April 1, 2007

Poor Nations to Bear Brunt as World Warms

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  

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.”


Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

s. e. anderson (author of "The Black Holocaust for Beginners" -  
Writers + Readers) +