Monster waves surge over a sea wall in Shenzhen in Guangdong province. Cities built close to the water are likely to face increasing problems due to rising sea levels and more severe storms due to global warming. Photo: AFP
Monster waves surge over a sea wall in Shenzhen in Guangdong province. Cities built close to the water are likely to face increasing problems due to rising sea levels and more severe storms due to global warming. Photo: AFP

Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong touched on the topic of climate change early this month in his National Day speech. He discussed how Singapore is planning to deal with the effects of climate change, which has resulted in rising sea levels around the world.

Being a low-lying nation, Singapore is especially vulnerable to this, and Lee said the costs of protecting the country against rising sea levels are likely to be at least S$100 billion over the next 50 to 100 years.

The price tag needed to fight climate change is well worth pondering for the world. If Singapore, a tiny island on the world map, would require S$100 billion (US$72 billion) to bolster its coastal defenses to fight climate change, imagine the size of the resources required of bigger nations facing similar challenges, such as Bangladesh, which is also a low-lying nation.

Unlike Singapore, which is an economic powerhouse and able to plan ahead and afford the resources required to deal with climate change, poorer Asian countries like Bangladesh are ill-equipped to deal with the impact. Many of these countries are struggling with high poverty rates and weak governance, and are unable to plan ahead and muster the necessary resources to buffer themselves against the negative impacts of climate change.

Bangladesh’s story offers a cautionary tale for all.

According to the World Bank, Bangladesh is one of the five fastest-growing economies in the world. With a young population and a growing economy, Bangladesh should be celebrating the beginning of a brighter future. However, climate change threatens to overshadow the nascent success of the country and relegate its people to a bleak future.

According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, 700,000 Bangladeshis have been displaced from their homes annually over the past decade. People from the low-lying coastal areas of the country have been forced to move inland, including into the capital city Dhaka. Salt water from the rising sea has rendered large portions of land in the coastal areas unsuitable for farming, destroying the livelihoods of many Bangladeshis in the process. Climate change threatens to stop the country from realizing its full economic potential.

It is clear that the wealth divide among countries in Asia is hampering the ability of poorer countries to cope with the negative impacts of climate change, which threatens to undermine the Asian economic miracle that has lifted hundreds of millions from poverty.

Currently the dominant focus of discussion has been on how to mitigate the changes in the climate. The Paris Agreement was an important tool to get international consensus on reducing global carbon-dioxide emissions. However, it is equally important for the world, especially Asia, to discuss how to adapt to the negative changes brought about by climate. This is the elephant in the room that is not being discussed. And many of Asia’s booming cities such as Bangkok are expected to become victim to rising sea levels in the coming decades.

Indonesia has a large young population and is resource rich, the very prerequisites to be the next engine powering the world economy. But climate change affects all. It is no surprise that Indonesian President Joko Widodo has proposed shifting the country’s capital city from Jakarta. The low-lying city has been been sinking by around 12 centimeters each year and a projection predicts that a large portion of the northern Jakarta coastline will be submerged by 2025.

These developments are bound to have major economic and social ripple effects for Asia and the world. And the Asian century is at stake.

The biggest threat to the Asian Miracle is not climate change itself but rather the failure to adapt to it.

Asia needs a two-pronged approach on climate change to safeguard its economic miracle.

Maa Zhi Hong is a political analyst in Singapore who has written for Today, Asia Times, the South China Morning Post and Nikkei Asian Review. His official Instagram account is @maazhihongofficial.

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