Insights and Analysis

Throughout Asia: Environmental Degradation, Global Warming, and Security

April 18, 2007

By Christopher Plante

This Earth Day, we’re reminded that hundreds, if not thousands, of life-threatening, significant toxic pollution events occur every year in Asia, not including the millions of everyday pollution releases allowable or not accounted for by law.  And because the physical laws of nature do not respect geopolitical boundaries, the ecological, economic, and social impact of environmental harm is free to transcend all borders.

In the midst of increases in Asia’s population, consumption rates, energy security worries, and global warming signs, it is hardly a surprise that resource scarcity is regaining lost ground in high level policy debates.  Access and distribution of resources, economics, technical and social ingenuity, population size and growth, and changes to the environment, are key scarcity factors.  Leading examples of growing resource scarcity in Asia include: pollution and depletion of fresh water supplies; accelerating demands for oil, gas, and coal; decline of ocean and freshwater fisheries; degradation and disappearance of critical ecological services and biodiversity; and of concern for food security, the permanent loss of agricultural lands.

While the precise roles of the environment in conflict, destabilization, and human insecurity may differ from situation to situation, there are growing indications that environmental harm is increasingly an underlying cause of instability, conflict, and unrest.  Indeed, there is a growing trend toward the view that environmental and resource effects, rather than political orientation and ideology, will emerge as the most potent source of armed conflict in the decades to come.  Environmental security, particularly with regard to energy, water, and agricultural shortfalls, has been embedded since the 1990s in the overall rationale among security appraisals by nations such as Australia, China, India, the United Kingdom, and the United States, as well as by NATO.

But, an even greater threat to Asia’s environmental security is likely to be global environmental disruptions, including global warming. The recent report, “National Security and the Threat of Climate Change,” released by the CNA Corporation and created by a group of retired U.S. generals and admirals, noted that global warming can serve as “a threat multiplier,” with severe weather and drought triggering refugee, food, water and disease crises. Around the world, the forecast increase in temperatures will impact cloud cover, precipitation, wind patterns, ocean currents, and seasonal patterns to transform farmland into desert, cause a substantial rise in sea level, pollute freshwater supplies, and increase the harshness of winters and storms. This will serve as a catalyst for increasing the spread of diseases, radically altering conditions for food production, and leading to a decline in the earth’s coastal resources, including land ” causing mass migration. Although climate change will have a global impact, certain geographical areas in Asia are more vulnerable to the effects than others. Residents of the Pacific Islands and certain areas of Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, East Timor, Indonesia, India, Korea, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam are not immune to mounting threats caused by global warming: because of their low-lying cities, towns, and homes, they face the unimaginable threat of losing them to rise in sea level.

The problems are so vast that they will require the concerted, coordinated, and sustained action of citizens, businesses, governments, and civil society working together at all levels. Indeed, in many Asian countries this process has already begun, as we have increasingly seen different sectors of society willing to put aside their historical differences and work together on pressing environmental problems. But this type of expanded dialogue and cooperation must extend beyond national boundaries as well.  Just as problems of pollution, ecological decline, and global warming are inherently trans-border in their scope, so too must the effort to improve the environment involve all the countries of the Asia-Pacific region, working together to achieve common goals. Through sharing and replicating innovation, Asia’s 3.8 billion people stand a better chance at reversing resource scarcity, curbing civil and regional conflict, and protecting their homes and livelihoods from the devastating affects that global warming promises.

Chris Plante is the Director of The Asia Foundation’s Environment Program.

Related programs: Environment and Climate Action


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