Climate changes now “irreversible,” U.N. report warns

By Alan Zarembo and Thomas H. Maugh II

The Seattle Times

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

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

The report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) summarizes thousands of pages of research produced over 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 global-warming work.

The report — the fourth this year — says 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 simply will have to learn to live with the changes.

Failure to act will leave nearly 1 billion people at risk from water and food shortages, droughts, coastal flooding and severe storms, concluded the delegates, who have been meeting 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 seven 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.

“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 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris. “The importance of adaptation has been growing in the IPCC reports.”

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

“It was seen 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 that adaptation is now as important as reducing carbon dioxide.

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

But it is also smarter development — building bridges higher, planting drought-resistant crops or replacing dirt roads with paved ones to prepared for increased rainfall. It also could 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.”

Even with increased attention to adaptation, it remains a poor cousin to mitigation.

International funds for mitigation total $19 billion, according to estimates. Adaptation funds for developing nations 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 percent tax levied on some carbon-reduction transactions made by European countries under Kyoto.

It expects to generate up to $1.5 billion by 2012. But 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.

The new report was scheduled to be formally released today. Experts who participated in drafting the document said its conclusions are not as strong as scientists would have preferred, but that it went beyond what the U.S. delegation and others would have preferred.

The final document does not commit participating governments to mitigation efforts, but its adoption by consensus indicates those governments will not disavow its conclusions.

A small minority have rejected the IPCC reports, arguing that the world has gone through previous natural shifts in temperature and that society and industry should not be put to the difficult task of curbing emissions. President Bush, until recently, questioned the validity of global warming.

James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said Friday night that the IPCC report “lays out a wide variety of mandatory and nonmandatory controls that deal with carbon emissions. These tools have effectiveness that varies from country to country. We have been careful not to prefer one tool over another, but to ensure that we are using the right tool.”

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