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Southeast Asians Are The Most Vulnerable Group To Climate Change, And They Know It

Unmitigated climate change threatens to wipe out decades of Southeast Asia's hard-won economic growth.

Southeast Asians Are The Most Vulnerable Group To Climate Change, And They Know It

Vietnam's central region is the most vulnerable to typhoons and flooding, especially between the months of August and November. | Source: Shutterstock

A week ago, several areas in Danang, Quang Nam and Quang Ngai provinces were submerged in floodwater after heavy rains poured non-stop in the central region. Two people were reported to have been swept away as water overflowed into small alleys and low-lying houses.

Typhoon Conson, which weakened into a tropical depression before it made landfall in Vietnam, also caused a ship and a barge to sink, blown away or severely damaged more than 30 houses and ruined 1,000 hectares of rice fields.

It was the fifth storm to enter mainland Vietnam, and there could be six to eight more storms spread throughout the last three months of the year. About four of these storms will directly hit Vietnam, and may cause extensive destruction such as landslides and flooding.

In October last year, typhoon Molave crashed into the south-central provinces, killing more than 379 people, injuring hundreds, and damaging 10,000 houses and 20 bridges. 

Xangsane, considerably the most destructive storm in Vietnam in the last two decades, battered Danang in 2006. It left 68 people dead, more than 500 injured, and over 270,000 houses and 1,280 hectares of agricultural land damaged. The storm caused over VND10 trillion ($431 million) in damage.

These scenes, unfortunately, aren’t strange to Vietnam. The country experiences an average of four to six typhoons annually; and year after year, the situation gets worse, with millions of people at risk of losing their homes, their sources of income, or their own lives. 

Climate projections in Vietnam forecast the intensity of typhoons to rise, as the frequency of extreme weather events increases. Meteorologists and environmental experts have repeatedly warned that while Vietnam is used to regular floods and hurricanes, rainfall levels will go extraordinarily high.

Vietnamese people are well aware of the grave danger they are facing. In a recent survey conducted by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute revealed that a great majority of Vietnamese respondents agreed that floods (92.5%), sea level rise (77.5%) and droughts (75%) are the most serious climate change impacts Vietnam is currently exposed to. The same concerns topped in the 2020 survey.

The Southeast Asian Climate Outlook Survey, conducted from June to August, measured the attitudes and perspectives towards climate change by Southeast Asians — considered the most threatened and vulnerable group.

For two consecutive years, ASEAN citizens placed climate change above terrorism, the region’s traditional security threat, the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute report read.

The vast majority of respondents recognize the importance of climate change, but Vietnam and Philippines respondents show the greatest urgency, with 80.0% and 77.9% finding it a “serious and immediate threat” to their countries. The 2018 IPCC Special Report identified Vietnam as one of nine countries with over 50 million people exposed to sea level rise.

In The Global Climate Risk Index 2021, the Philippines and Vietnam ranked 4th and 13th among countries most affected by extreme weather events in 2000-2019. Myanmar and Thailand ranked 2nd and 9th respectively, but show lower levels of urgency in this survey, with 61.1% and 71.4% of respondents selecting the same option of “serious and immediate threat”.

Climate projections in Vietnam forecast the intensity of typhoons to rise, as the frequency of extreme weather events increases. | Source: Shutterstock

Southeast Asia set to lose $28 trillion from climate change

A separate report from Deloitte showed that the Southeast Asian economy could lose up to $28 trillion over the next five decades if the region does not act promptly and wisely to reduce carbon emissions.

However, if Southeast Asia ramps up efforts to mitigate environmental damages, it could achieve economic gains of $12.5 trillion, the report added.

Failing to do so could lead to global warming of more than 3°C by 2070, according to Deloitte’s model. 

Home to half a billion people, the region has seen a 5-12% average annual per capita GDP growth since the start of the 21st century, but “unmitigated climate change threatens to wipe out decades of this hard-won economic growth”.

Climate inaction, according to Deloitte, will heavily impact these industries: service ($9 trillion of losses), manufacturing ($7 trillion), retail and tourism ($5 trillion collectively). Together with construction, mining and gas, these sectors account for 83% of the region’s economic output, Deloitte said.

“The foundations of the region’s prosperity — its natural and human capital — are at risk, and along with them each nation’s standard of living, its prospects for future growth, its place on the global stage and the wellbeing of its people.”

ASEAN citizens placed climate change above terrorism, the region’s traditional security threat. | Source: Shutterstock

What should be done to address climate change

Based on the Southeast Asian Climate Outlook Survey, respondents believed that governments must encourage businesses to adopt green practices, enact climate laws, and allocate more public financial support to low carbon solutions to reduce carbon emissions. However, many of them have low confidence in the region’s renewable energy transition. 

On a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 being not confident and 10 being extremely confident, ASEAN respondents only ranked their confidence at 4.6 for ASEAN to achieve its 23% target share of renewable energy by 2025. Conversely, they ranked their confidence at 6.6 for economic competitiveness resulting from better and innovative climate change policies.

For Vietnamese respondents, adopting green practices and implementing climate laws are the most important tasks for the national government - which they also consider as the key stakeholder responsible for tackling climate change. Surveyed Vietnamese also showed the highest confidence among its regional peers that its government’s COVID-19 stimulus spending contributed to green recovery.

Besides government actions, ASEAN respondents also reiterated the private sector’s crucial role in climate change, pushing them to adopt green supply chain practices, invest in research and development and technology, and adopt greater transparency and accountability in corporate sustainability reporting.

In fact, more than 84% of the respondents feel that businesses and industries should bear the costs of climate change, compared to 79% who chose only governments. A smaller proportion of respondents want multilateral organizations and individuals to bear the costs. 

However, a significant proportion of respondents (24.6%) indicate that all stakeholders — be it businesses and industries, governments, multilateral organizations or individuals — should bear the costs of climate change measures. This could be an indicator of the understanding that climate change needs a whole-of-society approach.