Asia has achieved tremendous progress over the last half century. China and India, as well as Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore, have become economic powerhouses. The region has also been blessed with peace and political stability, allowing for impressive economic growth.
Yet we have to acknowledge that the important economic growth has not yet been followed by efforts to address climate change concerns. The focus on macroeconomic development has been stronger than that on human development. Developing countries in the region still deposit 90% of their waste water directly into the sea untreated, polluting this invaluable ecosystem. Many of the large cities that today embody "modernity" in their architecture and lifestyles still lack the basic infrastructure needed for coping with water supply, sanitation, drainage, and solid waste collection systems, creating environmental risk. Particularly in coastal areas, the cities are marked by air, soil, and water pollution, and by greenhouse gas emissions.
The contrast is always surprising to me. In the midst of this rapid growth and technological progress, why do we still find a sore lack of public and mass transportation systems, of quality education and health systems, and of mitigation and adaptation of climate change? Why are large-scale development projects still led by short-term calculation of immediate benefit over the long term health and survival of the residents?
It has become clear enough today that the important economic growth in East Asia has also raised a severe divide between the "haves" and the "have nots" through demographic imbalance between countries, and a sharp social and spatial inequality within countries. As shown by a number of academic works and reports from the UN, the World Bank, and NGOs, this type of inequality and social exclusion is not only linked to security issues, but puts the excluded populations at the most severe vulnerability to climate change effects. Small island nations are particularly at risk of climate change.
The climate change negotiations in Paris will represent a challenge for China, India and the smaller nations. The region has a natural and legitimate right to economic expansion. China has not only lifted enormous segments of its population out of poverty, it has also done much to assist other developing countries in own their local efforts. India has put its region of the world in an entirely new phase of development with its technology boom.
Asian countries largely did not benefit from the industrial revolution of the 19th and 20th centuries. They did not reap the rewards for the barbaric damage done to the Earth in the course of the economic expansion of the West. Yet many of them will be the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
Having spoken at and participated in regional conferences leading up to Paris, I can say that Asian leaders are ready for the challenge. China and India are already adopting policies and taking steps to redress the environmental degradation caused by demographic pressures and industrialization and can be expected to lead their regions in achieving a universal, legally binding agreement.
If successful, we will see an Asia that continues its economic boom, that continues to lift large segments of the world's population out of dire poverty. But instead of doing so at the expense of our planet's health as was done in the West, it will do so while simultaneously establishing resilient, low-carbon societies and economies, addressing the future health and livelihoods of the region's citizens as well as the immediate gains of its developers.
The answers are there. The technology exists. There is reason to be optimistic.
This post is part of a "Nobel Prize Laureates" series produced by The Huffington Post, in conjunction with the U.N.'s 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris (Nov. 30-Dec. 11), aka the climate-change conference. The series will put a spotlight on Nobel Prize Laureates and their thoughts on how to effectively combat climate change. It is part of HuffPost's What's Working editorial initiative. To view the entire series, visit here.