy actions. Also, the existing knowledge base on climate change is huge and expanding, thus further complicating the bridging of scientific knowledge with the policymaking process. The academe and policymaking circles need to constantly revisit existing and new data on climate change and seek ways to exploit them fully to formulate and implement suitable measures. However, this is often easier said than done.

Finally, there is an acute need for Southeast Asia – identified as one of the regions most vulnerable to climate change impacts – to improve upon national and regional capacitybuilding. Due to socio-economic disparities, countries in the region are not all adequately prepared against the impact of climate change. Intra-regional cooperation has to be enhanced since the adverse impact of climate change will not be merely confined within national boundaries, but will have potential transnational spillover effects. Regional capacities, especially in the realm of research and data collection, are especially crucial priority areas that need to be embarked upon.

Posted on: 26/1/2010 8:30:00 AM  |  Topic: Climate Change, Environmental Security and Natural Disasters

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