Climate change affects the poor most, scientist says | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 16.09.2009
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Environment

Climate change affects the poor most, scientist says

With an eye to the climate change conference in Copenhagen, Deutsche Welle looks at global warming's winners and losers. The poor will be harshly affected, a leading scientist told DW, but everyone will feel the impact.

Picture of Earth from space

We all share the same planet, scientists stress

The United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a study two years ago warning that human activity is likely contributing to global warming.

Warmer temperatures of anywhere between 1.1 degrees Celsius and 6.4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century, if the current trend continues sea levels would rise and essentially "drown" low-laying countries, Bangladesh and the Maldives would essentially disappear, the report said.

In addition to rising sea levels, others finding in the report include severe droughts and stronger and more frequent tropical storms.

This December, global leaders meeting at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen are slated to agree on a new climate pact to reduce greenhouse gas emissions blamed for global warming.

In the run-up to the conference, Deutsche Welle examines how the IPCC's assessment has been dealt with over the past two years by talking to Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, vice-chair of the IPCC, about the winners and losers of climate change.

Deutsche Welle: The IPCC released an assessment in 2007 warning that human activity is a likely cause of global warming. What's the situation now?

Cracked earth

Severe droughts would cut off food supplies

Jean-Pascal van Ypersele: Firstly, we have to make clear that it is not likely that climate change is due to human activities, but very likely, according to the last IPCC report. There's a big difference. "Likely" means a two-thirds probability, and "very likely" means a 90 percent probability - that's very close to certainty, that indeed the warming of the past 50 years is really due to human activity, so the controversies about that are really not relevant anymore.

But while the impact of climate change varies for different regions, all of us will be affected by it. No region will be immune to it.

Who will be the real losers of climate change?

It is very clear from the last IPCC report, and confirmed again by recent scientific literature, that the main losers, or first losers, of climate change will be poor people both in developing countries and in developed or industrialized countries. It will be the poor that will be hit the hardest everywhere, and since there are more poor people in developing countries, they'll be hit first.

What are some examples of the impact of climate change on poor people in developing countries?

One important example is the melting of glaciers in the Andes. In the tropical Andes there's a rainy season that only lasts a few months and then it's very dry for a big proportion of the year. That means the glaciers are the water reservoirs - the snow and rain accumulate there in the mountains. When the glaciers melt, those water reservoirs, which have provided water to people for years and years, will simply not be there anymore. It's a catastrophe for hundreds of millions of people who depend on those reservoirs for drinking water and irrigating their agriculture.

How will countries - like Bangladesh or the Maldives - be affected by rising sea levels?

Waves washing up on a beach

Rising sea levels will eat away at shorelines - and entire nations

The water is rising there because water expands when it is heated, and because of the glaciers melting. So for low-lying countries, or regions, like 17 percent of Bangladesh being at less than one meter above the present sea level…or Egypt being another example - there's an area of the Nile Delta which is at less than one meter above the sea level. Approximately 10 million people live and work there, cultivating crops. If the sea level increases by one meter, which is certainly possible by the beginning of the next century, those people would have to flee the elevating water.

How will other countries in Asia be affected by climate change?

There are examples in agriculture: agricultural species which are already very close to their limits in favorable temperatures for their cultivation. If temperature increases by just one degree in tropical regions in Asia, many species would see their yields decrease. So that presents big problems for food security in those countries.

Desertification is another issue. The increased frequency or intensity of droughts deforms land that was once cultivated or supported ecosystems, turning them into deserts or semi-arid areas.

Can one simplify the issue by saying the African continent will be most impacted by climate change through desertification, and Asia, say, by increased rainfall?

A child next to a stream of water, camels are on the other side of the stream

Africa will experience severe water problems as a result of climate change

That's too simplified. It really varies from one region to the next, and even one sub-region. For example, the availability of fresh water in central and southeast Asia is going to decrease. In other areas of Asia, it's the elevation of the sea level that will be a problem.

In Africa, it's mostly the impacts on rain-fed agriculture, which could see its yields decrease by up to 50 percent. In other coastal regions, it's mostly the rising sea level that will be a problem.

Africa, however, will certainly be one of the regions most affected by climate change because of its stage of development, but there will be negative effects everywhere.

What about the losers of climate change in industrialized countries?

In the summer of 2003, approximately 50,000 Europeans died because of the heat wave. That kind of heat wave cannot be univocally related to climate change, but what is very clear is that the frequency of such heat waves is going to increase significantly by the middle of this century - like the one in 2003, which could become like an average summer.

Jean-Pascal van Ypersele

IPCC Vice-Chair Jean-Pascal van Ypersele

We're already seeing negative effects in North America as well. Heat waves will be an increasing problem, as will the intensity of tropical storms. Look at Katrina in 2005. Again, there's no univocal link between Katrina and climate change, or that climate change caused the hurricane. But you can say that events like Katrina will occur more frequently or with more intensity in the vicinity of North America and the Caribbean.

Who will be the winners of climate change?

There will winners in an initial phase, in the coming decades, mostly in temperate countries in North America and northern Europe, for instance. Warmer temperatures will allow crop cultivation to occur for a longer period - the growing season will increase in length. But that's only a temporary effect. At some point, it will become too hot there as well. Then, you don't have winners anymore, you have losers everywhere.

Interview: Louisa Schaefer

Editor: Sean Sinico

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