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Climate Security in Mainland Southeast Asia: A Scenarios-Based Assessment

November 2022

By John Lichtefeld | Project managed by Brigitte Hugh | Edited by Francesco Femia

Introduction and Summary

The states of Mainland Southeast Asia—Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam—are extremely vulnerable to climate change impacts, owing to their geographic situation and heterogeneous levels of internal development. Regional populations are already experiencing the first order physical consequences of a changing climate, including an increased frequency of extreme weather events, higher mean temperatures, decreased weather predictability, and rising sea levels.

Beyond these immediately observable consequences, an array of cascading second order effects is likely to emerge over the coming years, as the region’s inhabitants are forced to cope with unstable agricultural conditions, declining freshwater availability, and increasing energy costs. The future of Mainland Southeast Asia’s development, as well as its overall stability and security, will be determined in large part by the vulnerabilities and resilience of its constituent states, as well as the willingness of governments in the region to work together and with global partners to mitigate climate risks before consequences are imminent and unavoidable.

This paper posits four “climate security scenarios” built on analyses of two key determinants of insecurity: state governance capacity and social and economic inequality.

The four hypothetical scenarios are as follows:

  • Paralyzed States, Vulnerable Populations: Little is done to address inequality or build state capacity amid growing environmental and climatic threats, and simultaneous crises lead to acute instability and insecurity at the regional level.
  • Governing Against the Grain: Governments with the resources to do so take steps to build capacity and prepare for climate challenges, but inequality—within and among states—remains unaddressed, exacerbating the situation of the most vulnerable when crises overwhelm state capacities.
  • Growing Economies, Lagging Capacity: Economic recovery helps reduce social and economic inequality, but regional policymakers fail to build state capacity to manage climate and environmental threats or enable regional cooperation, leaving sub-state communities to fend for themselves in the face of developing challenges.
  • Building Resilience, Strengthening Communities: Governments take steps to build state capacity to manage climate risks, while at the same time implementing policies to lessen inequality, so that when major crises emerge, communities are resilient to initial impacts and authorities more capable of acting quickly to address priority needs.

Key Findings and Recommendations

The report outlines six key findings for external stakeholders seeking to support climate resilience in states in the region:

  • Social and economic inequality within states can undermine initiatives to improve climate resilience, so external stakeholders should support policies aimed at improving economic security and mitigating inequality as part of their climate-focused efforts;
  • Climate risks are complex and transnational in nature, so diplomatic and security service cooperation – among states in the region and with global partners – will be critical to improving overall regional resilience;
  • Efforts should be made to coordinate cooperation on climate risk mitigation via ASEAN and other regional fora to help overcome the challenges posed by an increasingly antagonistic relationship between Washington and Beijing;
  • Regional security services should be engaged to take into account their expertise, enable cooperation and joint planning, and to encourage the responsible and humane use of their considerable political clout to promote domestic policy reforms that support climate resilience;
  • Technical data sharing and capacity building have been well-received in the region and could and provide an opening for engagement with security services that are often hesitant to meet with external stakeholders on sensitive matters; and
  • Amid a growing crackdown on civil society in states across the region, external stakeholders should encourage governments to respect and partner with domestic civil society and non-governmental organizations that promote climate resilience.

Highlighted Figure: Hypothetical Scenarios, report p.8

Direct inquiries to: Andrew Facini, afacini [at]

Cover image: A satellite image of Nam Nao National Park and the surrounding regions in Phetchabun Province in northern Thailand. Image courtesy Landsat/Copernicus via Google.