A child pushes his bike through floodwaters following heavy rain at a residential area of Ajun on the outskirts of Banda Aceh on 11 August, 2021. (Photo: Chaideer MAHYUDDIN/ AFP)

A child pushes his bike through floodwaters following heavy rain at a residential area of Ajun on the outskirts of Banda Aceh on 11 August, 2021. (Photo: Chaideer MAHYUDDIN/ AFP)

IPCC Report: No Time for Southeast Asia To Take it Easy

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The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has some sobering data applicable to Southeast Asia. Whether countries muster up the political will to follow through on their commitments will be key.

Record heatwaves, inundating floods and rapid wildfires this past summer in the northern hemisphere will be the ‘new normal’ of weather patterns if nothing is done to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) was released last week in time to prepare negotiators in the run-up of the climate talks in Glasgow starting on 1 November.

The latest Assessment Report (AR), which is the first in the 6th cycle, shows how strong and definitive the scientific language has become. Preparation for the latest AR work started in 2015. Each AR cycle takes five to seven years to scope, draft and finalise. But climate patterns have changed faster than the AR cycles. Given the tremendous acceleration in climate change impacts in the last decade, the IPCC released Special Reports on 1.5 Celsius warming (October 2018), the state of the ocean and cryosphere (August 2019), and climate change on land (September 2019) to keep the public apprised. The IPCC is the world’s chief scientific body on climate change. It comprises 195 members. It was established by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 1988.  

What does the AR6 say about Southeast Asia? 

In past assessment releases, a policymakers’ summary was probably the fastest, and quickest way to read the key findings. Scaling down of predictions to the country level had to be done by government scientists. Whether the country-level data was released to the public would be up to the respective governments. In this iteration, the IPCC has attempted to go beyond government representatives to reach the general public with regional factsheets, headline statements for the media, videos and an interactive atlas portal.

The IPCC has placed greater emphasis on integrated regional climate knowledge with an examination of factors that are unique and relevant at the regional or even sub-regional level so that climate risk and impact assessments can be as accurate and as up-to-date as possible. Eleven regions are covered this year. While there isn’t one for Southeast Asia per se, the Asia regional factsheet does highlight some common regional changes that Asia as a whole should watch for. These include the continuing trends of increase in heat extremes and accompanying decline in cold extremes in coming decades; an expected increase in marine heatwaves; the lengthening of fire weather seasons especially in North Asia; increased rainfall over Asia; a decline in the number of glaciers and thawing of permafrost, and a faster than average increase in relative sea levels around Asia with coastal shoreline reductions. 

With regard to Southeast Asia, there are four impacts to look out for. One, while future warming is predicted to increase globally, it is assessed with high confidence that for Southeast Asia, this would be slightly less than the global average. But this is not time to rejoice yet as rainfall, floods and cyclones will increase. Two, do not expect mean rainfall trends to be consistent (medium confidence). It is expected that rainfall for the northern part of Southeast Asia will increase while rainfall will decrease for maritime Southeast Asia. Three, the cumulative impacts of climate change, land subsidence and human activities will mean higher flood levels and prolonged inundation in the Mekong Delta region (high confidence). This means that the food-producing region of the Mekong will have to adapt to these changes to ensure food security. Four, there is no significant long-term trend observed in the overall number of tropical cyclones but more extreme cyclones have affected this region. The level of extremity is not measured but it does mean that governments in the region must implement better early warning systems for faster, quicker response measures in the face of calamities. 

For 32 years now, the IPCC has been explaining the relationship between global warming, extreme weather events, and human activities. Yet for as long as this work has been done, governments have questioned the validity, and even denied the linkage between human activities and climate change.

It is worth noting that the IPCC neither conducts climate change research nor does it give policy recommendations. Instead, it gathers the latest scientific findings on climate change, identifies the areas of agreement and disagreement in the science, and then settles on the areas where further research is needed. The objective of the body is to provide an accurate assessment of the current state of the climate, forecast possible climate futures, provide science-based climate information that will help governments assess risks and plan for adaptation, and provide options for limiting global warming. The IPCC has no mandate to make critical decisions that will meet the 1.5 Celsius Paris-aligned goals that the world has set for itself. 

For 32 years now, the IPCC has been explaining the relationship between global warming, extreme weather events, and human activities. Yet for as long as this work has been done, governments have questioned the validity, and even denied the linkage between human activities and climate change. In the early 1990s and 2000s, the majority of governments were sitting on the fence calling for ever more evidence to link extreme weather events to climate change. With each succeeding Assessment Report cycle, the science and data only grew stronger and clearer. 

It is almost perverse that the extreme weather events of the last few weeks, coupled with the compelling data in the AR6 report, have heightened interest in the next 26th Conference of Parties under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP-26) that the United Kingdom will be hosting come November. But the interest is not so much in the science, law, or policy of climate change. It is in the politics of whether negotiators can finally come together to do something about the problem of climate change. It remains to be seen if governments will finally gather enough political will to see through their commitments made in 2015. 

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