Published on Saturday, April 7, 2007 by Los Angeles Times
Dire Warming Report too Soft, Scientists Say
By Alan Zarembo / Thomas H. Maugh II
A new global warming report issued Friday by the United Nations
paints a near-apocalyptic vision of Earthīs future: hundreds of
millions of people short of water, extreme food shortages in Africa,
a landscape ravaged by floods and millions of species sentenced to
extinction.Despite its harsh vision, the report was quickly
criticized by some scientists who said its findings were watered down
at the last minute by governments seeking to deflect calls for
"The science got hijacked by the political bureaucrats at the late
stage of the game," said John Walsh, a climate expert at the
University of Alaska Fairbanks who helped write a chapter on the
Even in its softened form, the report outlined devastating effects
that will strike all regions of the world and all levels of society.
Those without resources to adapt to the changes will suffer the most,
according to the study from the U.N.īs Intergovernmental Panel on
"Itīs 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," said Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the IPCC, which released
the report in Brussels.
The report is the second of four scheduled to be issued this year by
the U.N., which marshaled more than 2,500 scientists to give their
best predictions of the consequences of a few degrees increase in
temperature. The first report, released in February, said global
warming was irreversible but could be moderated by large-scale
That report said with 90% confidence that the warming was caused by
humans, and its conclusions were widely accepted because of the years
of accumulated scientific data supporting them.
In contrast, the latest report was more controversial because it
tackled the more uncertain issues of the precise effects of warming
and the ability of humans to adapt to them.
"When you put people into the equation, people who can adapt and
respond and change their behavior, it adds another layer of
complication," said Gary Yohe, an economist at Wesleyan University
who helped write the report.
But the report is also, in a sense, a more pointed indictment of the
worldīs biggest polluters - the industrialized nations - and a more
specific identification of those who will suffer.
Thus, some nations lobbied for last-minute changes to the dire
predictions. Negotiations led to deleting some timelines for events,
as well as some forecasts on how many people would be affected on
each continent as global temperatures rose.
An earlier draft, for example, specified that water would become
increasingly scarce for up to a billion people in Asia if
temperatures rose 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit - a point that previous
studies have said is likely to be reached by 2100.
A table outlining how various levels of carbon dioxide emissions
corresponded to increasing temperatures and their effects was also
The actions were seen by critics as an attempt to ease the pressure
on industrialized nations to reduce their emissions of carbon dioxide
and other greenhouse gases that are gradually warming the planet.
Several scientists vowed afterward that they would never participate
in the process again because of the interference.
"Once is enough," said Walsh, who was not present during the
negotiations in Brussels but was kept abreast of developments with a
steady stream of e-mails from colleagues. "I was receiving hourly
reports that grew increasingly frustrated."
The report paints a bleak picture, noting that the early signs of
warming are already here.
Spring is arriving earlier, with plants blooming weeks ahead of
schedule. In the mountains, runoff begins earlier in the year,
shrinking glaciers in the Alps, the Himalayas and the Andes.
Habitats for plants and animals, on land and in the oceans, are
shifting toward the poles.
Nineteen of the 20 hottest years on record have occurred since 1980,
according to previous studies. The report said that more frequent and
more intense heat waves were "very likely" in the future.
In some places, warming might seem like a good thing at first.
For example, worldwide food production is expected to increase with
the first few degrees of temperature rise. For a time, an expanded
fertile zone in the higher latitudes could offset losses in the
But at a certain point, crops everywhere will suffer as drought
spreads. By mid-century, rising temperatures and drying soil will
turn tropical forest to savanna in eastern Amazonia, the report
In North America, snowpack in the West will decline, causing more
floods in the winter and reduced flows in the summer, increasing
competition for water for crops and people.
California agriculture will be decimated by the loss of water for
irrigation, experts have previously said.
Water will come more often around the world in its least welcome
forms: storms and floods.
Rising temperatures will reconfigure coastlines around the world as
the oceans rise. The tiny islands of the South Pacific and the Asian
deltas will be overwhelmed by storm surges.
In the Andes and the Himalayas, melting glaciers will unleash floods
and rock avalanches. But within a few decades, as the glaciers and
snowpack decline, streams will dwindle, cutting the main water supply
to more than a sixth of the worldīs population.
Between 20% and 30% of the worldīs species will disappear if
temperatures rise 2.7 to 4.5 degrees, the report said.
Africa will suffer the most, with up to a quarter of a billion people
running short of water by 2020, and yields from rain-fed crops
falling by half in many countries. The continent could spend at least
5% to 10% of its gross domestic product to adapt to rising sea
levels, the report said.
"Donīt be poor in a hot country, donīt live in hurricane alley, watch
out about being on the coasts or in the Arctic, and itīs a bad idea
to be on a high mountain," said Stephen Schneider of Stanford
University, one of the scientists who contributed to the report.
The Bush administration quickly made it clear that it would not be
stampeded by the report into taking part in the U.N.īs Kyoto
Protocol, which seeks to limit emissions of carbon dioxide. The U.S.
withdrew from the protocol in 2001, saying it was too expensive and
did not impose enough controls on developing nations.
"Each nation sort of defines their regulatory objectives in different
ways to achieve the greenhouse reduction outcome that they seek,"
said Jim Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on
Environmental Quality, during a teleconference Friday from Brussels.
Sharon Hays, associate director of the White House Office of Science
and Technology, noted in the same teleconference that "not all
projected impacts are negative."
Other governments, such as China, Russia and Saudi Arabia, had
already expressed their displeasure with parts of the report by
demanding changes - some of them seemingly minor in the grand scheme
of climate change.
Panel member Yohe said that China and Saudi Arabia, for example,
objected to a sentence that stated "very high confidence" that many
natural systems were already being affected by regional climate
changes, arguing that "very" should be removed.
After a long deadlock, U.S. delegates brokered a compromise that
removed the reference to confidence levels.
The U.S. delegation opposed a section that said parts of North
America could suffer "severe" economic damage from climate change.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said in a prepared statement that
political agendas need to be left behind and quick action taken to
"Global warming is already underway, but it is not too late to slow
it down and reduce its harmful effects," she said. "We must base our
actions on the moral imperative and the scientific record, free of
Susanne Moser, a research scientist at the National Center for
Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., said the political changes to
the report do not diminish the need for action.
"When you have it this black and white, it is very hard to deny the
reality and continue to do nothing," she said. "I donīt know how you
do that if you have a moral bone in your body."