Poor Nations to Bear Brunt as World Warms
- April 1, 2007
Poor Nations to Bear Brunt as World Warms
By ANDREW C. REVKIN
The worlds richest countries, which have contributed by far the most to
the atmospheric changes linked to global warming, are already spending
billions of dollars to limit their own risks from its worst consequences,
like drought and rising seas.
But despite longstanding treaty commitments to help poor countries deal
with warming, these industrial powers are spending just tens of millions
of dollars on ways to limit climate and coastal hazards in the worlds
most vulnerable regions most of them close to the equator and
Next Friday, a new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change, a United Nations body that since 1990 has been assessing global
warming, will underline this growing climate divide, according to
scientists involved in writing it with wealthy nations far from the
equator not only experiencing fewer effects but also better able to
Two-thirds of the atmospheric buildup of carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping
greenhouse gas that can persist in the air for centuries, has come in
nearly equal proportions from the United States and Western European
countries. Those and other wealthy nations are investing in
windmill-powered plants that turn seawater to drinking water, in flood
barriers and floatable homes, and in grains and soybeans genetically
altered to flourish even in a drought.
In contrast, Africa accounts for less than 3 percent of the global
emissions of carbon dioxide from fuel burning since 1900, yet its 840
million people face some of the biggest risks from drought and disrupted
water supplies, according to new scientific assessments. As the oceans
swell with water from melting ice sheets, it is the crowded river deltas
in southern Asia and Egypt, along with small island nations, that are most
Like the sinking of the Titanic, catastrophes are not democratic, said
Henry I. Miller, a fellow with the Hoover Institution at Stanford
University. A much higher fraction of passengers from the cheaper decks
were lost. Well see the same phenomenon with global warming.
Those in harms way are beginning to speak out. We have a message here to
tell these countries, that you are causing aggression to us by causing
global warming, President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda said at the African
Union summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in February. Alaska will probably
become good for agriculture, Siberia will probably become good for
agriculture, but where does that leave Africa?
Scientists say it has become increasingly clear that worldwide
precipitation is shifting away from the equator and toward the poles. That
will nourish crops in warming regions like Canada and Siberia while
parching countries like Malawi in sub-Saharan Africa which are already
prone to drought.
While rich countries are hardly immune from drought and flooding, their
wealth will largely insulate them from harm, at least for the next
generation or two, many experts say.
Cities in Texas, California and Australia are already building or planning
desalination plants, for example. And federal studies have shown that
desalination can work far from the sea, purifying water from brackish
aquifers deep in the ground in places like New Mexico.
The inequity of this whole situation is really enormous if you look at
whos responsible and whos suffering as a result, said Rajendra K.
Pachauri, chairman of the United Nations climate panel. In its most recent
report, in February, the panel said that decades of warming and rising
seas were inevitable with the existing greenhouse-gas buildup, no matter
what was done about cutting future greenhouse gas emissions.
Mr. Miller, of the Hoover Institution, said the world should focus less on
trying to rapidly cut greenhouse gases and more on helping regions at risk
become more resilient.
Many other experts insist this is not an either-or situation. They say
that cutting the vulnerability of poor regions needs much more attention,
but add that unless emissions are curbed, there will be centuries of
warming and rising seas that will threaten ecosystems, water supplies, and
resources from the poles to the equator, harming rich and poor.
Cynthia E. Rosenzweig, a NASA expert on climate and agriculture who is a
lead author of the United Nations panels forthcoming impacts report, said
that while the richer northern nations may benefit temporarily, As you
march through the decades, at some point and we dont know where these
inflection points are negative effects of climate change dominate
There are some hints that wealthier countries are beginning to shift their
focus toward fostering adaptation to warming outside their own borders.
Relief organizations including Oxfam and the International Red Cross,
foreseeing a world of worsening climate-driven disasters, are turning some
of their attention toward projects like expanding mangrove forests as a
buffer against storm surges, planting trees on slopes to prevent
landslides, or building shelters on high ground.
Some officials from the United States, Britain and Japan say foreign-aid
spending can be directed at easing the risks from climate change. The
United States, for example, has promoted its three-year-old Millennium
Challenge Corporation as a source of financing for projects in poor
countries that will foster resilience. It has just begun to consider
environmental benefits of projects, officials say.
Industrialized countries bound by the Kyoto Protocol, the climate pact
rejected by the Bush administration, project that hundreds of millions of
dollars will soon flow via that treaty into a climate adaptation fund.
But for now, the actual spending in adaptation projects in the worlds
most vulnerable spots, totaling around $40 million a year, borders on the
derisory, said Kevin Watkins, the director of the United Nations Human
Development Report Office, which tracks factors affecting the quality of
life around the world.
The lack of climate aid persists even though nearly all the worlds
industrialized nations, including the United States under the first
President Bush, pledged to help when they signed the first global warming
treaty, the Framework Convention on Climate Change, in 1992. Under that
treaty, industrialized countries promised to assist others that are
particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change in
meeting costs of adaptation. It did not specify how much they would pay.
A $3 billion Global Environmental Facility fund maintained by
contributions from developed countries has nearly $1 billion set aside for
projects in poorer countries that limit emissions of greenhouse gases. But
critics say those projects often do not have direct local benefits, and
many are happening in the large fast-industrializing developing countries
not the poorest ones.
James L. Connaughton, President Bushs top adviser on environmental
issues, defended the focus on broader development efforts. If we can
shape several billion dollars in already massive development funding
toward adaptation, thats a lot more powerful than scrounging for a few
million more for a fund thats labeled climate, he said.
But it is clear that the rich countries are far ahead of the poor ones in
adapting to climate change. For example, American farmers are taking
advantage of advances in genetically modified crops to prosper in dry or
wet years, said Donald Coxe, an investment strategist in Chicago who
tracks climate, agriculture and energy for the BMO Financial Group. The
new seed varieties can compensate for a 10 or 15 percent drop in rainfall,
he said, just the kind of change projected in some regions around the
tropics. But, he said, the European Union still opposes efforts to sell
such modified grains in Africa and other developing regions.
Technology also aids farmers in the north. John Reifstack, a
third-generation farmer in Champaign, Ill., said he would soon plant more
than 30 million genetically modified corn seeds on 1,000 acres. It will
take him about five days, he said, a pace that would have been impossible
just four years ago. (Speedy planting means the crop is more likely to
pollinate before the first heat waves, keeping yields high.) The seed
costs 30 percent more than standard varieties, he said, but the premium is
worth it. Precipitation is still vital, he said, repeating an old saw:
Rain makes grain. But if disaster strikes, crop insurance will keep him
All of these factors together increase resilience, Mr. Reifstack and
agriculture experts said, and they are likely to keep the first world
farming for generations to come.
Robert O. Mendelsohn, an economist at Yale focused on climate, said that
in the face of warming, it might be necessary to abandon the longstanding
notion that all places might someday feed themselves. Poor regions reliant
on unpredictable rainfall, he said, should be encouraged to shift people
out of farming and into urban areas and import their food from northern
Another option, experts say, is helping poor regions do a better job of
forecasting weather. In parts of India, farmers still rely more on
astrologers for monsoon predictions than government meteorologists.
Michael H. Glantz, an expert on climate hazards at the National Center for
Atmospheric Research who has spent two decades pressing for more work on
adaptation to warming, has called for wealthy countries to help establish
a center for climate and water monitoring in Africa, run by Africans. But
for now, he says he is doubtful that much will be done.
The third world has been on its own, he said, and I think it pretty
much will remain on its own.
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