Remarks by Assistant Administrator Jonathan Stivers at The Stimson Center

Tuesday, December 15, 2015
The Asia-Pacific Rebalance: The Role of Development in Building a Climate-Resilient Asia



Thank you, Brian Finlay, president and CEO of the Stimson Center, for that kind introduction. It is an honor to be here this morning.

Thank you to the Stimson Center for inviting me here today to discuss the role of development in building a climate-resilient Asia, and how this vital work advances the Asia-Pacific Rebalance.

I’d like to thank Brian Eyler in particular, the deputy director of Stimson’s Southeast Asia program, for organizing this event.

Paris Agreement on Global Climate Change

The timing of today’s occasion could not be more appropriate, just days after nearly 200 nations signed the Paris agreement on climate change.

That the world rose to this moment is truly remarkable.

In order to avoid the most devastating impacts of climate change, the goal of this historic agreement is to limit the increase in global average temperatures to no more than 2 degrees Celsius warmer than pre-industrial temperatures.

President Obama said this agreement “can be a turning point for the world,” because indeed, the world now has the enduring framework it needs to tackle this problem once and for all.

Full implementation of the agreement will go a long way toward creating a safer and more secure, more prosperous and freer world.

It challenges each country to set its own targets and do its fair share, and it affirms a preexisting pledge by developed countries to raise at least $100 billion annually by 2020 to help developing countries deal with the immediate consequences of climate change.

As of last year, the United States invested more than $400 million per year of grant-based resources for climate adaptation in developing countries. As part of the Paris agreement, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the United States will endeavor to double this type of support by 2020.

USAID plays a leading role in helping countries around the world protect lives and livelihoods in the face of a changing climate.

Our ambitious agenda — to help countries prepare for climate risks and transition to low-carbon growth powered by clean energy and buffered by sustainable landscapes — requires the full range of financing options. Domestic resources, private investment and development assistance must all play a role to ensure climate action is sustainable and locally-owned.

In nearly 50 countries USAID helps to advance the President’s Climate Action Plan to strengthen bilateral partnerships, create opportunities for clean energy investment, protect forests, mobilize climate finance, and prepare local communities to be more resilient to the impacts of climate change.

We help developing countries address the risks and seize the opportunities of climate change so they can continue lifting people from poverty and unleashing new possibilities.

Climate change is not looming on our doorstep. It is here. It is already sending shockwaves across our planet — for example, exacerbating the forest fires that raged across Indonesia and will likely return in January due to the El Niño weather patterns.

And I would argue that nowhere do we see and feel more severe impacts than across the Asia-Pacific region.

Asia-Pacific Rebalance

Already home to more than half of humanity, the Asia-Pacific region is growing faster than any other on Earth. 

Of the five countries projected to have the highest GDP growth rates this year, four are in Asia: China, India, Indonesia and the Philippines.

While Asia is already home to more than a dozen megacities, people continue to move to urban areas at an unprecedented pace.

Most cities are located along rivers and coastal areas making them particularly vulnerable to storms and flooding.

By 2030, the world’s population is projected to increase by more than 1 billion people. Of that 1 billion increase, half will be in Asia.  That equates to unprecedented demands to provide energy, clean water, food and vital infrastructure to their growing populations.

In launching the Asia-Pacific Rebalance, President Obama said that America’s future — and indeed the world’s — will be greatly influenced by just how the Asia-Pacific region develops in the decades ahead.

The decisions these countries make will impact the economy and jobs, the air we all breathe, the water we all drink, human health, the world’s food supply, and whether there is conflict or peace.

With the power to undermine each of these is climate change.

Climate Change Exacerbates Poverty in Asia

From the Pacific Islands, where it is a race against time to stop the sea-level rise and coastline erosion;

To more frequent and severe storms, such as Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, the deadliest in modern history to hit the Philippines;

To the melting glaciers in the Himalayan region, affecting the great rivers of Asia all the way down to the Mekong Delta, and threatening to flood whole villages at any time;

To the more frequent droughts and heat waves making it harder and harder to grow wheat in Central Asia’s ‘bread basket,’ contributing to worldwide food shortages.

And science tells us it is only going to get worse.

As natural resources become more degraded and scarce, competition over those that remain will escalate.

As pollutants fill the atmosphere, human health will degrade.

As temperatures rise, dangerous pests and diseases like malaria will reach new areas, where people and crops may have lower resistance.

As saltwater encroachment in rice paddies and ocean acidification intensify, farmers and fisherfolk will increasingly struggle to maintain the harvests they’ve reaped for generations — threatening global food supplies.

As sea-levels rise and coastal storms sweep away towns, “climate refugees” will cross borders, potentially creating instability and conflict.

The reality is clear: Climate change will increasingly be a driver of poverty, conflict and instability for the foreseeable future.

The Global Climate Change Initiative

President Obama understands the stakes very well. That is why at the beginning of his administration he launched the Global Climate Change Initiative that integrates climate change into foreign assistance to foster low carbon growth, promote sustainable and resilient societies, and reduce emissions from deforestation and land degradation.  

Because how countries develop over the coming decades will greatly influence the severity of impacts — and the trajectory — of climate change.

Nowhere are the stakes higher at this very moment than the Asia-Pacific region.

Today I will highlight how USAID is addressing climate change through a three-pronged approach that includes adaptation measures, clean energy and sustainable landscapes.

(1) Adaptation

First, adaptation, or helping communities become more resilient to the risks of climate change.

We know that in any climate change scenario, it is the world’s poorest and most vulnerable who will suffer the most.

That is because many of the world’s 1 billion extreme poor live in harsher, more disaster-prone areas.

These are the people who depend on the land and forests, rivers and oceans for their food and water supply — or at best, a meager source of income.

They have the least capacity to cope when catastrophe strikes, and they are most likely to lose their means to recover.

We will not succeed in eliminating extreme poverty if we do not help those suffering the brunt of climate change to mitigate and adapt to its impacts. 

In Bangladesh, where a population half the size of the United States is crowded into a low-lying, flood-prone area the size of Iowa, USAID partnered with Bangladeshi and regional scientists to develop saltwater-tolerant rice seeds that can survive prolonged flooding from cyclones.

At a time when changing rainfall patterns are making flood cycles more destructive and erratic, early flood warnings can make the difference between life and death. By introducing a tool that draws from NASA satellite imagery, we’ve helped the Bangladeshi government’s flood forecasting and warning center double the lead time on its warnings.

As a result, in 2014, the government issued an earlier flood warning based on the system’s prediction, and only 17 lives were lost, compared with thousands of lives lost in prior floods of similar severity.

Across the mountain ranges of South and Central Asia, we’re tracking glacier melt to help nearby towns prevent disaster. We’re also mapping Himalayan water supplies to understand the risk to 2 billion people downstream.

USAID helped the Philippines’ national weather service add more than 200 weather stations across the country and create “smarter” weather and flood risk maps to get people out of harms’ way.

In Vietnam, one meter of sea level rise could inundate the Mekong Delta and adversely impact large parts of the population. USAID has enabled 65 cities in Vietnam to reduce the risks of flooding, sea level rise and other climate threats through the adoption of a city-planning tool. The tool enables city planners to avoid infrastructure development in the most at-risk areas and to easily access recommended mitigation measures.

While we must focus on addressing these immediate impacts of climate change, it is essential that we also address its root causes so that we can build a better future for humanity. We do this through clean energy and sustainable landscapes.

(2) Clean Energy

That brings me to the second prong of our three-pronged approach to global climate change: clean energy.

At USAID, our focus is on helping countries unlock private investment and scale up clean energy development, unleashing clean, low-carbon economic growth. We’re doing this in countries across Asia and the globe.

In particular, we have partnered with two of the top global polluters — India and Indonesia — to curb their emissions while increasing their clean energy supply to meet growing demand.

In India, the economic growth rates of 7 to 8 percent per year will substantially increase emissions. At the same time, India faces the challenge of improving the reliability, accessibility and affordability of energy supplies. At the Paris talks, India indicated that international financing would be needed to ramp up its transition to a clean energy future.

The U.S.-India Partnership to Advance Clean Energy program, called PACE, supports and strengthens clean energy-technology innovation and commercialization in India.

Since its launch six years ago, PACE has mobilized over $5 billion in public and private sector resources for the research, development and application of clean energy solutions in India. USAID has provided technical support on a range of issues, from training bankers on financing energy efficiency projects, to providing regulatory support for utilities.

Indonesia made a bold commitment to reduce its emissions by 29 percent by 2030. USAID supports Indonesia’s efforts to reduce emissions and to improve awareness and the ability to adapt to the effects of climate change.

Indonesia is one of 26 countries with which USAID works globally through the Enhancing Capacity in Low Emissions Development Strategies (EC‐LEDS) program, confirming this as a development challenge that is of mutual interest to both nations. 

In FY 2014, the total number of USAID clean energy projects increased by 25 percent, which when final could stimulate $1.8 billion in financing and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 2.3 million tons per year — or the equivalent of taking nearly half a million vehicles off the road in the U.S. for a year.

(3) Sustainable Landscapes

Sustainable landscapes is the third prong of our climate change approach. 

The bulk of Indonesia’s greenhouse gas emissions come from deforestation — a global problem the world has woken up to with this year’s forest fire crisis.  In fact, tropical deforestation represents 12 percent of all global emissions. 

In Indonesia, the impacts of the fires have been staggering: Daily emissions from the fires at times have exceeded those emitted from the entire U.S. economy, according to the World Resources Institute.

Non-health economic losses are estimated at over $16 billion, which exceeds by one-third the total estimated economic losses from the devastating 2004 tsunami.

In late October, President Obama ramped up U.S. efforts to help Indonesia put out the fires and provide immediate assistance to people affected by haze and smoke. USAID’s contributions include:

  • Setting up special “clean air” shelters where those suffering from respiratory problems will receive treatment, as well as promoting public health messages on how best to cope with the haze and poor air quality.
  • Supplying ground-based firefighting crews in the provinces hardest hit by the fires with equipment including high pressure pumps, fire retardant clothing, face masks and hand tools.
  • And partnering with the U.S. Forest Service to send fire specialists to Indonesia to help with fire investigations, firefighting management and operations, and the provision of satellite imagery.

At USAID, we are also working to help fix the governance systems that allow the fires to recur with such frequency and severity. 

We are supporting the investigation of the fires.

We are helping Indonesia implement existing laws and with monitoring and enforcement. 

But ultimately, we need to get at the root of the problem — what’s causing the fires in the first place. That’s why USAID partners with the private sector and Government of Indonesia to reduce the destruction of forests and peatlands for growing oil palm — of which Indonesia is a leading supplier.

In support of deforestation-free commodity supply chains, USAID and the Consumer Goods Forum, a network of more than 400 major global companies, created the Tropical Forest Alliance 2020. As part of this, USAID is supporting the Indonesia Palm Oil Pledge, a commitment by the world’s leading palm oil producers to transition to sustainable production that breaks the link with deforestation.

To date, five companies controlling 80 percent of the global palm oil trade have signed the pledge.  This is monumental in precluding deforestation not only in Indonesia, but other countries in which oil palm is cultivated. 

Around the world, USAID helps countries to better manage their forests and natural landscapes, which can curb climate pollution while conserving critical biodiversity and providing a sustainable source of income for those who depend on it.

USAID works at a regional level to combat wildlife trafficking and eliminate illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, which undermines efforts to ensure the sustainability of our shared ocean resources and plays a major role in fueling human trafficking in the region.

In the Lower Mekong and throughout Asia, we’re working to ensure that infrastructure projects fairly assess their impact on the environment, lives and livelihoods.

This issue hits close to home for me because I worked for 18 years for former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. One of her first acts in Congress was what is known to most of you as the “Pelosi Amendment,” a law requiring U.S. representatives at multilateral banks to support environmental and social assessments on large development projects. 

As Brian and many of you know, over the next 10 years, it is projected that the number of dams on the Mekong River will quadruple, threatening to choke one of the world’s most productive rivers.

The Mekong River produces more fish than all the rivers of Africa combined and is vital to the food security of upwards of 70 million people. I wish to commend Stimson’s Southeast Asia Program on your leadership on dam-related issues in the region.


In conclusion, reducing the risks of climate change through sustainable development policies can help build peaceful, prosperous and just societies not only for Asia, but for the United States and the world.

Ladies and gentlemen: The Paris agreement on climate change has ushered in a key moment in history.

We at USAID know that in the months and years to follow, our mandate to help countries prepare for climate risks and transition to low-carbon growth powered by clean energy and buffered by sustainable landscapes will grow ever more urgent and important.

But our ambitious agenda is not possible without partnership that brings the most innovative solutions of today to the table.

It demands a comprehensive approach that recognizes economic development, human development and environmental conservation as intrinsically linked and interconnected rather than separate goals to be pursued in isolation.

This powerful idea is embodied throughout the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development — the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Moving forward, the challenge before all of us is to leverage the best and latest innovations in development to ensure we’re maintaining the world’s ecosystem services simultaneously.

The world depends on it. 

Issuing Country