Saturday, April 07, 2007

Earth faces a grim future if global warming isn't slowed, U.N. report says

L.A. Times
Earth faces a grim future if global warming isn't slowed, U.N. report says
By Alan Zarembo and Thomas H. Maugh II, Times Staff Writers

A new global warming report issued today by the United Nations paints a near-apocalyptic vision of the Earth's future if temperatures continue to rise unabated: more than a billion people in desperate need of water, extreme food shortages in Africa and elsewhere, a blighted landscape ravaged by fires and floods, and millions of species sentenced to extinction.

The devastating effects will strike all regions of the world and all levels of society, but it will be those without the resources to adapt to the coming changes who will suffer the greatest impact, the report said.

"It's the poorest of the poor in the world, and this includes poor people even in prosperous societies, who are going to be the worst hit," said Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which issued the report today in Brussels.

The report is the second issued this year by the group. The first, released in January, characterized global warming as a runaway train that is irreversible but that can be moderated by societal changes.

That report said, with more than 90% confidence, that the warming is caused by humans, and its conclusions were widely accepted because of the years of accumulated scientific data supporting it.

The new report is far more controversial, however, because it cites specific effects of the warming. Scientists and politicians wrangled well into the night Thursday as representatives of some of the world's largest greenhouse gas emitters attempted to tone down the report and scientists fought for their predictions.

In the end, the report survived relatively unscathed, but timelines for future events were largely deleted and the degree of confidence in the projections was scaled back compared to earlier drafts.

Even so, the report paints a gloomy picture of the world's future, region by region. Most of its components were already known, but the accumulation of detail in the authoritative projection carries a much stronger weight than in the past.

North America can expect more hurricanes, floods, droughts, heat waves and wildfires, the report said, and the coasts will be flooded by rising sea levels. Crop production will increase initially as the growing season gets longer, but climbing temperatures and water shortages will ultimately lead to sharp reductions.

Africa will suffer the most extreme effects, with a quarter of a billion people losing most of their water supplies. Food production will fall by half in many countries and governments will have to spend 10% of their budgets or more to adapt to climate changes, the report said.

Asia will suffer from unprecedented flooding as the rising temperatures melt Himalayan glaciers and rock avalanches will wipe out many villages. The same will happen in the European Alps and the South American Andes.

Rising temperatures and drying soil will replace the moist rain forest of the eastern Amazon with drier savannah, eliminating much of the habitat that now supports the greatest diversity of species in the world.

At least 30% of the world's species will disappear if temperatures rise 3.6 degrees above the average levels of the 1980s and 1990s, the report said.

"Don't be poor in a hot country, don't live in hurricane alley, watch out about being on the coasts or in the Arctic, and it's a bad idea to be on a high mountain," said Stephen Schneider of Stanford University, one of the scientists who contributed to the report.

Reaction to the report was mixed.

"The urgency of this report … should be matched with an equally urgent response by governments," said Hans Veroime of the World Wildlife Foundation.

"Global warming is already underway, but it is not too late to slow it down and reduce its harmful effects," said Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco). "We must base our actions on the moral imperative and the scientific record."

But Jim Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said the report would not stampede the administration into taking part in the U.N.'s Kyoto Protocol, which seeks to limit emissions of carbon dioxide, the most important greenhouse gas. The U.S. withdrew from the protocol in 2001, saying it did not impose enough controls on developing nations.

"Each nation sort of defines their regulatory objectives in different ways to achieve the greenhouse reduction outcome that they seek," he said in a briefing.