By: Renee Kurungunan and Sohara Mehroze Shachi

United Nations-sponsored talks on climate change, set for Nov. 30 to Dec. 11, are crucial for the survival of millions of people in Asia.  Countries that are part of the 21st Conference of Parties – COP21 as the talks are known – are expected to come up with a legally binding climate agreement that is expected to help countries adapt to climate impacts and at the same time, curb global warming through carbon emission mitigation. 

The COP21 talks are forecast to be the most promising in the 21 frustrating years that such talks have been taking place. However, even though unprecedented cooperation has been the hallmark of preparatory talks, they are unlikely to result in an agreement to hold global warming to 2 degrees Centigrade over the pre-industrial average, the minimum warming that climate scientists believe is necessary to keep danger at bay. And particularly the projected agreement will not be enough for a safety margin in the low-lying areas of Asia. 

Two Most Vulnerable

Of the many countries in Asia facing climate change impact, the Philippines and Bangladesh are two of the most vulnerable.  The Philippines’ geography puts it squarely in line of the so-called Pacific typhoon belt, experiencing an average of 19 tropical cyclones or storms which enter the Philippine Area of Responsibility in a typical year, six to nine of which usually make landfall. It is the most-exposed large country in the world to tropical cyclones. Its poverty, government inaction and lack of capacity to adapt to climate change make it even more vulnerable.

More ominously, warmer sea waters have produced stronger typhoons in recent years. In fact, the government, through the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) has found it necessary to create new categories for stronger typhoons. Previously the strongest were categorized into “signal no. 4” with wind velocity 171 to 220 kph within 12 hours. However, Haiyan, known as Yolanda in the Philippines, in November of 2013 was the strongest to make landfall in recent history at 313 kph, killing more than 6,000 people.

More than a year after Haiyan, PAGASA created “signal no. 5” for typhoons with wind velocity of 220 kph or more within 12 hours. This new category is supposed to help more Filipinos understand typhoon strength and lead to better preparation, something lacking Haiyan and one of the reasons why the death toll was too high.

Bangladesh is also often considered a poster child for the impact of climate change. A combination of its flat deltaic topography with low elevation, heavy dependence on agriculture, high population density and incidence of poverty make it equally vulnerable to climate change.

In addition to inundating homes and lands of millions of people living in Bangladesh’s low lying areas, projected sea levels due to global warming are almost certain to destroy Bangladesh’s UNESCO heritage site, the world’s largest tropical mangrove forest the Sundarbans, which support the livelihoods of people from many neighboring districts. It is also the home of the Royal Bengal Tiger.

With climate change-induced increasing frequency of floods, droughts and salinity ingress, the country’s agro based economy is being hit hard. Farmers whose produce is dependent on predictable patterns of wind and monsoon are incurring heavy losses due to the changing weather patterns. Around 1,000 km. of cultivated land and sea product culturing area will likely turn into salt marsh.

While Bangladesh has been a hotbed of cyclonic events, two major cyclones, Sidr killed 10,000 people in 2007 and Aila killed more than 350 in 2009, taking place within a very short period and wreaking unprecedented havoc. More frequent and devastating cyclones, storm surges and river bank erosion are not only causing widespread damage to people’s lives, properties and livelihood, but also leading to displacement and creating climate refugees.