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Poor Nations to Bear Brunt as World Warms

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  • binstock@peakpeak.com
    April 1, 2007 Poor Nations to Bear Brunt as World Warms By ANDREW C. REVKIN http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/01/science/earth/01climate.html The world’s
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 1, 2007
      April 1, 2007

      Poor Nations to Bear Brunt as World Warms

      By ANDREW C. REVKIN
      http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/01/science/earth/01climate.html


      The world’s 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 world’s
      most vulnerable regions — most of them close to the equator and
      overwhelmingly poor.

      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
      withstand them.

      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
      at risk.

      “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. We’ll see the same phenomenon with global warming.”

      Those in harm’s 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
      who’s responsible and who’s 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 panel’s forthcoming impacts report, said
      that while the richer northern nations may benefit temporarily, “As you
      march through the decades, at some point — and we don’t know where these
      inflection points are — negative effects of climate change dominate
      everywhere.”

      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 world’s
      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 world’s
      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 Bush’s 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, that’s a lot more powerful than scrounging for a few
      million more for a fund that’s 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
      in business.

      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
      countries.

      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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