Poor nations will bear brunt as planet heats up


A woman harvests corn in Blantyre, Malawi, on Thursday.

NYT
Published: Sunday, April 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, April 1, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

The world's richest countries, which have contributed by far the most to the atmospheric changes linked to global warming, are already spending billions of dollars to limit their own risks from its worst consequences, like drought and rising seas.

But they are spending just tens of millions of dollars on ways to limit climate and coastal hazards in the world's most vulnerable regions - most of them close to the equator and overwhelmingly poor.

Next Friday, a new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a U.N. body, will underline this growing climate divide, according to scientists involved in writing it - with wealthy nations far from the equator not only experiencing fewer effects but better able to withstand them.

Two-thirds of the atmospheric buildup of carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping greenhouse gas, has come from the United States and Western European countries. These and other wealthy nations are investing in windmill-powered plants that turn seawater to drinking water, in flood barriers and floatable homes, in grains and soybeans genetically altered to flourish even in a drought.

In contrast, Africa accounts for less than 3 percent of the global emissions of carbon dioxide from fuel burning since 1900, yet its 840 million people face some of the biggest risks from drought and disrupted water supplies, according to new scientific assessments. As the oceans swell with water from melting ice sheets, the crowded river deltas in southern Asia and Egypt, along with small island nations, are most at risk.

There are some hints that wealthier countries are beginning to shift their focus toward fostering adaptation to warming outside their own borders. Relief organizations including Oxfam and the International Red Cross are working on projects like expanding mangrove forests as a buffer against storm surges, planting trees on slopes to prevent landslides, or building shelters on high ground.

Industrialized countries bound by the Kyoto Protocol, the climate pact rejected by the Bush administration, project that hundreds of millions of dollars will soon flow via that treaty into a climate adaptation fund. But for now, the actual spending in adaptation projects in the world's most vulnerable spots totals around $40 million a year.

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