Reflections

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I had intended for this day to be a day of reflection. Although there are gems of culture, commerce and human ingenuity lurking everywhere around the next corner or down the next alley, I  had minimal desire to go out exploring. I did one thing. I visited Wat Pha Lat, a virtually secret gem embedded in the jungle down a deep ravine from the main road up the mountain to Doi Suthep. It’s easy to miss. I even urged two different groups of Chinese tourists I met at the top to explore this treasure. Neither took me up on it.

This is a place that is slowly surrendering to the jungle. It resides upon a gorgeous mountain stream with a view of the city, and I experienced a serenity there that was different from any other temple I have visited.

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Wat Pha Lat also conveys a sense of disrepair. Unlike other urban sites, the more typical tourist attractions, it is not shining in pristine condition. There are signs of its slow demise at every turn. It is a retreat nestled into its natural surroundings, modestly and instantly entraining a visitor into its quiescence.

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Barely a month into this adventure, I am deliberately slowing down to ponder and digest the choices I am making, the life I am choosing. Being in Chiang Mai, for all its beauty and wonders, for all the delight in the abundance of culture, cuisine, history and the diversity of contemporary life, is a time of transition. I will take advantage of my time here for adventure, connection and writing. Yet there are also internal stirrings that are making themselves known; the original intention to be of service. In that respect, Chiang Mai is taking on the feel of a waiting room, a time of preparation.

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I also shared a lovely dinner last night with two couples from the UK (one tourist and the other residents), and three other Americans (one resident and two tourists) at a great restaurant (owned by an American) with good food, live music, all lit up like a Christmas tree. It was a delight, sweet and sharp and warm.

One of the winners of a birthday raffle--a stuffed elephant.

One of the winners of a birthday raffle–a stuffed elephant.

At least for a visitor such as myself, with adequate means to live in relative comfort, there is an easy fulfillment here. Many live quite modestly, yet I see few signs of actual economic struggle. There is plenty, there is cohesion, the energy of satisfaction, a smooth-running social and economic machine. Life works well here. No doubt about it.

But I actually know very little, and looks can be deceiving.

I have been an advocate in various ways over the past few years for climate awareness and action. I have studied the issues, maintained currency in approaches to collective action, personal actions, emerging technologies and legislative efforts. In the US, I have been active with the Citizen’s Climate Lobby on behalf of a national fee on carbon.

Being here for a month has been a hiatus from all that. I am starting to wonder about Thailand’s commitment to addressing its own environmental issues. On a larger scale, given the current government turmoil, how is Thailand functioning in this area? Where does Thailand stand on developing policy to address multiple issues effecting the economy and the culture? And first of all, what are the likely impacts of climate change in Thailand? The difficulty in finding definitive and recent information on these questions is itself somewhat revealing.

Here’s an abstract from a research paper published in 2011, outlining a complex and challenging picture:

Climate Change and Thailand:Impact and Response
 
The impacts of climate change on Thailand — namely prolonged droughts, decreased agricultural and fishery yields, violent flooding, sea level rise and health-related issues — are already serious and will likely create or exacerbate a number of additional problems during the next few decades. These include water management challenges, heightening of class-related tensions, a flood of new immigrants and refugees, damage to the tourism industry and conflict with China over dam-building. While the government has begun framing policies to adapt to and mitigate climate change, its response so far has been limited due to shortcomings in both the planning and implementation processes. Thailand’s ongoing political crisis also diverts decision-maker’attention away from this issue. In the coming decades, Thailand’s institutional structure and political economy will hinder its capacity to address climate change and, while these capacities will improve as the country democratizes, it will still be limited. Consequently, climate change will retard the country’s growth and enormously strain thecountry’s political system, state and society.–DANNY MARKS
Contemporary Southeast Asia Vol. 33, No. 2 (2011), pp. 229–58
DOI: 10.1355/cs33-2d© 2011 ISEAS ISSN 0129-797X print ISSN 1793-284X electronic.
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This paper further details some familiar specific and disturbing scenarios.
1. Increased intensity of storms and storm surges in coastal areas.
2. Reduced agricultural output in coastal areas due to higher salt content of the soil.
3. The rice bowl of southeast Asia will see reduced rice production due to water supplies and management issues.
4. Decreased rainfall nationally.
5. Increased average temperatures.
6. The city of Bangkok is settling due to a sinking water table as well as becoming more vulnerable to sea-level rise. There are predictions that Bangkok, a city of 13 million people, will become uninhabitable by 2030.
7. Large portions of the south as well as the Andaman islands will be vulnerable to sea-level rise.
8. Variable water resources in the north due to both climate change and Chinese and Loatian dams on the Mekong, effecting downstream livelihoods and sparking regional conflict.
9. All of these changes will effect tourism, which represents at least 10% of the economy.
The key references here appear to be institutional inertia, class-related conflict, international conflict and economic growth. These are no different from what is found in many other places in the world. They are the key issues restraining decisive and effective action to address climate impacts.
Thailand is 85th among 198 nations in CO2 emissions per capita (2012), higher than any of its neighbors except China. The most obvious factor turning one’s mind to this entire issue in Thailand is the air pollution in the cities. I don’t know what kind of emission standards Thailand has for vehicles, but they are either very low or not enforced. Unlike the countryside, the cities are choking on air pollution.
Aside from this, Thailand is investing in solar power, just not at a rate that is likely to make a significant difference in their total emissions for years. On one hand, Thailand needn’t be as concerned with its own emissions (1% of total global emissions) so much as being concerned with how it will deal with climate impacts it is likely to experience. Emission control (air pollution and public health) probably takes a back seat to mitigation in other areas such as resource management (water and forest) and disease vectors, along with government policies to enhance the social safety net and improve other incentives to bolster rural resilience and to protect agricultural populations so that they are not as likely to migrate to cities.
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That, and, you know, keeping the elephant in the room, Bangkok, from sinking into the sea.

©2015 Gary Horvitz. All rights reserved.

3 thoughts on “Reflections

  1. Amazing information about what is predicted for Thailand in our lifetime. Robin and I are sharing this information. Really shocking.

    Like

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