Amidst geopolitical flux and increasing tensions, the Indo-Pacific remains one of the world’s most important economic and geopolitical regions. This shared space comprises 40 economies, 65% of the world’s population (around 4.3 billion people) and $47.19 trillion in economic activity. The threat from climate change looms large in the region, endangering millions of lives and potentially having a significant impact on global economic growth.
Recognising its strategic importance and these potential vulnerabilities, many of the world’s major geopolitical players – whether situated in the region or beyond – have drawn out security blueprints and policy programs focused on the Indo-Pacific over the past decade.
A number of these actors, including Germany, the United States, Canada, France, South Korea, and Bangladesh, have incorporated climate security and its various dimensions into their strategies. But efforts to engage with the climate challenge within a geopolitical framework will remain lacking if the diverse needs of the Indo-Pacific’s people are not included.
Our research at Kubernein Initiative has focused on the human impact of the interconnectedness of climate change (in terms of weather patterns and more frequent and intense natural hazards), with urban development as well as more “traditional” security concerns, faced by the people in the Indo-Pacific.
The Indian Ocean region is referred to as the “World Hazard Belt”, where earthquakes and tsunamis occur frequently. Challenges include, but are not limited to, rising sea levels, ocean acidification, and the intensified occurrences of typhoons, cyclones, floods, droughts, heatwaves, and other natural disasters. By 2050, over 80% of the population in the Indo-Pacific could be directly impacted by climate change, a 15% increase since 2000.
Climate change as a “threat multiplier” is a term now widely used to describe the cascading effects onto several overlapping areas: migration of people, resource scarcity, growing urban population, human health and well-being, livelihoods and economic security, agricultural productivity and related livelihoods.
For example: the Indo-Pacific produces over 50% of the total global captured fish – more than any other region. However, ocean warming, changing levels of salinity, and sea level rise affect the presence and availability of fish and aquatic life, thereby impacting the livelihoods of fishing-dependent communities and increasing the incidence of Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated fishing.
A decline in fishing activity in the region could have major downstream impacts on women and marginalised groups that are typically economically dependent on fishing. For instance, in Asia women comprise around 72% of the aquaculture industry, whose livelihoods are threatened, thereby hampering their economic security and ability to contribute to the growth of the aquaculture industry.
In recognising the transnational nature of climate change, it becomes evident that the imperative for climate action extends beyond any single state, necessitating, instead, a concerted and collaborative approach that encompasses not only individual states but also regional organisations and governments.
Regional “minilateral” groupings are proving to be effective, including incorporating ideas of inclusivity – referring to the inclusion of a wider gamut of stakeholders to foster more equitable outcomes – into traditional strategic efforts. For example, attempts to ensure considerations of gender and equality form a part of all policies including security and external affairs are gaining traction through provisions like ASEAN’s Gender Mainstreaming Framework.
As it becomes clear that climate change holds a central position in the Indo-Pacific strategies of various states and regional organisations, there is a substantial gap in understanding where the risks lie and whom they affect, leading to setbacks in advancing cooperation on climate security. Differences exist among industrialised, developing, and least-developed nations in the region regarding matters like climate finance, loss and damage, and emissions reduction targets, leading to a lack of consensus on priority areas.
While human security issues are given precedence, these disparities persist. For example, despite the growing use of military capabilities for Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief operations in the region, concerns related to military security and competing geopolitical interests take precedence over those associated with climate security.
Tensions between China and the West to gain influence in the Pacific have provided an opening to discuss climate action, but this so far is motivated more by securing geopolitical interests. The ramifications of climate change remain inadequately defined, and when strategies are evaluated on the criterion of inclusivity, have a long way to go.
Lack of inclusivity
The current lack of inclusivity in climate action is visible in two major ways. The first involves overlooking the disproportionate and differentiated impact of climate change on women and vulnerable groups. Vulnerabilities span socio-economic status and geographic location, creating a mosaic of challenges across the region. Small island developing states in the Pacific face existential threats from rising sea levels, while communities in Southeast Asia contend with the increasing frequency of severe storms.
The Pacific Islands or Bangladesh are responsible for a mere 0.03% and 0.4% of global greenhouse gas emissions respectively, but face repercussions disproportionately with numerous cascading effects. Fiji, for example, has planned a relocation for 42 villages due to a rise in sea levels and soil that is unfit for agriculture because of high salt content. Bangladesh is facing a future of at least one super cyclone every year in the coming decades.
The second involves marginalised voices not being represented in climate multilateralism. Gender-blind or non-inclusive climate action is a risk multiplier. Within certain geographies, impact is particularly evident in societies where women often play central roles in agriculture and resource management. This is well documented but not often used to prompt change in policies. As climate change disrupts these activities, it not only jeopardises the livelihoods of women and exacerbates existing gender inequalities, but it also further risks long-term economic security of a state.
A 2014 study found that in societies where the socioeconomic status of women is low, natural disasters kill more women than men – both directly and indirectly through related post-disaster events. For example, around 70% of the fatalities from the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami were women. Any policy that does not consider inclusivity is likely to fail in the long term.
Ideally, regional and global processes should be informed by hyperlocal socioeconomic realities. Climate action cannot be blanket and must be tailored to specific needs, while also learning from indigenous and local practices that have a history in resilience. Promoting inclusivity in multilateralism across the Indo-Pacific thus becomes a crucial baseline, with context-specific approaches that are collaborative in nature and consider local and regional perspectives.
As an example, in the case of Australia, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Development Policy commits to 80% gender equality in investments in partner countries around the world, with a commitment to ensure at least half of all projects will have a climate change objective.
Efforts like this could move the needle on closing the climate financing gap alongside the needs of women – an important objective, since only about 0.01% of all worldwide funding supports projects that address both climate change and women’s rights. A key example of a collaborative approach is Australia’s support for the Gender Response Alternative for Climate Change, with ActionAid Australia, Monash University, and the Huairou Commission, a women-led grassroots social movement that supports rural and Indigenous communities.
In navigating the intricate geopolitical terrain of the Indo-Pacific, a paradigm centered on a “partnership” rather than a “prescriptive” stance becomes imperative when applying a gender and inclusivity lens. Indo-Pacific climate multilateralism can glean valuable insights by building cooperative partnerships with local stakeholders well-versed in local risks and security.
The inclusion of a gender lens, or the inclusion of perspectives from marginalised communities, does not necessitate major changes, but is a matter of breaking down silos and enhancing existing initiatives together. This ensures alignment that will ultimately be economically beneficial, and consequently provides robust security resilience.
An often cited example of this is the Barefoot College’s “Solar Mama’s project – set up in partnership with governments, civil society, and the private sector – which trains largely rural and non-literate women in solar panel installation, enabling and empowering them to meet the needs of their community.
From 2019-’20, Barefoot College trained 291 women, who would go on to bring clean energy solutions to 45,591 households in 626 communities around the world. This is also an income-generating opportunity for these women, contributing to their economic security and building community resilience; through another program under Barefoot College, 1,500 children were brought into the educational system who would have otherwise not had the opportunity to study.
Similarly, India has sought to incorporate collaboration and inclusivity in global climate efforts through the International Solar Alliance and the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure, which serve as platforms for Indo-Pacific and global south countries to voice their concerns, coordinate energy access, provide and receive disaster relief, and bolster resilience.
These could be fortified by including a gender action plan, formed in collaboration with other International Solar Alliance and the Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure members, that would take gender as a consideration during policy planning, recognise the differentiated impact of policies on women, and involve women as stakeholders in decision-making.
As part of its recent stint as host of the G20 in 2023, India led the formation of a disaster reduction working group, which could learn from the principles of the already existing Sendai Framework that recognises the vulnerabilities women face and the extensive role they play in disaster risk reduction.
The challenges from climate change remain common, but its manifestations are varied. Integrating climate action into Indo-Pacific policies in a manner that is inclusive and equitable requires a holistic approach that considers the interconnectedness of environmental, economic, and social dimensions.
Our research on the growing feminist foreign policy discourse as well as on the gender policies of Indo-Pacific players indicate that this is possible. It becomes a matter of connecting these strategies to their climate goals. Climate policies should not exist in isolation, but must be interwoven into broader policy frameworks, reflecting the complexity of the region.
Ambika Vishwanath is the Founding Director of Kubernein Initiative, a geopolitical advisory based in Mumbai, India. She is a geopolitical analyst and water security specialist with experience in the field of governance and foreign policy, and leads Kubernein’s flagship project on Gender and Indian Foreign Policy.
Aditi Mukund is a Program Associate at Kubernein Initiative, leading their work and projects on gender and Feminist Foreign Policy. She also runs the Women in International Relations Network, which seeks to amplify the voices of women in international security, foreign policy, and peacebuilding and conflict resolution, with a focus on India and the Global South.
This article was first published on India in Transition, a publication of the Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania.