Foreign Policy Blogs

Climate Change and Corruption


Every year, roughly between August and November, the monsoon season hits Southeast Asia as a matter of fact. Despite this constant and consistent phenomenon, the corrupt governments which proliferate throughout the region remain inept and incompetent to handle the inexorable flooding which the rainstorms leave behind.

In the Philippines, an estimated 10,000 people are dead after a tremendous typhoon tore through the place leaving another 600,000 homeless. Naturally, those numbers are expected to rise. The damage caused by the “super” storm is no laughing matter, and it is already drawing comparisons to the 2004 tsunami and Cyclone Nagris which slammed into Myanmar in 2008 and killed approximately 100,000 people.

Ten thousand casualties in the Philippines is a staggering number, even for a region that has dealt with cataclysmic natural disasters before.

One of the effects of climate change which serves to underpin the modern environmental doctrine, beyond melting ice caps and rising sea levels, is that these types of tropical storms — hurricanes, cyclones, and typhoons — are becoming more powerful these days. You don’t have to be a meteorologist to understand the causation between melting polar ice caps and an increase in moisture in the air. This phenomenon isn’t new, and many climate scientists assert that Third World countries with poor infrastructure are most at risk.

You wouldn’t know that if you listened to American negotiators at the Durban Climate Change Summit in South Africa in 2011. There, the United States prevented “any hope of an agreement” and nixed further progress of the Kyoto Protocol (which was never ratified by the Congress) by pointing fingers at China and India.

The United States has a long and troubled imperialist history vis-à-vis the Philippines, as I wrote in a piece for The Diplomat two years ago:

US behavior in the Philippines during the time it occupied the country was nefarious not just because of the crude use of force by the invading colonial power, but also because of the clever manipulation and exploitation of symbols, language, relationships and ideology. This had the ultimate aim of subverting traditional expressions in ways that benefited the foreign occupying force: creating traitors among friends, undermining established habits of obedience in favor of new ones, institutionalizing new symbols of loyalty and directing the inhabitants into new patterns of tastes and preferences.

However, the impotence of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) with respect to its handling of the climate crisis also bears scrutiny. The Asian Development Bank released an important study in 2009 detailing some of the risks of inaction: food scarcity, inflation, and economic insecurity. One topic conspicuously not touched on was corruption. To be sure, there is corruption in every country. But not every country is as poor as some in Southeast Asia are.

What is fascinating is the way some of the region’s so-called populist leaders appeal to the masses using rhetoric promising a redistribution of the wealth, price controls for subsistence farmers, and subsidized healthcare and education. They often use the support from the poor majority to win elections.

But when push comes to shove, they remember who pays the country’s bills. When Bangkok was threatened with flood waters two years ago, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was prepared to divert the rising water around the metropolis towards the surrounding countryside. Business leaders in the capital were very impressed; Thai rice farmers, many of whom survive on $2/day, were outraged to learn of the decision to allow their fertile farm to be destroyed. And it was that latter group which overwhelmingly elected Ms. Shinawatra just three months prior. Well, buyer beware. In the end, that policy didn’t matter as the flood waters proved too  much for the sandbags and Bangkok was hit anyway. Damage was estimated at around $45 billion.

In Cambodia, where the state’s infrastructure is among the worst in the region, entire villages are sometimes cut-off and isolated during the rainy season. A simple issue such as littering has never been properly addressed by the government nor non-governmental organizations and many of the plastic bags in the country (used for any and every purpose you could possibly imagine including as a substitute for cups for coffee) have a tendency to clog up the sewers, contributing to the annual flood. Year after year the Hun Sen regime has vowed to fix the flooding problems but year after year it is business as usual as people are left to wade through knee deep, garbage infested sewage just to move across the street.

There are environmental action NGOs in Cambodia; unfortunately, they care more about powerpoint presentations and their funding efforts to be concerned with practical matters. In recent years, the most helpful contributions have been undertaken by individuals unaffiliated with any government or sponsors.

And in the Philippines, where billions have gone missing from the state’s treasury and, presumably, into the personal bank accounts of several of the nation’s senators, there will surely be an international humanitarian aid effort triggered by this awesome act of nature. The administration of Benigno Aquino — himself having been accused of misusing funds in the country’s pork-barrel scheme scandal — must show it is capable of distributing aid in a timely fashion. If recent history of other aid efforts in the region is an adequate indicator, to say nothing of the strings Washington typically attaches to aid given to the Global South, then there is little cause for hope for these vulnerable people.

In sum, I would like to quote my colleague at St. Joseph’s College and Filipino expert Dr. Kenneth Bauzon on the anticipated aid package. “The United States post-typhoon aid to the Philippines should be taken as penance, followed by an end to obstructionism in climate change negotiations and to deal seriously with the problem of global warming.”

Now that people who adhere to rationality agree climate change is real, hopefully we also recognize the urgency of action, before it’s too late.

Bullit Marquez/AP Photo




Tim LaRocco
Tim LaRocco

Tim LaRocco is an adjunct professor of political science at St. Joseph's College in New York. He was previously a Southeast Asia based journalist and his articles have appeared in a variety of political affairs publications. He is also the author of "Hegemony 101: Great Power Behavior in the Regional Domain" (Lambert, 2013). Tim splits his time between Long Island, New York and Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Twitter: @TheRealMrTim.

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