A man plants mangroves at a beach on Earth Day at Pekan Bada, Indonesia's Aceh province on 22 April 2022. (Photo: Chaideer Mahyuddin / AFP)

Moving Southeast Asia’s Climate Needle: One Thread at a Time

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Southeast Asia remains deeply concerned about the effects of climate change, but commitment and enthusiasm for practical action vary.

Southeast Asians are witnessing a series of climate change-induced events sweeping the globe, from the extreme drought and wildfires in China, scorching summer in Europe and floods in Pakistan of ‘unimaginable proportions’. The region knows full well that no country is spared from climate catastrophes. Yet the connection between extreme weather events and the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is only just beginning to be understood and accepted by lay persons. Climate attribution and predictive modelling studies play a part but still, the level of public consciousness remains low. 

New survey findings published by ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute on regional climate change perceptions reveal that Southeast Asians harbour deep concerns about climate change. 90.4 per cent of survey respondents believe that climate change is a serious and immediate threat to the well-being of their countries and an important issue that deserves to be monitored. This outlook is not surprising for a region frequently cited as one of the most vulnerable to climate impacts. But there are more nuances in the findings too. Here are six important takeaways from the report: 

1. Anxieties and Perceived Impacts Are Not Uniform

According to Amnesty International, the Philippines is hit by 20 typhoons per year on average and the intensity of these events are increasing with climate change. In the period 1980 to 2020, storms were the top natural hazard for the Philippines (46.9 per cent), with floods coming in second (23.1 per cent). This is evidenced in the survey where respondents from the Philippines picked tropical storms as the most serious climate impact they were facing. Depending on the geographical location, while the Philippines’ biggest problems are storms, Laotian respondents believe that droughts are their most worrying climate problems, whereas Singaporean respondents feel that sea-level rise is their biggest threat. 

In your view, what are the three most serious climate change impacts that your country is exposed to? 

Climate anxieties also vary across the region. Respondents from the Philippines have the strongest sense of urgency in addressing the climate threat, with over 64 per cent believing that climate change posed a “serious and immediate threat to the well-being of their country.” At the other end, Cambodian respondents registered the highest number of climate deniers. Almost 30 per cent of Cambodia respondents think that climate change is neither a long term-threat that will not impact them, nor is it a threat to them at all. 

What is your view of climate change?

2. Absence of Activism, Governance, and Political Dialogue

Despite these elevated levels of concern in the region towards climate change, climate advocacy is largely passive in the region. 64.8 per cent of respondents say that they primarily follow news and share information. Only a minuscule proportion (5.1 per cent) are bothered to mobilise support for greater awareness. This is true across all age groups, even among Generation Z. So, it is unlikely a Greta Thunberg of Southeast Asia will emerge. 

Which statement below best describes your level of participation in climate advocacy?

The passivity bears out in the way respondents assign blame: first to the national governments, second to the businesses and industries and third to subnational governments. But, it is interesting to note that persons living in rural areas are more likely to accept individual blame than those living in metropolitan cities. Similarly, when asked about the burden of the costs of taking climate measures, national governments (37.4 per cent) and businesses (28.0 per cent) again bear the brunt. Individuals (8.6 per cent) come in dead last in shouldering any cost-related burdens. Persons with higher educational attainment have the tendency to shift greater blame to the private sector whereas those with lower education attainment are more likely to choose subnational governments.

In your opinion, who are the top three groups responsible for tackling climate change in your country? 

In your opinion, who should bear the greatest costs of climate change measures in your country? 

Political parties also shape the dialogue on climate change. Almost half of ASEAN respondents believe that their countries’ political parties do not prioritise climate change. Among this group of sceptics, respondents from Malaysia (74.2 per cent), Thailand (66.4 per cent), Indonesia (66.0 per cent), and the Philippines (51.7 per cent) share this view. Only Singapore respondents have a greater tendency to disagree that their country’s political parties do not prioritise climate change (52.0 per cent). This shows that there is a lot of room for political parties to initiate climate conversations with their constituencies and ramp up their climate manifestos. 

“My country’s political parties do not prioritise climate change.” Do you agree?

3. Phase-Out, not Phase-Down Coal 

Southeast Asia is one of the few regions in the world where coal-fired electricity generation has been rapidly expanding. But despite the high dependency on coal, the majority of Southeast Asians think that regional countries should immediately cease building new coal power plants (62.4 per cent). This sentiment is strongest in Cambodia (80.9 per cent), followed by Malaysia (71.0 per cent) and the Philippines (68.6 per cent). The largest group of respondents who have beef with coal plants are from Myanmar (23.9 per cent) and Vietnam (11.1 per cent). Over 72 per cent of respondents also want to see ASEAN countries cut their reliance on coal, with Cambodia (87.3 per cent) and Vietnam (86.3 per cent) expressing the strongest support. 

“ASEAN countries should stop building new coal power plants immediately.” Do you agree?

“ASEAN countries should cut their reliance on coal as soon as possible.” Do you agree? 

4. Carbon Tax: Yea or Nay?

Despite its developing status and the belief that climate change is primarily caused by developed nations, respondents from ASEAN have not rejected the idea of a carbon tax. In fact, the acceptance is moderately high at 6.1 (on a scale of 0 to 10). Respondents from the Philippines, Cambodia and Thailand are more willing to accept a carbon tax for the sake of the climate whereas those from Myanmar, Brunei and Laos are the most unwilling. But the level of willingness drops along with socio-economic status — that is, an individual of a lower status may be more concerned about the impact of a tax on his or her livelihood. 

On a scale of 0 to 10, how willing are you to accept a carbon tax for the sake of the climate?

5. Varying Support for Government Taking International Climate Roles 

All ASEAN countries are signatories to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Every year ASEAN countries participate in the Conference of the Parties (COP) and some are increasingly proactive in taking international roles to combat climate change according to the 2015 Paris Agreement. For instance, Singapore co-chaired the Informal Ministerial Consultations on Article 6 with Norway last year. However, levels of support for governments leading international climate roles vary across the region. The largest proportion of Southeast Asian respondents believe that their countries contribute to climate change and need to step up efforts to help the world to decarbonise (40.8 per cent). But the largest proportion of Laotian (33.9 per cent) and Cambodian (31.8 per cent) respondents state that their countries did not cause climate change but need to play a more active role in the global green transition because it concerns their future. It is also worth noting that Myanmar respondents argue that while their country feels the impact of climate change, major emitters such as the US, China, and Europe must be responsible at much higher rates than other countries (32.5%). 

Which statement best reflects your views about your country’s role in international climate action? 

Although the EU is deemed a climate leader, the expectations in the region seem to point towards Japan as possessing the ability to proactively share their climate expertise, practical ability and technical know-how.

6. Wanted: Climate Leadership 

21.9 per cent of survey respondents think that the EU has demonstrated climate leadership to help the world achieve Paris-aligned goals. The EU has been the region’s choice as the bloc remains consistent in demonstrating its climate commitments in international fora throughout the pandemic. The EU Green Deal, for instance, is an ambitious pledge to put their economy on a sustainable path. But worth noting is the United States (US), whose ratings improved drastically since its re-engagement in the Paris Agreement, from 4.8 per cent in 2021 to 20.7 per cent this year.

In your opinion, who has demonstrated climate leadership to help the world achieve Paris-aligned goals?

Although the EU is deemed a climate leader, the expectations in the region seem to point toward Japan as possessing the ability to proactively share their climate expertise, practical ability and technical know-how. 23.5 per cent of respondents felt this way about Japan, whereas only 17.6 per cent of respondents thought the EU could fulfil this role. The trust for Japan’s capacity could be due to the role of its development agencies which have been assisting Southeast Asia’s infrastructure and socio-economic development over the past decade. 

Who could play a more proactive role in sharing their climate expertise, practical ability, and technical know-how in your country?

Closer to home, respondents think that Singapore could be a potential regional climate leader with support from 53 per cent of survey respondents. Indonesians, on the other hand, preferred to see their own country assume this role. In short, climate change awareness in the region is ticking up, but it is a long way to Tipperary. 

Which ASEAN country has potential to be the region’s climate leader?

To access the full survey report, click here.

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Sharon Seah is Senior Fellow and Coordinator at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.


Melinda Martinus is the Lead Researcher in Socio-cultural Affairs at the ASEAN Studies Centre, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.