Climate change

Asia’s poorer nations will pay the highest price for Trump’s climate U-turn

Dan Steinbock says climate risks are intensifying for emerging economies in Asia, as they become collateral damage in Donald Trump’s determination to withdraw from the Paris accord

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 September, 2017, 4:14pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 September, 2017, 4:14pm

As I left Manila recently, tropical storm Isang passed the Batanes area in the northern Philippines. When I flew to Guangzhou, the low-pressure area had morphed into a tropical depression and then into Typhoon Hato in the South China Sea. Hato caused widespread damage in Hong Kong, Macau and on mainland China, leaving 26 people dead, many more injured and billions of dollars of damage.

Almost at the same time, Harvey was still classified as a tropical storm. Thanks to warm sea surface temperatures and low wind shear, it strengthened rapidly into a Category 4 hurricane within 24 hours, before hitting the shoreline of Texas on August 26.

After historical rain and flooding, 30,000 displaced people and more than 50 confirmed deaths, recovery is likely to take “many years”. Overall damage is estimated at US$267 billion. That’s more than the effect of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, or the 2005 Hurricane Katrina and 2012 Sandy combined.

Now Irma has strengthened into the strongest hurricane on record in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, as it threatens Puerto Rico and Florida.

The threat of natural disasters has substantial economic implications. In Texas alone, state and local debt exceeds US$370 billion (25 per cent of state GDP). As Puerto Rico has prepared for the “catastrophic system”, its fiscal crisis is about to play out in court, with some US$125 billion in debt and pension obligations (nearly 130 per cent of GDP, about the same as in Italy).

In all these cases, extreme weather proved far more destructive than initially anticipated, navigated across several country boundaries, and left behind huge economic devastation that typically deepened income polarisation.

In each case, too, scientists see less the effect of a natural disaster and more the forces of human-induced climate change.

Ironically, as extreme weather phenomena are intensifying, international efforts to contain collateral damage may be failing.

During his election campaign, President Donald Trump pledged to withdraw America from the Paris climate accord, which seeks to reduce the effects of climate change by maintaining global temperatures “well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels”. The pact was negotiated by almost 200 parties and adopted by consensus in December 2015.

During his campaign, Trump called the pact a “bad deal” for the US and framed withdrawal as a key piece of his “America First” platform.

The White House initiated the exit path from the climate agreement in March, when Trump signed an executive order to begin the formal process of repealing predecessor Barack Obama’s unilateral climate agenda, including ending carbon rules for power plants, seen as the key to achieve the Paris goal.

Trump believes in the climate change ‘hoax’

On June 1, Trump announced America would withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. Yet, legal questions linger as to how the Trump White House can execute the withdrawal and what role the US can play in future international climate meetings.

If Trump ultimately implements the withdrawal, the global economy will be held hostage by the greatest polluting nation – as measured on a per capita basis – and, more precisely, by a conservative minority of about a fifth of American voters and wealthy financiers whose continued fortunes are predicated on worsening global climate change.

While Trump has expressed scepticism about the scientific basis of climate change, he has portrayed the concern over extreme weather as an obstacle to US competitiveness.

These misguided views seem to go back to November 2012, when he famously tweeted that the concept of global warming was created by the Chinese to make US manufacturing non-competitive.

China, in soaring to become the world’s second-largest economy, has overtaken the US and EU as the world’s largest emitter, with carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels tripling over the past 30 years. Nevertheless, China is estimated to account for “only” 10-12 per cent of total greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. That figure has remained fairly steady over the industrial period.

If a US exit from the climate accord does materialise, global climate risks will intensify dramatically

Since climate change is not just cumulative but accumulative, current greenhouse gases and aerosols have been collected in the atmosphere over the entire industrial era.

By this measure, the UK remains the largest single cause of climate change, followed by the US and Germany. China is the world’s largest polluter on an aggregate basis but not on a per capita basis.

If a US exit from the climate accord does materialise, global climate risks will intensify dramatically. As far as Trump is concerned, that’s not America’s problem. In a tragic sense, he is right.

While the bulk of global climate risks can be attributed to today’s prosperous advanced economies, it is the relatively poor emerging and developing economies that those risks will primarily penalise in the future, especially in Asia.

According to the Global Climate Risk Index, most of the 10 countries affected in the past two decades feature emerging economies in Asia (Myanmar, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Vietnam and Thailand).

Timing matters. Under the agreement, the earliest effective date of the US withdrawal is November 2020 – the last month of the Trump presidency, in the absence of impeachment.

Dr Dan Steinbock is the founder of the Difference Group and has served as research director at the India, China and America Institute (US) and visiting fellow at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies and the EU Centre (Singapore). See