The future's looking grim for Asia's coastal cities. As many as two billion people worldwide are expected to be displaced by rising sea levels due to climate change, and the majority of them will be from low-lying coastal regions across Asia, according to a recent study.
"We're going to have more people on less land sooner that we think," said Charles Geisler, the study's lead author at Cornell University.
Here's the depressing facts: The UN's climate change agency projects that sea levels could rise by one meter worldwide within this century. But recent studies have doubled that projection, arguing that a two meter rise is probably much more likely. Now that's just based on what we've already done to the planet. If the global average temperature increases by just 1° Celsius, scientists think that sea levels could rise six meters. That's enough to put all of Bangkok under water.
"The future rise in global mean sea level probably won't be gradual," Geisler said. "Yet few policy makers are taking stock of the significant barriers to entry that coastal climate refugees, like other refugees, will encounter when they migrate to higher ground."
Climate fighters were left fuming last month when US President Donald Trump announced his decision to withdraw the US from the 2015 Paris Agreement. The climate accord, which set the goal to limit global warming to below 2º Celsius, was signed by 194 countries and was seen as a major breakthrough in the battle against climate change.
Indian environmentalist Sunita Narain called Trump's decision "a disaster for the world" in an interview with Al Jazeera. "Let's be very clear, without the US serious about reducing its emissions, there is nothing the world can do to actually keep itself below the two degree safety guardrail," Narain said.
As part of the agreement, the US—one of the world's top emitters of greenhouse gases—had pledged $3 billion USD to the Green Climate Fund, which helps small island-states and developing countries finance climate initiatives. Now, with the US no longer committed to the deal, many of these countries will likely struggle to mitigate the effects of climate change.
"This [decision] has disastrous ramifications because this means that the international framework and agreement to contain environmental damage, global warming and overall climate is now undermined and is uncertain what will happen in the future," Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, told VOA.
Asia-Pacific is already home to some of the worst natural disasters. Approximately 41 percent of all natural disasters in the last two decades occurred in this region, according to a UN report. Between 2010 and 2011, more than 42 million people were displaced in the region as a result of extreme weather events, the UN concluded. By the next century that number is expected to more than double.
Out of the ten most-vulnerable countries in the world—nations with large coastal populations and insufficient infrastructure to mitigate rising seas—seven of them are in Asia-Pacific. India, Bangladesh, China, and Indonesia top the list, with a combined 100 million people at risk. That's 100 million people driven from their homes by climate change.
Indonesia, an archipelagic nation of more than 17,000 islands, faces some of the worst threats. More than 2,000 of its island are at risk of disappearing due to sea level rise. It has also witnessed some of the world's most devastating natural disasters—tsunamis, droughts, floods, forest fires—in recent years. Likewise, Bangkok, a city of ten million, is sinking at a rate of 2 centimeters every year. It could be entirely under water in the span of a few decades if sea levels rise faster than initially expected.
"The pressure is on us to contain greenhouse gas emissions at present levels," Geisler said. "It's the best 'future proofing' against climate change, sea level rise and the catastrophic consequences likely to play out on coasts, as well as inland in the future."