Asia Must Take Initiative on Climate Change, Regardless of the US

India's Taj Mahal, visible through the surrounding haze, at sunrise. (Tine Steiss/Flickr)

This past week, former American Vice President Al Gore sharply criticized the Obama administration for failing to significantly alter United States policy on climate change and energy. What role should American leadership play in shaping government policies on climate change throughout Asia? Alternatively, what global leadership role exists for developed and developing Asian countries themselves in areas like clean energy and global warming mitigation? Is the possibility of a global deal on climate change completely dead? If so, can it be resuscitated?

Dan Stellar serves as the Assistant Director for the Columbia Water Center, a program of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. Lakis Polycarpou is Communications Coordinator at the Water Center, where he writes extensively on the global water crisis.

While there can be no excuse for the United States' failure to lead on climate change, that failure does not justify inaction on the part of Asian nations, several of which are by any measure major global powers in their own right.  The rapid economic growth of countries such as India and China has made them major carbon emitters. At the same time, because of geography and other factors, the population of those same nations may be among the most vulnerable to climate impacts.

For example, both India and China are facing large-scale groundwater crises related to irrigation — crises that will likely be exacerbated by the increased variability of rainfall brought on by global warming. Warming is also likely to strongly affect the Himalaya — a region that holds the largest nonpolar ice mass in the world, and whose water supports one of the largest populations on earth across several nations. Changes to the glacial Himalayan glacial systems could have devastating (although not yet well-understood) effects on untold numbers of people.

In light of vulnerabilities such as these, Asian nations have every reason to aggressively pursue climate adaptation measures. Similarly, their rapidly expanding economies and increasing geopolitical power give these countries both the impetus and opportunity to take real global leadership towards climate sustainability.

The United States must act, and there can be legitimate arguments over whether the Obama administration's inability to create binding climate change legislation is a result of lack of political will or simply a reflection of political realities on the ground.   Yet while this discourse plays out in the U.S., there is an incredible opening for some of the largest Asian nations to step up and take the type of global leadership that the U.S. has yet to display. Doing so would allow them not bring about important climate change mitigation measures while also enhancing their power on the world stage — a rare opportunity.