Sandy reminds Tribeca what life is like in Asia

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A truck drives through water pushed over a road by Hurricane Sandy in Southampton, New York, on October 29, 2012.

New York's brush with developing-nation status is an even bigger warning for Asia than it is for the US.

The city could be excused for wondering if it had suddenly been transported to Bangladesh in October. The deadly floods and crippling power outages following Hurricane Sandy made for more than graphic television. They made a mockery of the climate-change deniers. Just ask residents of lower Manhattan as they referred to neighborhoods such as pricey Tribeca as "Little North Korea."

The Asia reference is fitting, because that region is where the real wake-up call should be.

Asia's rising importance is well known. Asia-Pacific nations generated roughly 25 percent of the world's gross domestic product between 1980 and 2009, and that share is rising fast. Less well known is that it endured almost 40 percent of the world's losses from natural disasters during that period. Violent weather is sure to increase, compromising Asia's economic outlook.

Asia-Pacific residents are four times more likely to be victims of natural disasters than Africans, and 25 times more likely than North Americans, according to a new Asian Development Bank report. Asia is home to most of the megacities facing extreme vulnerability to climate change. The increasing frequency and severity of disasters will reduce growth and set back anti-poverty efforts.

Development threat

We need to stop thinking that such events just come and go -- that stuff happens. Asia must embrace the idea that natural phenomena are a rising threat to development. Steps must be taken to brace for their impact and reduce their incidence. Both challenges require far more energy, planning and resources than Asian leaders have mustered to date.

The first is complicated by demography. The largest urbanization history has ever known is unfolding chaotically and faster than cities can keep up with. Asia's mix of rising ocean levels, surging populations, poor urban planning and deforestation dwarfs New York's challenges.

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Swarms of people are fleeing environmentally stable but impoverished rural areas for coastal cities that lie in harm's way. In the 1980s, roughly 24 million people in the region were directly at risk from natural disasters; today it's 152 million and increasing. That means Vietnam, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, China, India, Pakistan and Cambodia -- all of which are on ADB's list of the 14 most vulnerable developing nations -- need to spend untold billions of dollars making infrastructure less susceptible to disaster.

China, India, Indonesia and Thailand are among Asia's biggest and most-watched economies. How vibrant will they be if their top cities are constantly being swamped? How alluring will Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Karachi, Pakistan, or Manila markets be as Mother Nature encroaches? Longer-term, add Shanghai and Tokyo to the vulnerable list as water levels rise.

Complacency complicates the second challenge. The World Bank foresees "cataclysmic changes" caused by extreme heat waves (ask Australia), rising seas (check the Maldives) and depleted food stocks (query the Philippines) as the climate heads toward warming of 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) this century.

Yet all the latest round of United Nations climate talks (this time in Doha) has managed to achieve is raising the carbon footprint of government ministers and activists jetting in, hiring motorcades, dining at swanky eateries and staying at five-star hotels. All the while, evidence mounts that this generation's environmental legacy will be one of gross negligence.

Going green

It's hard to persuade poorer nations to take the lead in reducing emissions. Not with the US shirking its responsibilities, and the rising carbon emissions of Japan, home of the Kyoto Protocol. Going green, Asia says, is too costly for nations struggling with poverty. The region should be free to generate greenhouse gasses the way developed nations did when they were industrializing in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Our planet can't handle more than 7 billion people polluting that way, so Asia must change its thinking. Economies that go green fastest will be the most prosperous 20 years from now. Nations with the fewest energy imports, lowest subsidies, most innovative renewable-energy sources and foreign policies that aren't beholden to oil suppliers will be the most attractive and have the highest credit ratings.

Asia should announce the energy equivalent of the Manhattan Project. With developed economies in tatters, a pledge by rich nations to provide $100 billion in annual global-warming aid by 2020 looks unrealistic. Asia should take matters into its own hands and deploy its $6.6 trillion of currency reserves for research and development. If an institution is needed, create one. Call it the Asian Green Growth Project and empower it to find alternatives to the coal and other fossil fuels blackening the skies and imperiling the future.

Sure, that's easier said than done. But Asia's biggest challenges include continuing growth without choking on it, finding ample water supplies and feeding swelling populations. Status-quo policies won't get the region where it needs to be 20 years from now. Nor will squabbling with North America and Europe, which isn't on the front lines the way Asia is. Only a big, coordinated and creatively financed effort will do that.

Hurricane Sandy showed New Yorkers they are vulnerable and must begin planning for a more chaotic future. Asians don't have that luxury. They are already living in it.

William Pesek
William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

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