An insecure future: Climate change-related disaster management in the Indo-Pacific

By Kate Clayton

The Indo-Pacific is the most climate-affected region on the planet. It is home to the world’s fastest-sinking city (Jakarta) and country (Kiribati), and the World Bank estimates that by 2050 the Indo-Pacific will have up to 90 million climate refugees.
By 2033, it is estimated that the earth will have warmed by up to 1.5 degrees Celsius. This will have a disastrous effect on the Indo-Pacific region. Increased frequency and severity of droughts, floods, fires and other natural disasters could create a regional humanitarian crisis. As a maritime region, the coastal and archipelagic areas of the Indo-Pacific are particularly at risk.
Climate change is the biggest threat facing the Indo-Pacific region. It is a threat multiplier, exacerbating pre-existing issues including food security, economic security, political instability and energy and resource access.

To best respond to climate change-related disasters in the Indo-Pacific, a regional Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) agency is needed to help support countries during environmental crises.

Today’s institutions are not adequately equipped to manage the humanitarian crisis that climate change will create in the region. Currently, HADR is done on a mostly ad-hoc basis. Countries only come together to assist the region during crisis and there are no permanent mechanisms to coordinate cooperation when it’s needed.

As extreme weather events become more frequent and the need for HADR becomes more demanding, Indo-Pacific countries must think seriously – and creatively – about how they respond to climate-related disasters.

 The 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami demonstrated just how important and effective a whole-of-region response to environmental disasters can be. The coordinated disaster relief response by Australia, India, Japan and the US eventually led to the formalisation of the Quad, which among its many initiatives now houses the Quad Partnership on Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief in the Indo-Pacific.

The only other Indo-Pacific HADR-focused agency is the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief. But taken together, both the Quad and ASEAN’s HADR programs don’t deliver outcomes for the whole region – the ASEAN Centre is focused only ASEAN member countries, and the Quad Partnership does not include some of the region’s most at-risk nations.

To better coordinate HADR responses and to facilitate regional cooperation, developing an Indo-Pacific Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief agency that involves all interested Indo-Pacific governments will help to strengthen regional security. This ensure the region’s most at-risk nations (especially those in the Pacific and Southeast Asia) are supported and that the biggest emitters (Australia, the US and China) are involved.

The Indo-Pacific needs a genuinely regional response to the increased threats posed by climate change.

Involving countries in Southeast Asia, South Asia and the Pacific will allow those worst affected by climate change to have their say in a forum where bigger countries are listening. And including China would provide a platform for US-China cooperation and positive engagement.

Climate change does not stop at national borders or political alliances. It is worrying that competition with China is increasing alongside the worsening effects of climate change. Without ongoing cooperation, these dual challenges could threaten regional stability.

As we look to security challenges over the next decade, the implications of climate change in the Indo-Pacific cannot be ignored. We can improve our mitigation efforts today by reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, and strengthen regional resilience through HADR cooperation.

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