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What Obama’s New Climate Change Plan Means for Asia

July 10, 2013

Two weeks ago, President Obama announced his new plan to address climate change. His three-pronged approach includes cutting greenhouse gas emissions, protecting our cities, people, and assets from the impacts of climate change, and leading international efforts to combat climate change.

Bangladesh Khulna climate change

South Asia faces climate change impacts particularly from extremes of water scarcity and excess. The region is characterized by its rapidly growing population and high levels of poverty – the world’s largest concentration of poor people reside in the region. Photo/Conor Ashleigh

While his announcement predominantly addressed domestic efforts and the challenges for congressional action (he will instead use his executive powers to implement his proposed plan), President Obama touched upon a number of international actions. He re-visited the pledge he made in Copenhagen in 2009 for the U.S. to reduce emissions by 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020. He is also calling for an end to public financing of coal plants overseas and will launch negotiations for global free trade in clean energy technology. His plan also includes an increase in cooperation with China and India on climate change – he referenced the agreement made between the U.S. and China when the two nations’ leaders met in California earlier this summer, to reduce emissions of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs, found in refrigerants and air conditioners).

Separately but related, the president has tasked the State Department with implementing a strategic shift in U.S. foreign policy, for more concerted and expanded engagement with Asia. This includes six areas of action, as outlined by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2011: strengthening bilateral security alliances; deepening working relationships with emerging powers, including with China; engaging with regional multilateral institutions; expanding trade and investment; forging a broad-based military presence; and advancing democracy and human rights.

While this shift has brought about new strategic actions in the region, greater cooperation between the U.S. and Asia specifically on climate change is needed going forward.  A recently released World Bank report, “4° Turn Down the Heat: Climate Extremes, Regional Impacts, and the Case for Resilience,” analyzes the implications of a 2° and 4° increase in global temperature on critical areas like agricultural production, water resources, coastal ecosystems, and cities in some of the most vulnerable regions in the world:  Southeast Asia, South Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa. The report confirms the International Energy Agency assessment in 2012, which found that without immediate mitigating actions, there is a 40 percent chance of a 4°C rise in global temperatures by 2100 above pre-industrial levels. While climate change impacts are already being felt (the present level of global warming is 0.8°C), the report advises that many of the worst projected impacts could be avoided by keeping warming below 2°C – making the case for climate action now all the more imperative.

Southeast Asia faces a number of threats from climate change, particularly to its coastal zones, fisheries, and agriculture production. Heat extremes, sea level rise, tropical cyclones, and salt-water intrusion will have both independent and compounding impacts. Unique to the region is its reliance on a matrix of river systems for a majority of its population’s food and income, making it particularly vulnerable to climate change. Nearly 40 percent of the population in the region relies on fish from rivers and aquaculture farms for protein. Projected increases in temperature will negatively affect fisheries populations, while sea level rise and increases in the intensity of tropical cyclones may exceed the tolerance thresholds of regionally important farmed species.

The river systems also support the region’s agricultural production. The Mekong delta produces approximately 50 percent of Vietnam’s total agricultural production, and projections estimate that a sea level rise of 30 cm (12 inches) by 2040 could result in approximately 12 percent of crop production due to salinity intrusion. At the same time, Southeast Asia is a dynamic region with strong economic growth and some of the world’s largest cities: Manila, Jakarta, Ho Chi Minh City, and Bangkok. These cities, however, are also some of the most vulnerable to climate change: As large populations and assets are concentrated in one area, they are exposed to increased storm intensity, flooding, heat extremes, and long-term sea-level rise. Projections indicate that regional sea level rise is likely to exceed 50 cm (18 inches) above current levels by about 2060, and 100 cm (39 inches) by 2090.

Another highly vulnerable region, South Asia, faces climate change impacts particularly from extremes of water scarcity and excess. The region is characterized by its rapidly growing population, projected to increase to over 2.2 billion people by 2050, and high levels of poverty – the world’s largest concentration of poor people reside in the region. Reliance, therefore, on timely rainfall and glacial melt from the Himalayas for water resources, livelihoods, and food security is at a maximum. Notable to the region is that many climate change impacts, particularly heat extremes, are projected to occur at even modest global warming of 1.5-2°C. Northwestern India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan are projected to be particularly at risk to extreme drought. During the monsoon season, increases in extreme precipitation are projected for already wet areas in the south and northeast. Under 2°C warming, Bangladesh becomes a hotspot for compounding impacts from climate change – sea-level rise will threaten food production, while increased flooding and cyclone extremes will cause significant damage and loss, particularly for the most poor. Further, energy security in the region is expected to face climate related pressures due to impacts of water resources. Hydropower and thermal power (fossil fuel, nuclear, and concentrated solar) generate the majority of the region’s energy, both of which can be undermined by inadequate water supply.

The U.S. shift in foreign policy to Asia is driven by interests to foster economic opportunities, peace, security, and strategic alliances with states in the region. Notably, climate change poses a challenge to advancing these interests. As the next big UN climate conference approaches in 2015, President Obama’s new climate change strategy, and his foreign policy shift to Asia, positions the U.S. well to play a larger role in mitigating the effects climate change is having on some of the most vulnerable areas of the world.

Lisa Hook is a senior program officer for The Asia Foundation’s Environment Programs in San Francisco. She can be reached at lisa.hook@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

One comment on this post:

  1. Canton:

    I like this quote of Obama’s:

    “I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing,” he pledged. “We will be judged as a people, and as a society, and as a country on where we go from here.”

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