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Thailand must take climate change seriously

The Nation
Danny Marks

Last year Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva declared, "We have no time to waste. Let us work together to combat climate change and save this planet for our children [and] grandchildren." Indeed, Thailand needs to start working now because the problems climate change causes are already here.

This year Thailand faced its worst drought in 20 years and the water level of the mekong River was at its lowest in 50 years.  "According to villagers who live along the river ... the mekong [was] really drying. . . People seem[ed] to be able to even walk across the river, which has never happened," said Srisuwan Kuankajorn, co-director of Terra in Thailand.  

According to her, people who lived in the north, particularly Chiang Rai, were "in big trouble" because they could not fish, a vital source of income and protein.  Rice yield for the next crop cycle is expected to plummet from a forecasted five to as little as two million tons.  Environmental experts believe that climate change is one of the main factors behind the drought, causing the wet season to shorten and lowering the amount of rainfall in the mekong basin. 

In the future, Thailand will encounter additional problems induced by climate change:  coasts will flood and the sea level will rise.  Bangkok especially will be affected because the city, on average a meter above sea level, sits next to the Gulf of Thailand, which has been rising a quarter of a centimeter annually.  To make matters worse, the enormous amount of water used by the city lowers the water table, causing the layers of clay below to subside. 

The other projected effects of climate change on Thailand are equally worrying.  A rise in the sea level, coastal erosion, and more intense and frequent natural disasters will devastate coastal properties.  Freshwater fish populations will shrink due to reduction of wetlands and changes in migration patterns. Local fishermen have already reported fewer and smaller fish.  Climate change will also likely increase the number of dengue cases, due to the rise in the temperature.

Despite these looming problems, the Thai government's response has been limited.   While the government has recently created a Climate Change Office Coordination, ordered every ministry to appoint a Climate Change Officer, and issued its National Strategy on Climate Change, a recent study found that the government faces numerous shortcomings in this area.  These include insufficient capacity and funding, weak enforcement of environmental laws, lack of in-depth studies on the impacts of climate change in Thailand, and anemic public participation. 

The Thai state needs to muster a greater and more calculated response internationally and domestically.   Its international stance is hurting the country.  Thailand should work with other countries to pressure the major emitters to do more to mitigate, or cut their emissions.  In June, as part of the G77 group of developing countries, it rejected a new draft requiring developing countries to share the burden of cutting emissions with developed countries.  While smaller developing countries can rightly argue that developed countries should make deep cuts and assist developing countries to both mitigate (cut emissions) and adapt (decrease the vulnerability of humans to the current and projected impacts), simultaneously they need to collectively exert more pressure on big developing countries, especially China and India, to mitigate too.

Even though the majority of greenhouse gases sinking Bangkok and intensifying extreme weather events originate from China, the US, the EU, and India meaning that a Thai effort will not have an significant effect on its own salvation Thailand could do more to mitigate.  Doing so would make Thailand a responsible global citizen and, by negating the argument of developing countries that they need to give higher priority to developing their economies, perhaps sway them to emit less. 

While laudably enjoying a small boom in solar projects, Thailand could reduce energy usage and promote other renewable energies.  Both of these have additional benefits.  The former would lower the country's import bill: currently Thailand imports about 60% of its energy consumption.  The latter would diversify the country's energy sources and diminish the economy's vulnerability in the future.

While curbing global emissions is the only way to stop climate change, other countries are unlikely to make enough of an effort to prevent global emissions rising in the foreseeable future.  This means that the impacts facing Thailand will certainly worsen.  Therefore, also needed are robust adaptation efforts.   The government needs to invest in the best technologies and determine the best incentives to improve infrastructure and agricultural and water resource management systems.  One strong incentive would be a land reform bill because giving people rights over their land encourages them to make it more productive.    Strengthening social safety nets is also valuable, for the impacts of climate change, such as increased natural disasters, disproportionately hurt the poor. 

These policies will take time.  However, the Thai government can take five immediate steps which will improve its adaptation and mitigation efforts and create momentum to implement more difficult policies.  

First, the government could step up its efforts to improve energy efficiency.  Thailand is lagging in this area: its energy consumption is 15% of GDP, while in many developed countries it is only 8%.  In response, the Thai government could follow China's lead of ordering the temperature of most office buildings to be set no cooler than 26 degrees and giving subsidies to fuel-efficient vehicles.  It could also encourage buildings to retrofit, utilizing funding and advice from the Clinton Foundation. 

Second, the government could scrap plans to build new dams in Thailand and advocate a moratorium on new dams built in the mekong Basin.  By holding back silt needed for downstream agriculture, dams tend to worsen the effects of climate change.   Contrary to popular belief, studies of existing dams show that they emit considerable amounts of greenhouse gases. 

Third, to help farmers mitigate the risks of climate-induced disasters, the Thai government can help set up and subsidize insurance schemes, such as the Weather Index Insurance.  It could also freely distribute to all farmers new genetically modified varieties of rice which can survive in flood waters for a month. 

Fourth, the Ministry of Education could raise public awareness of climate change by introducing environment classes into the curriculums of primary and secondary schools and, at the university level, allocating grants for research in environmental protection efforts. 

Fifth, the Thai government could sign the Copenhagen Accord, expressing its commitment to immediately cut emissions.  While the government has expressed its willingness to join the Accord, before Thailand can officially do so, the government must hold public hearings and receive Parliament's approval.  The government could accelerate this process, explaining to Parliament why joining is in Thailand's best interest.

More efforts and policies than these recommendations are needed but they would constitute a good start.    Admittedly, climate change is tough for any country to address and any government to sell because carbon emissions are invisible, the impacts are uncertain, and the lowest-cost solutions are unclear.   What is clear though is that Thailand will be adversely affected and so the sooner the government starts taking climate change more seriously, the lower the costs will be and the less vulnerable Thais will be to its effects.

Danny Marks is a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Security and International Studies, Chulalongkorn University.

El contenido de las noticias que se presentan en esta sección es responsabilidad directa de las agencias emisoras de noticias y no necesariamente reflejan la posición del Gobierno de México en este u otros temas relacionados.


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