Vietnam — a microcosm of a globally changing climate

As I mucked my way at sunrise to the mess hall I saw the horizon rise up miles away — the result of tons of bombs dropping from B 52’s. At the time, I was a young Marine witnessing the formidable firepower of the U.S. military in action during the war in Vietnam — a tiny country about the size of New Mexico. In total, the U.S. dropped more than 7 million tons of bombs on Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia along with defoliants sprayed on millions of acres of forests and agricultural land.

Mike Hoffmann, Executive Director of the Cornell Institute for Climate Smart Solutions, Faculty Fellow at Cornell University’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, and a professor in the Department of Entomology.

During a visit last year I stood on what was left of the An Hoa U.S. Marine base airstrip near where I trudged to breakfast 47 years ago. I had returned to Vietnam for two reasons; one was personal, just to see what it looked like today. The second was professional: As the executive director of the Cornell University Institute for Climate Smart Solutions, I wanted to see first-hand how climate change was affecting Vietnam. This is an important mission, because our combined carbon footprints not only impact our home nations, but all nations, including Vietnam. Looking at this issue from another perspective: While bombs are no longer dropping from B-52s in Vietnam, the U.S. has contributed more than a quarter of the accumulated carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. So even though the war ended decades ago, we are still altering the landscape of Vietnam and affecting its people — seas are rising and it is getting hotter.

With 2,000 miles of coastline, Vietnam faces extraordinary challenges due to our warming climate — and it could serve as a bellwether of future climate-change impacts on agriculture and infrastructure everywhere. Continuing on our current path of worldwide greenhouse-gas emissions will take us into dangerous territory: We are looking at a future world of more violent storms, mass displacement of people, and increasing social and economic turmoil. Record-breaking heat, forests devastated from fires and insects, and ominous changes to our oceans and glaciers — all very obvious to those who are willing to see. Vietnam has a new battle to fight, but it is part of a battle we all must fight if we are to sustain the environment that sustains us.

In Vietnam, the impacts of climate change are particularly intense for the Mekong River Delta, a region about six feet above sea level where Vietnam grows 50 percent of its rice — and home to more than 17 million people. Salt water intrusion caused in part by sea-level rise, along with higher temperatures, is making the region less suitable for production of rice and other crops. Even the farming of shrimp, a salt-tolerant creature, can be challenged by excessively salty conditions.

Vietnam grows much of its own food but is also an important agricultural exporter; it is the second largest producer of coffee and one of the top exporters of rice in the world, and a major exporter of fish and shrimp valued at more than $6 billion per year. Vietnam is also one the fastest growing markets for importing U.S. food and agricultural products such as cotton, soybeans, nuts and dairy, and is an important link in our interconnected and interdependent global food system.

The Vietnamese are a resilient people, having survived centuries of war and conflict — but what about climate change with its wide-ranging impacts? How do you keep back the seas? How do you cool down the atmosphere? Where will all the people move to as the seas begin to swamp the vast Mekong Delta, the coastal cities, and other low-lying areas? Take this a step further and think about how Manhattan would react to rising sea waters lapping at its streets.

The Mekong Delta, just six feet above sea level, seems a world away, but much of New York City is less than 16 feet above sea level, and parts of lower Manhattan are just five feet above sea level.

To make things worse, some climatologists predict that seas around New York would rise twice as much as the rest of the U.S. coast. New Orleans, Miami, Philadelphia, Sacramento, Boston, Honolulu and hundreds more US cities are at risk as the seas rise.

Some of the challenges facing agriculture in the Mekong are being addressed by development of more salt and heat-tolerant rice varieties and by using a three-pond shrimp and fish farming strategy, in which one pond holds fresh water that is used to dilute water in the other two ponds when they become too salty. A number of Vietnamese and global organizations are supporting these efforts and others intended to help sustain food production in the Mekong. These efforts are showing positive results, but unless the world comes to grip with the production of CO2 and methane that drive climate change, the plight of agriculture will worsen, whether it is in Vietnam, Kansas or the Ukraine. And neighborhoods around the world, from Saigon to SoHo, ultimately could face encroaching sea levels.

We have much to learn from Vietnam. For other veterans of the war, I encourage you to return. It is moving on. It is so different today. For all others — visit. Enjoy the amazing food, the rich culture and take in the remnants of the war — but also see and learn from this new environmental battle that ultimately will affect us all, no matter where we live on this planet: A rapidly warming climate that is approaching a ‘point of no return.’

About the author: Mike Hoffmann is Executive Director of the Cornell Institute for Climate Smart Solutions, Faculty Fellow at Cornell University’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future, and a professor in the Department of Entomology.

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Phone: (607) 254–6235