U.N. Global Warming Report Sternly Warns Against Inaction

By Doug Struck
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 17, 2007

Global warming is destroying species, raising sea levels and threatening millions of poor people, the United Nations' top scientific panel will say today in a report that U.N. officials hope will help mobilize the world into taking tougher actions on climate change.

The report argues that only firm action, including putting a price on carbon dioxide emissions, will avoid more catastrophic events. Those actions will take a small part of the world's economic growth but will be substantially less than the costs of doing nothing, the report will say.

The report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will be key ammunition as world leaders meet in Bali next month to try to draft a global plan to deal with Earth's rising temperatures after the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012. The United Nations and many countries favor strong mandatory reductions of the greenhouse gases that drive global warming; the Bush administration wants voluntary measures and wants developing countries to share the burden of cuts.

The most stringent efforts to stabilize greenhouse gases would cost the world's economies 0.12 percent of their average annual growth to 2050, the report estimates.

"There is high agreement and much evidence that mitigation actions can result in near-term co-benefits, for example improved health due to reduced air pollution, that may offset a substantial fraction of mitigation costs," the report says, summarizing research over five years by more than 2,000 of the top climate change scientists.

The near-final draft, approved yesterday by representatives of more than 140 governments meeting in Valencia, Spain, says that global warming is "unequivocal" and that humans' actions are heading toward "abrupt or irreversible climate changes and impacts."

The panel warns that the first to suffer from global warming will be the poor, who will face faltering water supplies, damage to crops, new diseases and encroaching oceans.

"Those in the weakest economic or political position are frequently the most susceptible to climate change," the panel wrote. "In all regions," it added, those most at risk are "the poor, young children, the elderly and the ill."

The report by the prestigious panel, which last month shared the Nobel Peace Prize with former vice president Al Gore, largely summarizes findings released by the IPCC in reports earlier this year. Some scientists have criticized the findings as being overly cautious in the face of an avalanche of evidence of accelerating environmental changes, while a small minority argue it is needlessly alarmist.

"This will be viewed by all as a definitive report. It is the blueprint for the Bali talks," said Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who will be at the Indonesian U.N. meeting beginning Dec. 3 as part of a U.S. senatorial delegation. "While the administration remains reluctant to embrace mandatory [emission quotas], there is a growing consensus in America" favoring those controls, he said in an interview this week.

James L. Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said in an interview last night that the IPCC report "lays out a wide variety of mandatory and non-mandatory controls that deal with carbon emissions. These tools have varying 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."

The U.N. panel embraced the arguments of British economist Nicholas Stern, who concluded last year that the cost of taking tough measures to curb pollution will be repaid in the long run.

"They are putting very heavily on the table the issue of assistance to developing countries," said Philip E. Clapp, president of the National Environmental Trust, which has closely followed the proceedings. "They see as inevitable huge human consequences that will cause enormous death, suffering and economic loss unless the world begins to act now to invest in protecting the most vulnerable."

Even if governments took severe measures today to curb greenhouse gases, the effects of what mankind has done will remain, the IPCC report says. Glaciers and ice caps are melting at a rapid rate; animals and plants are shifting their range to accommodate warmer air and water; and planting seasons are changing, it notes.

Among the other conclusions: Average temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere in the last half of the 20th century were probably the highest in 1,300 years. Arctic ice and mountain glaciers have shrunk. The seas are swelling in the heat, and droughts and heat waves have probably increased. The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere contributing to global warming is the highest in at least 650,000 years.

IPCC Chairman Rajendra K. Pachauri has urged the delegates to the Bali conference to study the IPCC report before they begin work. He said the panel has been able to "mobilize the best scientific talent that is available throughout the world on various aspects of climate change."

The IPCC, formed by the United Nations in 1988 to determine the state of the climate change, has issued four main sets of reports. The first and second reports, in 1990 and 1995, laid the groundwork for the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. The third report, in 2001, and the fourth report released in sections this year, were increasingly strident in warning that man is rushing toward a dramatic alteration of the world's environment by heating up the atmosphere.

Despite the sweep of science and scientists utilized by the IPCC, its reports have been rejected by some who argue that the world has gone through natural shifts in temperature before, and who say society and industry should not be put to the difficult task of curbing emissions. President Bush, until recently, questioned the validity of global warming.

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