THE BIG STORY - POOR NATIONS WILL BEAR BRUNT AS WORLD WARMS
By ANDREW C. REVKIN New York Times Service
T he world’s richest countries, which have contributed by far the most to the atmos pheric 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 Inter-governmental 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 heattrapping 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 per cent 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 aggres sion 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 Febru ary, 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 organisations 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 threeyear-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.
Industrialised 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, totalling 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 industrialised 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, industrialised countries promised to assist others “that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change in meeting costs of adaptation.” G L O B A L WA R M I N G S P E C I E S I M PA C T Climate change threatens world ecosystems lobal warming is affecting physical and biological G systems on every continent, scientists are expected to report next Friday. They estimate if temperatures rise 2 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit above current levels, one-third of species will be lost from their present range, either moved elsewhere or vanished.