The last Special Circumstances column reported on the collapse of ASEAN’s human systems due to climate change, particularly drought and rising sea levels. This column focuses on policy options for Thailand’s social democrats. At present, Thailand does not have a social democrat party, so the following analysis and recommendations are for those in the wings of the Democrats, Pheu Thai, and the Commoners’ Party who may consider themselves social democrats, as well as for any future Social Democrat Party.
Step 1: Raising Awareness of the Risk
In order to save Bangkok and much of ASEAN from catastrophic degradation, global warming must be brought to under 1.5C within this century. The first step for Thailand’s social democrats must be to educate people about the risk, which is not widely acknowledged. However, it is easy to find stories showing the risk. At the local level, in Buri Ram in Northeast Thailand, the Moon River has already dried up – two months too early – which has destroyed the area’s fish farming, directly impacting people’s finances and the primary source of protein. In addition, the entire Chao Praya River is in a critical state, with the risk of salt intrusion in Bangkok. Dams country-wide are hard hit, with up to 62 billion baht in losses in a worst-case scenario. This year’s drought has already impacted industrial confidence, having a massive direct effect on Thailand’s economy. Within the Asia Pacific, this week brought us Tropical Cyclone Winston, the largest Category 5 storm to make landfall, devastating Fiji:
And in the Arctic, what appears to be a worst case scenario is occurring. While 2015 was the hottest year ever recorded, January 2016 saw Arctic temperature anomalies above 4 degrees Celsius higher than the average for 1951 to 1980 – first signs of a possible abrupt climate change scenario.
Figure: Very Hot Climate Anomalies (Courtesy NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies)
As well as very high temperatures in the Arctic, we can see all of ASEAN is being affected by a 2C increase already, with some areas, including southern Thailand, even worse affected. Globally, we are seeing the fastest sea-level rise in 3,000 years.
Step 2: Raising Awareness of the Cause
The cause of global climate change is greenhouse gases. The main greenhouse gases are carbon dioxide and methane. Anthropogenic (man-made) carbon dioxide is primarily produced from burning coal, oil, and natural gas, in that order. Fortunately, very few people worldwide reject the concept that greenhouse gases cause global climate change. The only major political party worldwide which argues against it are certain elements of the US Republican Party, mainly those with close links to industrial complexes reliant on fossil fuels, such as the Koch brothers, who bankroll Republican Party candidates who promote petroleum over electric. Fortunately, most Thais understand the basic science of global warming and accept the causes. However, this point needs to be underlined. Social democrats in Thailand must hold their party management to account. The Democrats, Pheu Thai, and the Commoners’ Party must all make public statements accepting a) that global climate change is largely man made, b) that it is mainly caused by carbon dioxide and methane, and c) that Thailand is now the 18th largest producer of carbon dioxide in the world, from burning coal, oil, and natural gas.
Step 3: Making a Political Commitment to Change
The third step is for Thailand’s social democrats to make a commitment to change. This is much easier for parties of the Centre and Left to do because there is a greater sense of internationalism and solidarity in such parties. A more nationalist party may make the argument that Thailand should be allowed to develop industrially and to burn as much coal, oil, and natural gas as it wants until it becomes a developed economy. However, this argument fails for four reasons.
Firstly, given the obvious effects of global climate change in Thailand, such a party would probably not be elected. Secondly, this is clearly a selfish argument, and selfishness is not seen as Buddhist, nor is it part of His Majesty’s Philosophy of Sufficiency Economy to exploit a natural resource without attention to moderation and resilience. Thirdly, the relationship between Thailand’s and her ASEAN neighbours who will be affected by global climate change even worse than Thailand, such as the Philippines, will deteriorate, thus endangering the viability of the ASEAN Economic Community in its nascent stages. Finally, we have reached the stage where the first major step to banning coal use in Thailand and replacing it with alternatives, mainly solar, which is approaching 23% efficiency in photovoltaics, is feasible according to market principles. Given that large-scale hydro in Thailand is at capacity, assistance with meeting the base load requirements may actually come from fusion within the next two decades.
A significant political commitment to combating “extreme weather events” and their effects by adopting clean energy goals has even recently been seen where least expected – in a declaration signed a total of 17 US state governors, four of whom are Republicans. This visionary document lays out what Thailand’s social democrats must commit to and implement in terms of policies; the next step.
Step 4: Creating a Policy Framework
The document signed by the US governors makes six clear commitments, and in doing so makes clear what interventions will be required to transfer subsidies from fossil fuels to alternative energy sources:
Diversify energy generation and expand clean energy sources – solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal (subsidizing large-scale community solar farming in areas such as Northeast Thailand is key);
Modernize energy infrastructure – necessary to give consumers control over electricity use and to integrate renewable energy (again, solar is key here);
Encourage clean transportation options – primarily natural gas, biofuels, and electric, to lessen dependence on petroleum and reduce pollution (key here is the launch of the GM Bolt, the world’s first mass-produced electric car, later in 2016, as will be converting all Bangkok’s buses to electric and providing subsidies for GM and other car companies to produce electric cars in Thailand);
Planning for energy transition – new benchmarks and standards for energy diversification, reducing energy waste, improved air and water quality, and economic performance (achieved through best practices, new technology, consumer programs, and workforce training, not to mention a partnership with industry with subsidies and incentives for improving standards);
Cooperation to make transformational policy changes – changes which can be scaled, for example across ASEAN, including common environmentally desirable infrastructure (such as electric train/tram networks) renewable and energy efficiency standards, working with energy partners such as Myanmar, Laos and Malaysia to reduce demand and prevent a ‘race to the bottom’ mentality, and technical meetings with overseas partners, including the US and the EU;
Securing a stronger national energy future – at a national (and for social democrats, international) level, technical expertise, funding, and R&D (such as the UK’s Newton Fund) can create tailored technical support. In fact, this is a commitment from the Global North to the Global South, made at the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference in the form of the Paris Agreement, and should be determinedly pursued by states like Thailand, presently leader of the G77.
Step 5: Campaigning for Change
It is always necessary to organize and unite behind change, and Thailand’s social democrats can unite behind phasing out coal use in Thailand, with a target of 2030, similar to the UK target of 2025. Probably the biggest campaign worldwide for divesting from coal is the Guardian’s Keep it in the Ground initiative, but Thailand’s social democrats should also form strong alliances with organizations like Greenpeace, which have similar campaigns. Thailand’s social democrats need to join this global campaign and target Thailand’s major companies – and urge them to divest from coal and not use coal-fired power plants (nor oil, for that matter). In doing so, the aim should be friendly persuasion. Of the top 1% which controls 50% of the economy, only 1% of this 1% have strong ties to the fossil fuel industry and would likely be unwilling to divest, even given a strong national campaign and alternative policy options. Even for these few, the market is turning against them. Cheap oil and zero marginal cost technologies, like solar, are forcing the coal divisions of mining companies near bankruptcy, with one of the biggest victims recently being Anglo American.
The flip side of such a campaign is another campaign involving aggressive lobbying for the use of technological solutions to energy problems. As the 2012 US National Intelligence Council’s report Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds puts it:
“Given the vulnerabilities of developing economies to key resource supplies and prices and the early impacts of climate change, key developing countries may realize substantial rewards in commercializing many next-generation resource technologies first.”
In the Thai context, this means policy support for subsidies for adapting and implementing solar storage options, which are necessary to convert solar into a technology capable of taking on some of the base load, as well as taking on some of the risk for developing ‘bleeding edge’ technologies like fast-chargers for electric cars and low-end commercial fusion. This should be done in commercial ventures with the Chinese, the US, the EU – in fact anyone who is willing.
Our planetary system is overloaded beyond its carrying capacity, partially due to overconsumption. Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute has stated: "It would take 1.5 Earths to sustain our present level of consumption. Environmentally, the world is in an overshoot mode." This means that at present, from a world population of 7.3 billion, the human population of the planet needs to enter a period of degrowth, which could reduce it to around 5 billion. Instead of growth, Thailand’s social democrats need to emphasize efficiency and adopt Herman Daly’s concept of a steady state economy – a form of sufficiency economy.
Key to this model are campaigns for energy efficiency, the use of biofuels, a rejection of polluting fuels and their waste products, and recycling. It is one that can be implemented at the state level through embracing the Circles of Sustainability and their emphasis on sustainable economics, politics, ecology, and culture. At the local level, it can be achieved by social democrat politicians and activists reaching out to local communities to organize lifestyles which rest on economic prosperity, environmental integrity, and social cultural vibrancy, as implemented by Mayor Roy D. Buol of Dubuque, Iowa, in an initiative which targets equity, social inclusivity, and direct democracy. This is the task Thailand’s social democrats must set themselves.