Dislocation and disruption: climate change in the Indo-Pacific in 2035
22 Feb 2022|

This is the first of several edited extracts from a forthcoming ASPI publication, The geopolitics of climate and security in the Indo-Pacific.

The impacts of climate change on the Indo-Pacific, already the most exposed region in the world to climate hazards and home to the world’s fastest growing populations, economies and geopolitical rivalries, will be profound. The scenario described below is an extrapolation from current climate science and observations of recent extreme climate-related hazards and their societal impacts. It isn’t a prediction of the future, but rather a description of a plausible near future for the Indo-Pacific region. The scenario is the reference point for each of the chapters in the forthcoming book.

It’s the year 2035 …

The climate has warmed by more than 1.5°C, the lower target set by countries in the 2015 Paris agreement. Climate hazards are significantly undermining human security in multiple dimensions: economic, political, social and environmental.

Scientists had for decades warned of more frequent, longer and hotter heatwaves; accelerating sea-level rise; increased torrential downpours; intensifying storms; altered distribution of pests and pathogens; ocean heating and acidification; hotter, longer bushfires; and longer and drier droughts. But policymakers greatly underestimated the scale of those hazards, the rapidity with which they would begin emerging, and the compounding and cascading societal disruptions they would cause. That became abundantly clear during the 2032 global food security crisis, triggered by the record-setting El Niño event that brought severe drought to the rice bowls of Vietnam and China, among others.

The crisis accelerated political action to reduce greenhouse gases, although the global energy transformation from fossil fuels to renewables had already been proceeding rapidly. Not surprisingly, venture capitalists, asset managers and financial regulators were among the first to detect the climate change ‘signal’ in the market. By the mid-2020s, they had begun redirecting billions of dollars of investments away from fossil fuels and infrastructure threatened by climate change impacts and into renewable energy and more resilient assets. Today, numerous countries reap the benefits of the energy transformation, but others have been unable to adjust fast enough.

Climate change has disrupted global trade significantly over the past decade. The energy transition has reduced trade linked to fossil fuels while increasing trade linked to new energy products such as hydrogen, high-capacitance batteries and green steel. Climate impacts have disrupted supply chains, markets, customers and facilities. Most global trade is still carried by sea and handled in ports, but the combination of sea-level rise and increasingly intensive storms have closed them, often for months.

Less developed countries have been hit the hardest by climate hazards. Lack of capacity and ineffective government responses to disasters have amplified public discontent over growing inequality, entrenched corruption, lack of government services, and weak institutions of governance. Both governments and their detractors are using digital disinformation to pursue their agendas, with further polarisation often the result.

It isn’t surprising that civil society, separatist movements, terrorism and organised crime have increased in less developed nations, as non-state actors move into the spaces abandoned by government. It was surprising, however, how rapidly those non-state actors developed a regional and global presence. The audacity and effectiveness of the 2033 Summer of Terror attacks across Southeast Asia and elsewhere revealed that those groups are now integrated and operating transnationally.

It’s encouraging that outside powers, when they aren’t internally preoccupied with domestic climate-driven disasters, have continued to provide disaster relief and other humanitarian assistance to countries struggling with climate change. Less encouraging is that the instability in those places has also created opportunities for great-power competition and intervention. This year’s exchange of fire between American and Chinese naval vessels in the South China Sea, the fourth in less than a decade, demonstrated how strategic competition, opportunism, alliance commitments, digital disinformation and miscalculation can contribute to the outbreak of conflict.

The past few years have again confirmed that the Indo-Pacific region, where over half of the earth’s population resides, is highly exposed to climate and other hazards. In Indonesia, for example, the sea level has risen at the fastest rate globally for decades. What was in 2020 a 1-in-100-year extreme flood is now an annual event in many parts of the country, regularly forcing large proportions of Indonesia’s 310 million people to move. Most remain within Indonesia’s borders, but some join the tens of millions of similarly displaced people across the region seeking refuge in other countries. Last year, one Pacific island country relocated its entire population to Australia.

Much of South Asia and Southeast Asia is highly exposed to El Niño and La Niña events. Both phenomena have become more severe. The current La Niña is intensifying, causing record flooding in places that are still recovering from the extreme heat, drought and food security shocks from last year’s El Niño and the devastating 2032 crisis. Humanitarian assistance from outside the region is unlikely, given that another atmospheric blocking event linked to the disrupted jet stream has emerged. It’s causing record-setting extreme heat and fires across North America and much of Europe. The same blocking event is simultaneously affecting the South Asian subtropical monsoon, triggering extreme flooding in parts of the subregion that might otherwise have escaped La Niña–driven inundation.

Regional institutions and organisations, such as ASEAN, the Pacific Islands Forum and the multilateral development banks, have scaled up their efforts over the past two decades to meet the various economic, political, social, security and humanitarian challenges arising from the warming climate. In the Pacific, for example, they’ve been instrumental in building climate resilience and relocating island communities displaced by the rising sea and stronger cyclones. But their efforts are now more typically overwhelmed by the scale of the climate hazards and their cascading impacts.

The latest scientific assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggests that the rapid transition to renewables and recent more ambitious political action are likely to keep warming below 2.5°C, thereby diminishing the risk of crossing additional dangerous climate thresholds.