This not-so-positive prediction will focus on Southeast Asian geopolitics as it relates to climate change between the years 2040 and 2050. As you read on, you’ll see a Southeast Asia that’s bombarded with food shortages, violent tropical cyclones, and a rise in authoritarian regimes across the region. Meanwhile, you’ll also see Japan and South Korea (who we’re adding here for reasons explained later) reaping unique benefits from climate change, as long as they wisely manage their competing relationships with China and North Korea.
But before we begin, let’s be clear on a few things. This snapshot—this geopolitical future of Southeast Asia—wasn’t pulled out of thin air. Everything you’re about to read is based on the work of publicly available government forecasts from both the United States and the United Kingdom, a series of private and government-affiliated think tanks, as well as the work of journalists, including Gwynne Dyer, a leading writer in this field. Links to most of the sources used are listed at the end.
On top of that, this snapshot is also based on the following assumptions:
Government investments to seriously and sizably limit or reverse climate change will remain moderate to practically non-existent.
By 2040 to 2050, climate change will have progressed to a stage where greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations in our atmosphere exceed 450 parts per million. In this scenario, the world is now at least two degrees Celsius warmer, probably more.
You read our intro to climate change and the not-so-nice effects it‘ll have on our drinking water, agriculture, coastal cities, and plant and animal species if no action is taken against it.
Now, let’s get right into it.
Southeast Asia drowns beneath the sea
By the late 2040s, climate change will have warmed the region to a point where the Southeast Asian countries will have to combat nature on multiple fronts.
Rainfall and food
By the late 2040s, much of Southeast Asia—particularly Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam—will experience severe reductions to their central Mekong river system. This is a problem considering the Mekong feeds the majority of these countries agriculture and freshwater reserves.
Why would this happen? Because the Mekong river is largely fed by from the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau. Over the coming decades, climate change will gradually pick away at the ancient glaciers sitting atop these mountain ranges. At first, the rising heat will cause decades of severe summer flooding as the glaciers and snowpack melt into the rivers, swelling onto the surrounding countries.
But when the day comes (late in the 2040s) when the Himalayas are totally stripped of their glaciers, the Mekong will collapse into a shadow of its former self. Add to this that a warming climate will affect regional rainfall patterns, and it won’t be long before this region experiences severe droughts.
Countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, however, will experience little change in rainfall and some areas may even experience an increase in wetness. But regardless of the amount of rainfall any of these countries get (as discussed in our introduction to climate change), the warming climates in this region will still cause serious damage to its total food production levels.
This matters because the Southeast Asian region grows a substantial amount of the world’s rice and maize harvests. An increase of two degrees Celsius could result in a total decline of up to 30 percent or more in harvests, harming the region’s ability to feed itself and its ability to export rice and maize to the international markets (leading to increased prices for these staple foods globally).
Remember, unlike in our past, modern farming tends to rely on relatively few plant varieties to grow at industrial scale. We’ve domesticated crops, either through thousands of years or manual breeding or dozens of years of genetic manipulation, and as a result they can only germinate and grow when the temperature is just “Goldilocks right.”
For example, studies run by the University of Reading found that two of the most widely grown varieties of rice, lowland indica and upland japonica, were highly vulnerable to higher temperatures. Specifically, if temperatures exceeded 35 degrees Celsius during their flowering stage, the plants would become sterile, offering little to no grains. Many tropical countries where rice is the main staple food already lie on the very edge of this Goldilocks temperature zone, so any further warming could mean disaster.
Southeast Asia already faces yearly tropical cyclones, some years worse than others. But as the climate warms, these weather events will grow much fiercer. Every one percent of climate warming equals roughly 15 percent more precipitation in the atmosphere, meaning these tropical cyclones will be powered by more water (i.e. they’ll get be bigger) once they hit land. The yearly pounding of these increasingly violent cyclones will drain the regional governments’ budgets for rebuilding and weather fortifications, and could also lead to millions of displaced climate refugees fleeing to these countries’ interiors, creating a variety of logistical headaches.
A warming climate means more glacial ice sheets from Greenland and the Antarctic melting into the sea. That, plus the fact that a warmer ocean swells (i.e. warm water expands, whereas cold water contracts to ice), means that sea levels will rise noticeably. This increase will put some of the most populated Southeast Asian cities at risk, as many of them are located at or below 2015 sea level.
So don’t be surprised to one day hear on the news that a violent storm surge managed to pull in enough seawater to temporary or permanently drown a city. Bangkok, for example, could be under two meters of water by as early as 2030 should no flood barriers be built to protect them. Events like these could create even more displaced climate refugees for regional governments to care for.
So let’s put the ingredients above together. We have an ever-growing population—by 2040, there will be 750 million people living in Southeast Asia (633 million as of 2015). We will have a shrinking supply of food from climate-induced failed harvests. We will have millions of displaced climate refugees from increasingly violent tropical cyclones and sea flooding of lower-than-sea-level cities. And we will have governments whose budgets are crippled by having to pay for yearly disaster relief efforts, especially as they collect less and less revenue from the reduced tax income of displaced citizens and food exports.
You can probably see where this is going: We’re going to have millions of hungry and desperate people who are justifiably angry about their governments’ lack of aid. This environment increases the likelihood of failed states through popular revolt, as well as a rise in military-controlled emergency governments across the region.
Japan, the Eastern stronghold
Japan obviously isn’t a part of Southeast Asia, but it’s being squeezed in here since not enough will happen to this country to warrant its own article. Why? Because Japan will be blessed with a climate that will remain moderate well into the 2040s, thanks to its unique geography. In fact, climate change might benefit Japan through longer growing seasons and increased rainfall. And since it’s the world’s third-largest economy, Japan can easily afford the creation of many elaborate flood barriers to protect its port cities.
But in the face of the world’s worsening climate, Japan could take two paths: The safe option would be to become a hermit, isolating itself from the troubles of the world around it. Alternatively, it may use climate change as an opportunity to boost its regional influence by using its relatively stable economy and industry to help its neighbors deal with climate change, especially through financing flood barriers and reconstruction efforts.
If Japan were to do this, it’s a scenario that would place it in direct competition with China, who would see these initiatives as a soft threat to its regional dominance. This would force Japan to rebuild its military capacity (especially its navy) to defend against its ambitious neighbor. While neither side will be able to afford an all-out war, the geopolitical dynamics of the region would become tenser, as these powers compete for favor and resources from their climate battered Southeast Asian neighbors.
South and North Korea
The Koreas are being squeezed in here for the same reason as Japan. South Korea will share all the same benefits as Japan when it comes to climate change. The only difference is that behind its northern border is an unstable nuclear-armed neighbor.
If North Korea isn’t able to get its act together to feed and protect its people from climate change by the late 2040s, then (for the sake of stability) South Korea would likely step in with unlimited food aid. It would be willing to do this because unlike Japan, South Korea won’t be able to grow its military against China and Japan. Moreover, it’s not clear whether South Korea will be able to continuously depend on protection from the US, who will be facing its own climate issues.
Reasons for hope
First, remember that what you’ve just read is only a prediction, not a fact. It’s also a prediction that’s written in 2015. A lot can and will happen between now and the 2040s to address the effects of climate change (many of which will be outlined in the series conclusion). And most important, the predictions outlined above are largely preventable using today’s technology and today’s generation.
To learn more about how climate change may affect other regions of the world or to learn about what can be done to slow and eventually reverse climate change, read our series on climate change via the links below:
WWIII Climate Wars series links
WWIII CLIMATE WARS: NARRATIVES
Southeast Asia, Drowning in your Past: WWIII Climate Wars P9
South America, Revolution: WWIII Climate Wars P11