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State Department Ignores Climate Change in the Indo-Pacific Region

Indo-Pacific State DepartmentBy Marc Kodack

The U.S. State Department recently published an “implementation update” of its Indo-Pacific strategy, titled “A Free and Open Indo-Pacific: Advancing a Shared Vision.” It provides a summary of the State Department’s initiatives over the last two years – namely its’ “diplomatic, economic, governance and security” actions to implement a whole-of-government strategy in the region. Ideally, it should complement the Department of Defense’s Indo-Pacific Strategy Report. While the Pentagon report mentions climate change as a “transnational challenge” within its report, the State Department document includes no mention of climate change, despite severe consequences for the region, including as it relates to transboundary water issues, such as the Mekong River, which are creating tensions among multiple countries that share a river system.

The Pentagon strategy report seeks to achieve three regional objectives, including preparedness, partnerships, and promoting a networked region. It briefly mentions climate change twice, stating—“the Indo-Pacific region suffers regularly from natural disasters including monsoons, hurricanes, and floods to earthquakes and volcanic activity, as well as the negative consequences of climate change” and with respect to building capacity and resilience for Pacific Islands—“to address climate change and disaster response…” Other climate change effects that are of concern to the DoD for the region include its’ effects on food production resulting in shortages, shifts in populations, either internally within a country or across international borders creating or exacerbating existing social and political conditions, and increases in public health crises, either post-disaster or from deteriorating environmental and living conditions.

While negative consequences of climate change are mentioned in the strategy report, none of these consequences have been incorporated into the State’s Department’s vision which is based on “free, fair, and reciprocal trade, open investment environments, good governance, and freedom of the seas.” For example, climate change implications on transboundary water will be exacerbated as upstream water sources are reduced because of accelerated glacial melting or more intensive regional droughts that reduce surface water availability, which can in turn lead to increased groundwater extraction further reducing the connected surface waters. When climate change is combined with geo-political decisions and actions, such as dam building, disagreements with downstream neighbors may be intensified.

Over the last 10 years, the State Department has had an on-going effort, the Lower Mekong Initiative, which “builds the capacity of partner countries [Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam] in areas such as energy and water security, sustainable infrastructure, and regional institutions. Without incorporating climate change into this initiative, water security cannot be enhanced, particularly with “a spree of dam-building that concentrates control over downstream flows, plans to blast and dredge riverbeds…and a push by some to mold new rules to govern the river in ways that undermine existing institutions.”

As a way to enhance State’s current efforts in the region, the Center for Climate and Security has in the past recommended the creation of a Climate-Security Plan for the Asia-Pacific Region which would integrate defense, diplomacy, and development aspects of foreign policy – a recommendation supported by the former Commander of U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Samuel J. Locklear, US Navy (Ret). The plan’s activities would include expanding military-to-military and civilian-to-military engagements to address climate threats, increase strategic dialog on disaster risk reduction with multiple partners, broaden military exercises and security cooperation programs, and dedicate additional resources including investments/financing for climate adaptation projects, and personnel, such as the Joint Staff planning and operations sections.

More broadly than just the Asia-Pacific region, The Center for Climate and Security has recommended in its recently released Climate Security Plan for America that DoD, State and other federal agencies work together to create Regional Climate Security Plans to support defense, diplomacy, and development activities in all critical regions, e.g., Asia-Pacific, the Arctic, the Middle East, etc. Internally within the State Department, a Bureau of International Climate Security should be created, headed by an Assistance Secretary. The Secretary of State should “find innovative means of supporting strategic climate resilience investments…in regions of core strategic interest to the United States.” The State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development should also create a Climate Security Conflict Prevention Framework that builds on existing efforts. The Framework would ensure “that efforts and investments designed to reduce the fragility of nations, and to anticipate, prevent and respond to conflict, are climate-proofed.” These and other recommendations would inculcate a climate change mind-set throughout the State Department and its partner federal agencies.

Climate change will affect millions of people in the Asia-Pacific region. Transboundary water issues, such as changes in river flows influenced by climate change, will contribute to disruptions in local livelihoods and regional trade. It will become more difficult to maintain existing individual country and regional partnerships if tensions over water between one or more individual countries are increasing. Climate change will further inflame water-related tensions throughout the strategically important Indo-Pacific region to the U.S.


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