Climate change a Western problem? Not anymore

People surround lit candles during the Earth Hour at the Jardin Plaza mall in Cali, Valle del Cauca department, Colombia, on March 29, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
People surround lit candles during the Earth Hour at the Jardin Plaza mall in Cali, Valle del Cauca department, Colombia, on March 29, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP

For decades, we Asian leaders largely ignored climate change. It’s a Western problem, we said. The West caused the problem by dumping greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. Let the West clean it up. Asian leaders remained focused instead on reducing poverty by growing their economies. 

Developing countries were not responsible for the pollution, Asians argued, so they should not have to pay for it. Yes, Asia’s industrialisation was quietly building up toxic stores of carbon, but the region was only following the rich world’s roadmap for success. Carbon equals growth, said the prescription. And like those who took up smoking on the doctor's orders, we Asians were not to blame.

There was a time when the assumptions underpinning this line of thinking were true. Not anymore.

Climate change has become malignant. It threatens to blunt Asia’s growth and upend development. Scientists are increasingly certain that catastrophic weather events - such as the 2011 floods in Thailand, one of history's costliest disasters, or last year’s Typhoon Haiyan, which killed and displaced thousands of people in the Philippines - will become more frequent and intense.

From small island states to delta settlements, Asia is in the climate frontline. Millions of Asians are at risk. It falls to Asian governments, whose primary responsibility is to protect their citizens, to respond.

Three things need to happen. First, Asian Heads of Government should re-position their countries ahead of a crucial United Nations summit in Paris next year - where world governments are due to sign a global agreement to curb emissions. Asian leaders should instruct their negotiators to leave behind entrenched positions and work positively towards a global deal. 

It is difficult to admit, but sometimes we Asians have been less than helpful in UN climate negotiations. We have done this using arguments about "equality" as a pretext to pollute. We have also played on post-colonial guilt to stymie progress, or claimed poverty when some of our per capita incomes rival Europe’s. We need to be more co-operative if a deal is to be sealed in Paris.

Second, Asian countries should focus on building clean economies to boost growth, increase wealth and reduce pollution. This isn’t rocket science, but it does involve planning and preparation. The region needs electricity grids that can accommodate vast quantities of renewable energy, infrastructure that promotes green vehicles and regulations that encourage energy efficiency. 

Switching from fossil fuels to clean energy already makes economic sense in many countries. This is largely thanks to the collapsing price of renewable energy - a trend likely to accelerate in future. The link between carbon emissions and economic growth is being turned on its head. Asian nations - many of which are still developing - are well placed to get ahead of the curve.

Third, Asian nations need to protect their natural environments better. Many Asian countries, preoccupied by short-term profits, are guilty of the rapacious destruction of the natural world. But as we are finding out, nature often provides the best form of defence against the storm surges, droughts and typhoons that will progressively worsen this century. 

Mangroves and coral reefs protect coastlines from storms, while rainforests help regulate local weather patterns. Protecting forests is one of the most effective ways to cut carbon pollution, and a healthy natural environment protects human health. 

The threats to our nations are changing, and Asia must change accordingly. Huge standing armies, or high-tech weaponry, won’t protect us from the next super-typhoon. In the climate battle, our infantry will be mangrove forests and solar panels. By strengthening our natural defences, embracing clean growth, and leading the push for a global climate deal, Asian leaders can secure a more stable climate - and safeguard development. 

Asian people need a climate deal, and the climate problem needs Asian leadership. It is time for Asia to show the way.

Mr José Ramos-Horta is the former President of Timor-Leste. Mr Mohamed Nasheed is the former President of the Maldives.