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Climate Change Will Hit Poor Hardest, U.N. Panel Says

April 6, 2007 at 3:40 PM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: The negotiations were long, stretching late into the night. This morning, scientists outlined a grim picture at a news conference. Steve Schneider was one of the report’s lead authors.

STEVE SCHNEIDER, Lead Author, Climate Study: 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. It’s a bad idea to be up on the high mountains with your glaciers melting and losing your water supply. And if you’re in the Mediterranean climate, you’re going to have a fire season in the summer that’s really going to be a problem.

RAY SUAREZ: Today’s release capped off five days of meetings between scientists and political representatives. They disagreed about just how severe a crisis global warming is.

The report is called “Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability.” It was compiled by experts from more than 120 nations participating in the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In February, this same group determined humankind was responsible for global warming.

MARTIN PERRY, Co-Chair, Climate Study: What they’ve done now is finally establish at the global level there is an anthropogenic, a manmade, climate signal coming through on plants, animals, water and ice.

RAY SUAREZ: The main conclusion of today’s report: Countries producing the most greenhouse gases, like the U.S. and China, won’t bear the biggest burden of warmer temperatures. Instead, that will fall on poorer countries with fewer resources to adapt. Most of those countries are along the equator.

RAJENDRA PACHAURI, Chair, Climate Study: The poor are certainly going to be the worst sufferers, and poor not only in the poorest countries, but poor even in the rich countries.

RAY SUAREZ: That’s due, in part, to climate of extremes forecast by the scientists. Drier areas will become more arid, causing crop failure and forests to become dried up. Three billion people will face water shortages. All of this, they expect, will produce a refugee crisis of unimaginable proportions.

But for countries closer to the poles, that dry trend will reverse. Those areas will instead have heavier downpours and flooding, and mountain glaciers and snow will melt at faster rates. That could also cause flooding in Asia’s major delta regions and lead to the disappearance of smaller island nations.

In the U.S., some agricultural areas will initially benefit from the expected rise in temperatures, but coastal cities, like New Orleans, will become even more vulnerable to flooding.

The news for the earth’s flora and fauna was bleak, too. Up to 30 percent of species face extinction if global temperatures continue to rise more than 3.5 degrees Fahrenheit, including many that thrive in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

The next report, due out in May, will recommend policies and economic measures to deal with reducing emissions.

Sticking points

Michael Oppenheimer
Lead Author, Climate Study
This presents policymakers with some stark choices. How much warming are we going to accept? In fact, how much is inevitable? And where are we going to stop it, and by reducing the emissions that are causing the climate change?

For more on the report and the negotiations that produced it, I'm joined by two lead authors from the United States who participated in the conference. Joel Smith is a former deputy director of the Environmental Protection Agency, and joins us from Brussels. And Michael Oppenheimer, professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School, he left Brussels early this morning and joins us from New York.

And, Professor Oppenheimer, the last report in February concluded that man had contributed to climate change over the last half-century. Does this report sort of begin there and then take it further?

MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER, Princeton University: That's right. The last report concluded that there's a broad, manmade climate change afoot, and this report says that that manmade climate change is already having significant effects, both on natural ecosystems and species and on the human environment, the built environment, society, agriculture, and so forth.

What's more troubling, perhaps, is that the consequences are going to grow with time and become significantly at relatively low levels of warming: changes in the agricultural viability in countries that are near the equator; a sea level rise and the consequences along the coast, for instance; effects on natural ecosystems like coral reefs; health effects, for instance, more heat waves.

Those are all things that start to happen at relatively low warming, and this presents policymakers with some stark choices. How much warming are we going to accept? In fact, how much is inevitable? And where are we going to stop it, and by reducing the emissions that are causing the climate change?

RAY SUAREZ: Joel Smith, both you gentlemen have been up for most of the last two days. Why was it necessary to negotiate the language through the night? What were some of the sticking points? And what countries were doing the sticking?

JOEL SMITH, Former Deputy, Environmental Protection Agency: Well, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, is a complicated process which basically involves a buy-in between governments and the researchers.

So we, scientists and researchers, have been working for the last four or five years, writing up a rather extensive report, over 1,000 pages, on the impacts of climate change. Michael and I were in the same chapter on key vulnerabilities.

Those 1,000 pages or so were boiled down by us to about 100-page technical summary. That was then boiled down to a 20-page report, the summary for policymakers that was released today.

What's different about this process is that report is actually adopted by the governments that participated in this meeting line by line. So they get to work with us on the science. We work with them on how to interpret it. They can rewrite text.

And at the end of the day, it's the governments that operate -- and it's by consensus. So, basically, everybody has to agree. There was a lot to work through. There were a lot of difficult issues. And we ended up having just taking through the night, actually ending about 10:00 this morning, but we got through it, and we did produce a summary for policymakers.

RAY SUAREZ: Were big greenhouse gas producers trying to weaken the language of the final document during these negotiations?

JOEL SMITH: Well, countries come in with different perspectives. I think, in particular, Saudi Arabia and China in some cases did try to -- didn't agree, shall we say, with the recommendations of some of the scientists, levels of confidence, some of the findings. There were other countries that were quite happy with what we're doing, even pushing us to say more than we felt comfortable.

Assessing the report's language

Joel Smith
Lead Author, Climate Study
A key part of this process is that -- it's a report of the governments. So they can't just simply say, "It is a report of the scientists," and walk away from it. They have bought into it.

RAY SUAREZ: Michael Oppenheimer, Stephen Elgat, France's International Center for Research on the Environment and Development, concluded at the end that the document was much less quantified and much vaguer and much less striking than it could have been. Do you agree with that?

MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER: Some of the numbers were taken out, and others were made vaguer. And some of that -- I'll go a little further than Joel and say that there were some moments when I was convinced that the big fossil fuel countries, you might say, particularly China and Saudi Arabia, China dependent on coal, Saudi Arabia, a big oil supplier, and at moments our own country, seemed to be wanting to take the teeth out of parts of the document.

On the other hand, I think, by and large, the U.S. government played a constructive role. But the document is, in some aspects, probably weaker than some of the scientists would have it. But on looking it over carefully after I got off the plane, I thought it's a -- if I might say so myself -- I think it's quite a good piece of work.

It's informative. It lays out for governments, what are the vulnerabilities? Where are there going to be changes that they have to get prepared to be ready to adapt to? Where are there changes to society -- like in agriculture or health -- that are so threatening, that they ought to cut emissions in order to avoid those sorts of changes?

These are very good, if the not very precise in some cases, guidelines.

RAY SUAREZ: Joel Smith, by agreeing to the final language, do member governments actually oblige themselves to do anything about these problems?

JOEL SMITH: Well, that remains to be seen, but a key part of this process is that -- it's a report of the governments. So they can't just simply say, "It is a report of the scientists," and walk away from it. They have bought into it.

And I agree with Michael. I think, for the most part, many of the government comments I think actually in many cases actually improved the text. A lot of times what you're arguing about is, how do we interpret particular studies? How much weight do we put on them? Do we give higher confidence or lower confidence?

If the study estimates that 321 million people are going to be at risk, do we really believe it's 321 million or do we say, "Well, there's a lot of uncertainty; maybe it's a few hundred million"? It was those kind of discussions to try to frame it right.

And I should say, in terms of the process, in most cases, we do get to give our views about how far the interpretations of the science should be taken. And if things have been taken farther than we're comfortable, we get to let the governments know and then try to work things out.

RAY SUAREZ: Professor, go ahead.

MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER: You know, I was going to say, in fact, we have a veto power, in some sense. If a government tries to introduce something which is clearly at odds with the science, we can stop it right there.

Linking humans to impacts

Michael Oppenheimer
Lead Author, Climate Study
There's a general feeling that the effects on ecosystems in society, the effects that humans are dealing with, have come on quicker than most scientists expected the last time we went through this exercise about six years ago.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Professor, do you sense a change in urgency? Do you sense a change in tone? Is this a kind of report that wouldn't have been possible a couple of years ago, before the scientific consensus had firmed around this issue?

MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER: Look, there's clearly been a progression. And one of the key things about this one is there's a general feeling that the effects on ecosystems in society, the effects that humans are dealing with, have come on quicker than most scientists expected the last time we went through this exercise about six years ago.

And I think that created an uneasiness among scientists, that this is a problem that really needs to be focused on by governments, and, as a result, I think the document is more focused and has more teeth than it otherwise would.

RAY SUAREZ: Joel Smith, how about you?

JOEL SMITH: I agree. In fact, I think perhaps the most historic aspect of this document is the linking of humans to the impacts we're seeing. So, as you mentioned, the first report that came out in January, the science report, gave very high confidence that humans are causing climate change.

What this report now said is that change in climate we're causing is affecting species, glaciers, river flow, snow packs, many aspects of our physical and natural systems and even, to some extent, society, although that's a little harder to document at this point.

And that is historic. That link has not been made by the IPCC. That is quite a significant finding. We are essentially changing the natural environment.

RAY SUAREZ: And, Professor, making some places eventually impossible to live in or less possible to live in?

MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER: Well, it's clear that, along the coasts in many places, human beings are simply going to have to withdraw. It's not possible to build seawalls everywhere; it's not possible to keep pouring sand on every beach; it's not possible to build coastal defenses. It just gets too expensive.

There are places now that are above water that are simply not going to exist in the future. They're going to be below water.

The next IPCC report

Joel Smith
Lead Author, Climate Study
We could be triggering [large changes] with a few more degrees of warming, and that could lead to very long-term, serious consequences.

RAY SUAREZ: So, Joel Smith, do you think the next report, which deals with solutions, will get that much more attention?

JOEL SMITH: We'll have to see. I think one thing I want to add, too, is I think another finding, besides those observations, I think many of us are now more pessimistic about the future impacts that are going to come over coming decades than we were in the assessment just five, six years ago, the one that I participated in.

We're now seeing much more evidence of climate change, as Michael mentioned. We're seeing more extreme events. The European heat wave, which killed some tens of thousands of people in Europe, was actually linked to climate change. We're seeing more intense rainfall, more intense hurricanes, the species effects we're seeing.

We're also more pessimistic about what the future may bring, in terms of damages from extreme events.

And then one of Michael's areas of specialties is what we call sort of singular events, these large changes, such as melting of the ice sheets. We could be triggering those with a few more degrees of warming, and that could lead to very long-term, serious consequences.

RAY SUAREZ: Joel Smith joined us from Brussels, Michael Oppenheimer from New York. Gentlemen, thank you both.

MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER: Thanks for having us.