Climate Impacts Are Going to Hit the Developing World Hardest, IPCC Says

'Those countries who have contributed least to the manifestation of this problem are in jeopardy of being the most vulnerable to it.'

U.S. Army soldiers relocate Pakistan flood victims in 2010. Credit: Staff Sgt. Wayne Gray

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world's leading climate science body, declared in a new report that global warming is wreaking havoc "on all continents and across the oceans," with the worst yet to come. But by far the most severe impacts will strike the poorest countries that bear little or no historical responsibility for causing climate change, the report said.

"Those countries who have contributed least to the manifestation of this problem are in jeopardy of being the most vulnerable to it," said Gary Yohe, an economist at Wesleyan University and a coordinating lead author of the IPCC report. "The poor, the young, the old and the people who live along the coasts will be hit the hardest."

The message of "climate justice" comes through in the 2,500 pages of the IPCC's new report released on Monday in Japan. The hot-button concept frames global warming as an ethical issue and involves developed nations financing poor nations' climate-related losses, damage and adaptation efforts.

"We need to do much more to anticipate and reduce risks before they hit the most vulnerable groups," said Maarten van Aalst, director of the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre and a lead author of the IPCC report. "That's something that's worth contributing to—especially for richer people and countries who have had the opportunity to develop partly because of heavy use of fossil fuels."

The report, five years in the making and part of the panel's fifth assessment on global warming, examines the impacts of climate change on human and natural systems, with a large focus on how communities can adapt to the coming challenges. More than 300 scientists, economists, and planning and policy experts from 70 countries collaborated on it. Officials from 115 countries approved the final text.

The report said that by 2100, sea level rise, intense storms, and droughts due to climate change will displace millions of people and threaten food and drinking water supplies across the globe. Crop yields will decline by as much as two percent each decade at a time when demand for food is projected to rise by 14 percent each decade due to population growth. Extreme temperatures will increase heat-related deaths and worsen urban air pollution that causes respiratory illnesses like asthma. Critical fish stocks will migrate to cooler temperatures or disappear altogether, leaving millions of coastal people without food and a source of income. Extreme weather will severely damage infrastructure like electricity, water supply and emergency services.

Developing countries, which lack the money to stave off the worst effects, could need as much as $100 billion a year, if not more, from richer nations to offset these climate impacts, the IPCC said. Proposed adaptation measures include things like coastal defense structures, early warning systems for extreme weather or disease control, and planting drought-resistant crops.

"The adaptation measures [suggested in the report] are financially feasible for most places in the world," said Yohe. "But for some, it is only feasible with help ... I expect this issue of collaboration will be a big topic of discussion at the next international climate treaty meeting." United Nations members have set a goal to forge a climate treaty aimed at warding off a 2-degree Celsius  temperatures rise and financing adaptation by December 2015. 

Commenting on the report, Alice Thomas, head of Refugees International's Climate Displacement program, said that while a drought in Texas would have devastating economic ramifications, a drought in a place like Somalia "means the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives." 

Because developing world communities are so poor and so reliant on their natural surroundings, "they are living on a thin margin. Even slight differences in their environment can send them into crisis," she said. "Unfortunately, these are also communities who have never heard of the term climate change and have the least power to affect change."

New Focus on Adaptation

The report marks the first time since the IPCC was created in 1988 that the scientific body has spent significant time addressing how nations can cope with the expected effects of climate change. It details adaptation options for each region of the world, such as increasing the use of stress-tolerant crops in drought-risk Africa, developing coastal flood protection systems in places like Europe, Australasia and North America, and creating new workers' rights to protect employees from extreme heat in parts of Asia.

While the need for such policies is undisputed, the question of how much adaptation money developed countries should provide poorer nations as part of securing climate justice has generated much debate and deadlocked climate treaty talks.

During climate talks in Copenhagen in 2009, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proposed the idea of a global fund that would raise $100 billion a year by 2020 to finance adaptation projects, particularly in developing nations. Such a program—deemed the Green Climate Fund—was formally established during climate talks in Cancun the following year. But since its launch, the fund has failed to make much progress due to debate over whether the money would come from public or private sources and whether emerging economies such as India should also be forced to contribute.

Thomas of Refugees International said the new IPCC report shows once again that such a fund is critical. In the meantime, humanitarian and development organizations that already pump billions of dollars into developing nations need to ensure their money is serving double duty.

"Current investments need to not only help people out of dangerous situations, but also make them more resilient to the long-term impacts of climate change," she said.

The findings are part of the IPCC's fifth assessment of global warming. Part one of the assessment was released in September and concluded with 95 percent certainty that "human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century."

The third and final section is expected to be finalized in April and will look at how nations can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate climate change.

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