Warwick ASEAN Conference

The Impact of Climate Change on Southeast Asia’s Coral Reefs

Disclaimer: Warwick ASEAN Conference would like to clarify that all opinions expressed in this article are the authors’ own.


In light of our never-ending quest to emit as much carbon into the atmosphere as possible, I do feel sorry for our oceans. Those mysterious big blue beasts don’t know what has hit them; and, for Southeast Asia, the threat is imminent. Coral bleaching, overfishing, in-land flooding, extreme weather events – you name it. Southeast Asia is either practising or suffering from them. The socio-economic threats, as well as the blow to biodiversity, will be merciless and endless. The oceans are sick of us using them as cop-out carbon sinks, trawling their seabeds, messing up temperature currents, and hollowing-out their food-chains from over-fishing. Although, more importantly for us, they are fed up with us turning their coral reefs from vibrant fields of colour to murky-white graveyards. Our oceans are at a breaking point. Change is certain. The ultimate question is: what is ASEAN going to do about it?

Coral reefs are at a tipping point

To understand how to make things better, we need to know how we are making things worse. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted in September that even if we do collectively keep to the Paris Agreement pledge of warming reaching 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels, this will still kill 70-90% of the world’s coral reefs. This becomes more striking when we see how we are working towards at least 2 degrees warming. The Paris Agreement is the cream of the crop when it comes to international environmental law, and even still, coral reefs will enter the Anthropocene bin of history. Imagine this: in the last 100 years of mass-scale industrialisation, the human race has created an Anthropocene dangerous enough to destroy these communities of algae and polyps that have taken millennia to form.

Coral reefs are extremely sensitive, with a rise in ocean temperatures of up to 1 degree leading to irreversible bleaching. An increase in ocean temperatures will cause Polyps- tiny little animals that make up coral reefs- to expel the algae that give corals their colour, allows them to generate sugars for feeding, as well as helping to provide their structures. This symbiotic relationship is on the edge of collapse in Southeast Asia, with ocean temperatures increasing by 0.2 degrees per decade between 1985 and 2006. Coral reefs also need to be close enough to the ocean surface to access sunlight for photosynthesis.

The role of coral reefs in Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia is home to 100,000 square kilometres of coral reefs – almost 34% of the world total. What is more, these reefs have the highest levels of marine biodiversity on earth with 600-800 reef-building coral species. Yet, for 50% of these reefs, the level of threat is ‘high’ or very high,’ with human activities threatening 88%.

For many in Southeast Asia, this isn’t a case of no longer being able to see the colourful ocean floors during a tropical getaway; this is about survival. For instance, 130 million people depend on coral reefs for their food and livelihood, as well as depending on them as barriers to natural disasters. With the global commons being in a state of free-for-all, increased warming will only lead to stronger and stronger blows to local economies, peoples’ welfare and security, and biodiversity. Adaption will have to be quick to bridge the gap caused by increased coral bleaching.

What is ASEAN doing to protect coral reefs?

ASEAN has given support to many strategies in the region as well as producing initiatives that seek to fight climate change. For instance, the Chairman’s statement on 4 November, at the 22nd ASEAN Plus Three Summit, stated how they supported the work of the Southeast Asia Disaster Risk Insurance Facility, saying how it will ‘strengthen the financial resilience of the ASEAN member states against climate and disaster risks.’ And, more importantly, in ASEAN’s joint statement to the United Nations Climate Action Summit on 23 September, they noted how their climate change policy has two faces: global and regional. Globally, all ASEAN member states have accepted the Paris agreement and have outlined their national contributions. Regionally, there is the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community blueprint for 2025, which aims to create a “Sustainable climate” with a resilient community through private-public relations aiding a decrease in emissions, as well as developing coherent responses to climate change challenges.

Although the rhetoric and initiatives are promising, I’m worried that not enough attention is being paid to the importance of coral reefs and their critical condition. Without this, sufficient policy will not come into fruition that genuinely protects the oceans and coastal residents. A lack of information is a reason for this; continually updated reports on the region will allow them to dedicate resources and diplomatic efforts to this critical issue. If the information is always there in plain sight, it’ll be challenging to shy away from it.

Does this justify deeper regional integration?

Yet, ASEAN is only as strong as its weakest link. For many countries in the region, overexploiting coral reefs has become a necessary economic evil. Indonesia, for example, holds a large proportion of coral reefs in the area, yet, policies aren’t successful in protecting them. According to Climate Tracker, Indonesia’s efforts on strategies that mitigate climate change are ‘highly insufficient,’ and if every country followed Indonesia’s example, we would anticipate 4 degrees of warming. Nuance, however, is essential here. We have to ask ourselves, ‘what will fill the economic gap created by ending practices like dynamite fishing?’. I believe it would benefit all member states if ASEAN were able to initiate more binding policies on tackling climate change and protecting coral reefs.

However, by asking and expecting ASEAN to do more, am I, as a Westerner, pressing my view of regionalism, that is heavily influenced by the EU, onto ASEAN? After all, ASEAN has made clear, unlike the African Union, that it is its unique version of regional integration- not based on the EU. And even if my stance were not already questionable in this sense, would deeper integration and the growth of supranational power within ASEAN make a difference in tackling climate change and protecting oceans? With the rise of anti-democratic policies and populism within European Union member states, can we even make the case that supranationalism works?

Overall, the threat is enormous. The ideal solution would be holistic and cooperative, with ASEAN following international environmental laws, as well as promulgating region-wide adaption and mitigation strategies – with, of course, individual states doing their bit. Enlightenment facilitates change, and thoroughly assessing the critical condition and importance of coral reefs may motivate drastic action in Southeast Asia that could well save these colourful ocean floors, as well as the people who depend on them. To end, I ask us to work with our oceans, not against them.

Cover Illustration by A.Shuau

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