A look at climate policy through the lens of Thailand’s flood disaster of 2011

by Hugh Bartling

Probably the most under-reported climate-related story in the US during 2011 was the devastating flooding that has inundated Thailand the better part of the year.

With over 700 people dead and 13 million people impacted, and a cleanup cost of around $45 billion the human and economic toll has been significant.  Thailand’s position as an important producer of computer components has caused the event to reverberate globally.

An article published in the Guardian recently highlights some of the major challenges to policymakers and citizens as the need to negotiate responses to a changing climate become much more paramount.  Although the Guardian article concerns Thailand, similar scenarios are being played out throughout the world as climate-related havoc continues.

For countries such as Thailand, adapting to new climate reality will be at the top of the domestic policy agenda.  This involves public expenditures of vast sums of money to deal with the projected consequences of more frequent droughts, floods, and other extreme weather events.  In Thailand, a series of flood financing mechanisms and projects totaling $11 billion were approved yesterday in direct response to the crisis.  As a point of comparison, the entire FY2011 budget for the country only allocated $87 million to environmental protection.

A second issue is the capacity of governments to deal with climate-related events.  The Guardian article points out how the Thai government’s response was slow and some parts of Bangkok were given more resources for protection than others.  Disasters where only limited amounts of resources are available to address monumental problems will put a strain on any government. Couple this with a history of political conflict and environmental problems can quickly exacerbate political and social problems.

Finally, how can historical responsibility factor into dealing with events such as the Thai flooding?  As the floods dissipated at the end of November, international negotiations for a new climate treaty began in Durban.  Previous iterations of the negotiations in Copenhagen (2009) and Cancun (2010) have proceeded slowly. Issues relating to which countries should be responsible for mitigating their greenhouse gas emissions and what sort of mechanisms for verifying emissions reductions should be developed are key sticking points at the negotiations.

One potential bright point that came out of Durban was the agreement to establish a Green Climate Fund. The fund is designed to leverage public and private financing for developing countries to both adapt to a changing climate and to help transition to low-carbon sources of energy.  Developed countries such as the United States have pledged to raise $100 billion/year by 2020 for the fund.

While this is a positive development, there are still some unanswered questions related to the fund and the role of developing countries in accepting their historical responsibility for dealing with the excesses of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that are the driver of climate change.

Using the Thailand case, we see that a global figure of $100 billion per annum will unlikely be sufficient for dealing with simple responses to climate-related disaster.  Secondly, the fund will be weighing investment in mitigation with adaptation.  Which is a better investment: improving flood control infrastructure or replacing fossil fuels with renewables in an emerging industrial producer like Thailand?  Third, what will the balance be for public vs. private investment?  Countries like the United States are eager to leverage private capital given the political realities of foreign aid and deficit spending. But can enough private investment be raised to deal with the pressing problems of climate adaptation?

At this point these questions are still unanswerable.  But given the likely increase of climate-related disasters as we have seen in Thailand, it is clear that they will remain pertinent as we head into another year of more greenhouse gas emissions and the climate trouble that comes in its wake.

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