By Ron Corben
Bangkok, Thailand, June 7, 2017
Southeast Asia faces far reaching challenges in ensuring regional cooperation in dealing with climate change after the decision by the United States to withdraw from the 2015 Paris Agreement.
The move, announced last week by President Donald Trump, is seen as a further step away from a higher profile U.S. role in the region after Washington backed away from the 12 nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) regional trade pact earlier this year.
President Trump said the 195 nation climate change accord imposed unfair environmental standards on American businesses and workers. He called the agreement a “draconian” international deal.
US withdrawal from Paris accord seen lessening its support role in Asia
But analysts say the U.S. decision may have wide ranging ramifications for the Asia Pacific, undermining the U.S.’s commitment amid fears of a lessening of U.S. technical capacity on environmental and climate issues.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, said the U.S. decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement could weaken regional cooperation in dealing with climate change.
“This [decision] has disastrous ramifications because this means that the international framework and agreement to contain environmental damage, global warming and overall climate is now undermined and is uncertain what will happen in the future,” Thitinan told VOA.
US withdrawal from climate deal may increase role of China
He said the move also allowed China to take a higher profile in enforcing the climate deal.
The United Nations’ economic and social commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP), in a 2016 report, warned many Asia Pacific countries were “geographically vulnerable and highly exposed to the damaging impacts of climate change.”
UN: US move could increase poverty in Southeast Asia
The report said without climate driven development, “climate change could force more than a 100 million people into extreme poverty by 2030, wiping out the gains in the poverty reduction achieved over the last decades.”
Carl Thayer, a defense analyst at the University of New South Wales, in Australia, said the threat of rising sea levels placed several regions and cities in Asia under threat of inundation, undermining the region’s economic progress.
“[Climate change] will take countries that are weak and make them even weaker and contribute to them becoming failed states because they cannot cope. And the big issue is what do people do? Do they fight or take flight. So we could be seeing massive migrations of people affected – a new wave of Vietnamese boat people,” Thayer said.
He said to meet the challenge will require “effective international cooperation.”
Thayer fears the U.S. may also step back from broader regional environmental and climate participation. The U.S. has long had a key role with the four nation Mekong River Commission (MRC), as part of multinational discussions over the river system and environment.
Key areas in Asia are threatened
Vietnam’s delta river region, the rice basket of the nation, is threatened by rising sea levels affecting rice production and insect infestations.
But following talks between President Trump and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc at the White House, the U.S. said it would continue to work together with Hanoi to address global challenges, including environmental protection.
US will continue working with Asian countries on an individual basis
In a statement, the White House said the U.S. “affirmed its assistance to Vietnam in combating climate change via concrete mitigation and adaptation measures”.
Analysts, such as respected Thai meteorologist Smith Dharmasaroja, feared the U.S. absence from the Paris accord would lead to less of a U.S. commitment, including technical support, on climate change.
Analysts say US technical support on climate change is essential
“Pulling out from that agreement with the U.N. is not a good idea because we are in a region that is affected by global warming. Without security – without the help of the United States of America, the global warming in Asia and other countries will be affected a lot because we are looking for the worst floods, worst storms,” Smith said.
He said most small countries looked to the U.S. for its technical expertise and knowledge in climate and environmental issues, with China unable to fill the void.
Analysts say other countries will now need to increase their efforts to keep global temperatures within the targets set by the Paris agreement.
A British wildlife conservationist, on background, told VOA, U.S. withdrawal from the Paris agreement comes against a backdrop of the U.S. budget cuts to environmental protection and climate science.
“Take the U.S. commitments out of that equation it just means that the rest of the world has even more work to do to be able to stay below that 2 degree Celsius threshold,” the scientist said.