U.N. says it’s time to adapt to warming

Times Staff Writers

The United Nations’ Nobel Prize-winning panel on climate change approved the final installment of its landmark report on global warming on Friday, concluding that even the best efforts at reducing CO2 levels will not be enough and that the world must also focus on adapting to “abrupt and irreversible” climate changes.

New and stronger evidence developed in the last year also suggests that many of the risks cited in the panel’s first three reports earlier this year will actually be larger than projected and will occur at lower temperatures, according to a draft of the so-called synthesis report.

The report from the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change summarizes thousands of pages of research produced over the last six years by delegates from 140 countries and is expected to serve as a “how-to” guide for governments meeting in Bali, Indonesia, beginning Dec. 3 to hammer out a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, which is set to expire in five years.

The panel and former Vice President Al Gore were awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for their work on global warming.


The report says that governments will have to spend billions of dollars every year to mitigate the effects of increased temperatures, but even that will not be adequate and many countries will simply have to learn to live with the changes.

Failure to act will leave nearly a billion people at risk from water and food shortages, droughts, coastal flooding and severe storms, concluded the delegates, who have been meeting for the last week in Valencia, Spain.

The report emphasizes that global warming is “unequivocal” and that there is high confidence that humans are responsible. Global temperatures have risen about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century.

The panel estimates that temperatures could increase by an additional 3.2 degrees to 7.8 degrees by 2100. Sea level could rise 7 to 23 inches over that period.

As the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere continues to rise, more attention is being placed on how the world will cope with a warmer climate.

“People are recognizing a lot of near-term impacts of climate change are already locked in,” said Shardul Agrawala, an IPCC author and principal economist for climate at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris.

“The importance of adaptation has been growing in the IPCC reports.”

Advocating adaptation was once viewed as defeatism, especially among environmentalists.


“It was seen as a potential smoke screen behind which high-emission countries could hide so they wouldn’t have to make binding agreements to reduce,” said Nathan Hultman, a professor of science, technology and international affairs at Georgetown University.

But the panel stressed in its report that adaptation is now as important as reducing emissions of carbon dioxide.

In its most basic sense, adaptation is the construction of walls to protect coasts from rising sea levels or draining glacier-fed lakes in the Himalayas to prevent flooding of the villages below.

But it is also smarter development -- building higher bridges, planting drought-resistant crops or replacing dirt roads with paved ones to prepare for increased rainfall. It could also be the relocation of entire communities.


For some places, adaptation is the only option.

“These low-lying countries -- the Maldives, Palau, the small island states -- they can change their emissions all they want,” Hultman said. “It’s going to have zero effect on the climate. But they are on the front line of the receiving end.”

The World Bank now factors global warming forecasts into all its development projects, said Ian Noble, an ecologist who heads its adaptation program.

Despite the increased attention to adaptation, it remains a poor cousin to mitigation.


International funds for mitigation total $19 billion, according to some estimates. Adaptation funds for developing countries so far amount to a few hundred million dollars -- primarily in aid from rich countries.

In 2001, the United Nations set up an adaptation fund that relies on a 2% tax levied on some carbon reduction transactions made by European countries under the Kyoto Protocol.

It expects to generate up to $1.5 billion by 2012. But so far, the fund has no administrative body, and no money has been given out.

The developed world will have far less trouble adapting, because it has the money and the technology. But even rich countries will face problems such as drought that will be difficult to adjust to.


The new report was scheduled to be formally released at 2 a.m. PST. Experts who participated in drafting the document said that its conclusions were not as strong as scientists would have preferred, but that it went beyond what the United States delegation and others wanted to see in the summary.

The delegates have been haggling over the document all week, making small -- and some large -- changes in the wording to produce a summary that everyone can live with.

The final document does not commit the participating governments to any mitigation efforts, but its adoption by consensus indicates that those governments accept the underlying science and will not disavow its conclusions.

The panel’s first report, issued in February, placed the blame for global warming on humans and said that even if carbon dioxide emissions could be held steady, temperatures were likely to continue rising for centuries.


The second report, in April, documented the projected climate changes that would result from such temperature increases. The first to be affected will be the poor, who are not in a position to adapt to the changed conditions.

The May report cited ways to respond to the impending changes and projected that an effective response could be mounted at a cost of 0.12% of the global gross domestic product annually until 2050. Whatever the costs, the new report says, they will be substantially less than the costs of doing nothing.

The panel’s reports have brought widespread acceptance to global warming as an urgent issue.

“It is in the same realm as cancer research, war and revolution, educating young people, infrastructure and national security,” said John Weyant, an energy expert at Stanford University. “It’s now pretty clear that this issue is up in that kind of league.”