Residents are carried on a forklift truck to dry land through flood waters brought by heavy rain from Typhoon Vamco

Residents are carried on a forklift truck to dry land through flood waters brought by heavy rain from Typhoon Vamco after it made landfall in Thua Thien Hue province on November 15, 2020. (Photo: Huy Thanh, AFP)

Hit the Covid Reset Button for Climate’s Sake!


Climate change and pandemics are interlinked. So should be the government responses to these human security threats.

Covid-19’s spread across Southeast Asia last year distracted popular and policy attention away from the climate change crisis. This year, regional states’ Covid-19 recovery packages should include incentives to “green” their economies.

A survey taken during the peak of the Covid-19 crisis last year by the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute of Southeast Asians’ climate perceptions showed high levels of concern about the effects of climate change and demand for national governments to do more to respond to this crisis. Floods, loss of biodiversity and rising sea-levels were named as the top three climate impacts felt across this region. Southeast Asia has had the misfortune of being on the front lines of climate destruction over this last decade.

Vietnam and the Philippines were among the worst-hit Southeast Asian countries by deadly destructive typhoons in 2020. According to reports, super typhoon Goni (known locally as Rolly) destroyed more than 250,000 homes, left 25 dead and an estimated US$1 billion in economic losses in late October-early November. Two weeks later, Typhoon Vamco (known locally as Ulysses) caused 99 deaths, more than 200,000 homes destroyed and another US$1 billion in losses. Goni (Rolly), Vamco (Ulysses), Linfa, and Nangka should all be famous household names. Unfortunately, their massive scale of destruction and loss of life and property last year were eclipsed by Covid-19’s ever-rising numbers of infections and deaths globally. The unprecedented crisis of Covid-19 focussed regional and global concern away from the precedented but growing climate one.

Least-developed and developing countries have historically contributed little to global greenhouse gas emissions, yet these countries, who are least able to manage, now bear the brunt of the worst of climate catastrophes. The impacts and costs of climate disasters will never be proportionately distributed. They depend on the vulnerabilities of a specific region, the adaptation measures and climate-proofing measures implemented, and the level of climate resilience of the country. As we can see with Southeast Asia, wide variations can occur among countries within the same region. Singapore is relatively sheltered from cyclones and typhoons whereas the Philippines and Vietnam are hammered by them every year.

A US National Intelligence Council-sponsored workshop more than a decade ago (in 2009) highlighted that while man-made environmental problems were a greater threat than climate change to 2030, states in Southeast Asia will face similar threats from climate change with the severity of these threats varying both between and within states. Presciently, the report cited several coming disruptions:

  • Southeast Asia will face a serious water management challenge in both urban and rural areas arising from water scarcity, floods and storms.
  • Food security which was already a challenge was highlighted as most serious in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta.
  • Climate change could increase conflict within states, with ethnic, religious and economically vulnerable communities suffering disproportionately.
  • Climate change may drive mass migration from neighbouring countries.

The report found that civil society will bear most of the burden of responding to climate change in the region and will likely be a force for deepening civil participation. The report concluded that China’s influence and developmental activities in this region may play the greatest role in deciding Southeast Asia’s trajectory to 2030. Observations over the last decade support this prediction. This report did not foresee a black swan event that will change Southeast Asia’s trajectory permanently.

The loss of biodiversity, the deteriorating natural environment, the growing proximity between wildlife, livestock and humans and the changing climate all contribute to new and emerging infectious diseases.

Results from the recent ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute survey found that climate change and Covid-19 were equally large and pressing concerns for those polled despite the lack of media focus on the former in 2020. When asked which of the two governments should prioritise, 61 per cent of respondents placed equal priority on both Covid-19 and the climate emergency. Countries that witnessed a greater Covid-19 outbreak last year such as Thailand were split more between the two choices. Countries with relatively few Covid-19 cases such as Cambodia and Laos placed greater emphasis on the climate emergency.

This global pandemic has brought into stark relief how animal, human and planetary health issues are interlinked. The loss of biodiversity, the deteriorating natural environment, the growing proximity between wildlife, livestock and humans and the changing climate all contribute to new and emerging infectious diseases.

Covid-19 presents a unique reset button for countries to change their climate trajectory and fundamentally green their economies. Opportunities to green stimulus packages that are being rolled out in response to Covid-19 are aplenty. Conditionalities to ensure that companies modify their environmental and climate risk behaviours can be placed on Covid-19 recovery-related subsidies. It would be completely reasonable to insist that companies switch to clean energy sources in order to enjoy utilities subsidies.

Conditionalities may sound unfair but subsidies are taxpayers’ money being used to prop up companies. In the long-term, a reduction in carbon emissions from private sector activity will alleviate the state’s burden when it comes to accounting for mitigation actions under their Nationally Determined Contributions under the Paris Agreement on climate change. If governments are going to hand out carrots to support economic recovery from Covid-19, ensure that these encourage green behaviour. Covid-19 and climate change are interlinked so should be their recovery and mitigation efforts.


Sharon Seah is Senior Fellow and concurrent Coordinator at the ASEAN Studies Centre and Climate Change in Southeast Asia Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. She is also editor of Building a New Legal Order for the Oceans.