UN Climate Change Impact Report: Poor Will Suffer Most

BRUSSELS, Belgium, April 6, 2007 (ENS) - The impacts of future climate change will be mixed across regions of the world, with more than a billion people at risk of increased water stress and hundreds of millions at risk of sea-level rise, but there will be higher crop yields in some areas, finds a new global scientific assessment released today.

Yet the report finds it "very likely" that all regions will experience either declines in net benefits or increases in net costs for temperature rises greater than about 2 to 3 degrees C (3.6 to 5.4 degrees F.)

More than 2,500 scientific expert reviewers from around the world spent six years working on the assessment issued today by Working Group II of the Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC. The report, "Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability," was adopted this week in a line-by-line review by the governments of 131 countries.

"It is 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," IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri told journalists at the release of the report's summary for policymakers in Brussels. "This does become a global responsibility in my view," he said.


Dr. Rajendra Pachauri of India chairs the Intergovermental Panel on Climate Change. (Photo courtesy USCCSP)
The assessment details current scientific understanding of the impacts of climate change on natural, managed and human systems, the capacity of these systems to adapt and their vulnerability.

The resilience of many ecosystems is likely to be exceeded this century by an unprecedented combination of climate change; associated disturbances such as flooding, drought, wildfire, insects, and ocean acidification; and other global change drivers such as land use change, pollution, and over-exploitation of resources, the report finds.

About 20 to 30 percent of plant and animal species assessed so far are likely to be at increased risk of extinction if increases in global average temperature exceed 1.5 to 2.5 degrees C (2.7 to 4.5 degrees F), the report finds.

The mountainous areas of Europe will face much greater species losses, "in some areas up to 60 percent under high emission scenarios by 2080."

The report builds on past IPCC assessments including, the Working Group I report released in February that confirmed with 100 percent confidence that global warming is occurring and with 90 percent confidence that it is due to human activities.

The IPCC was established in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization and the UN Environment Programme and is open to all their member countries.

The IPCC does not conduct research on its own but reviews and assesses the most recent scientific, technical and socio-economic information on climate change. The statements presented in this assessment are based on data sets that cover the period since 1970.

"For the first time, we are no longer arm-waving with models - this is empirical data, we can actually measure it," Martin Parry, co-chairman of IPCC Working Group II, told reporters in Brussels today.


Martin Parry of the UK is co-chair of the IPCC Working Group that produced the report issued today. He is director of the Jackson Environment Institute and professor of environmental science at the University of East Anglia. (Photo courtesy ENB)
Improved climate models and expanded observations, data and information have enabled the IPCC to increase the level of confidence in the attribution of warming to human-induced increases in greenhouse gas concentrations, the report says, but it is also frank about limitations and gaps in information.

"Limitations and gaps prevent more complete attribution of the causes of observed system responses to anthropogenic warming," the report acknowledges, listing three factors.

First, the available analyses are limited in the number of systems and locations considered. Second, natural temperature variability is larger at the regional than the global scale, which affects identification of changes due to external forcing. Third, at the regional scale other factors, such as land-use change, pollution, and invasive species, are influential.

That said, the assessment indicates that catastrophic effects of the warming climate are already in train.

By 2020, between 75 and 250 million people in Africa are projected to be exposed to an increase of water stress due to climate change, the report predicts.

By mid-century, annual average river runoff and water availability are projected to increase by 10-40 percent at high latitudes and in some wet tropical areas, and decrease by 10-30 percent over some dry regions at mid-latitudes and in the dry tropics, some of which are presently water stressed areas.

Drought-affected areas will likely increase in extent. Heavy precipitation events, which are very likely to increase in frequency, will augment flood risk.

Over the course of the century, water supplies stored in glaciers and snow cover are projected to decline, reducing water availability in regions supplied by meltwater from major mountain ranges, where more than one-sixth of the world population currently lives.


An early end to the short rain in 2005 left many farmers in the southern Ethiopia without hope of a harvest and led to an increase in malnutrition among children. (Photo WFP/Melese Awoke)
If temperatures rise more than 2.5 degrees C, the report forsees major changes in ecosystem structure and function, species' ecological interactions, and species' geographic ranges, with "predominantly negative consequences" for biodiversity, and water and food supply.

Crop productivity is projected to increase slightly at mid to high latitudes for local mean temperature increases of up to 1 to 3 degrees C depending on the crop, and then decrease beyond that in some regions.

At lower latitudes, especially seasonally dry and tropical regions, crop productivity is projected to decrease for even small local temperature increases, which would increase risk of hunger.

Globally, the potential for food production is projected to increase with increases in local average temperature over a range of 1 to 3 degrees C, but above this it is projected to decrease.

Globally, commercial timber productivity rises modestly with climate change in the short- to medium-term, with large regional variability despite the global trend.

Coasts are projected to be exposed to increasing risks, including coastal erosion, due to climate change and sea-level rise and the effect will be worsened by increasing human pressures on coastal areas.

By the 2080s, many millions more people are projected to be flooded every year due to sea-level rise, the report predicts. The numbers affected will be largest in the mega-deltas of Asia and Africa while small islands are especially vulnerable.


Holding a vessel for potable water, women swim through contaminated flood water in the low-lying Asian country of Bangladesh. (Photo courtesy Greenpeace UK)
The most vulnerable industries, settlements and societies are those in coastal and river flood plains, those whose economies are linked with climate-sensitive resources, and those in areas prone to extreme weather events, especially where rapid urbanization is occurring.

Glacier melt in the Himalayas is projected to increase flooding and avalanches and affect water resources within the next two to three decades. This will be followed by decreased river flows as the glaciers recede.

Freshwater availability in Central, South, East and Southeast Asia, particularly in large river basins, is projected to decrease due to climate change which, along with population growth and increasing demand arising from higher standards of living, could adversely affect more than a billion people by the 2050s.

Projected climate change-related exposures are likely to affect the health status of millions of people through increases in malnutrition, heat waves, floods, storms, fires and droughts; the increased frequency of cardio-respiratory diseases due to higher concentrations of ground level ozone related to climate change; and, the migration of some infectious diseases.

"Climate change is having impacts on natural systems - plants, animals, ecosystems and human systems," Sharon Hays, leader of the U.S. IPCC delegation, said in a news conference call from Brussels. "Climate change is clearly a global challenge and we all recognize that it requires global solutions. Not all regions of the world have the same capacity to adapt."

In Congress, House Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon, a Tennessee Democrat, called the assessment, "a powerful and sobering message."

"For the first time, the world's top scientists are able to confidently attribute changes in a wide variety of ecosystems in all parts of the world to human-induced global warming," Gordon said. "We can neutralize some of these by better adapting our society to these changes. We should identify our vulnerable communities and begin working to reduce these vulnerabilities."

UK Environment and Climate Change Minister Ian Pearson said, "This report provides further evidence of why all countries need to work urgently to agree a global deal to combat climate change. People are already being affected, and if we don't act now millions more will suffer."

"Reducing emissions is not enough," Pearson said, "In the UK, for example, buildings and transport will have to be better able to cope with the higher temperatures and more extreme weather that climate change will bring."

"The report clearly shows that climate change will affect everyone on an individual level," said Pearson. "It's not just a problem for governments or big companies." He said the Blair government "will be increasing our engagement with people throughout the UK including an online CO2 calculator, a major press and TV ad campaign, and a Citizens Summit that will engage directly with the public on this important issue."

Internationally, said Pearson, the UK has convened a debate this month in the UN Security Council "to try to help build a shared understanding of the implications climate change has for stability and security."

EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said the report confirms the correctness of the EU's environmental policy. In March, the 27 member states pledged the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions by 20 percent before 2020.

The report produced a storm of warnings from environmental groups - all calling for immediate action while there still is time to avert some of the most disastrous consequences of global warming.

"There's no escaping the facts: global warming will bring hunger, floods and water shortages," said Hans Verolme of the global conservation organization WWF. "Poor countries that bear least responsibility will suffer most - and they have no money to respond - but people should also be aware that even the richer countries risk enormous damage."

"Doing nothing is not an option," Verolme said. "On the contrary it will have disastrous consequences."

"The irritating thing is that we have all the tools at hand to limit climate change and save the world from the worst impacts," says Dr. Lara Hansen, chief scientist of WWF's Global Climate Change Programme. "The IPCC makes it clear that there is a window of opportunity but that it's closing fast. The world needs to use its collective brains to think ahead for the next 10 years and work together to prevent this crisis."

Friends of the Earth International's Climate Campaigner, Catherine Pearce, said, "It is now clear that we are to blame for the last 50 years of warming, and this is already causing adverse changes to our planet. Unless we take action to reduce emissions now, far worse is yet to come, condemning millions in the poorest parts of the world to loss of lives, livelihoods and homes.

"Climate change is no longer just an environmental issue," said Pearce. "It is a looming humanitarian catastrophe, threatening ultimately our global security and survival."