[A-List] The Climate Divide
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Mon Apr 2 22:59:39 MDT 2007
April 3, 2007
The Climate Divide
Reports From Four Fronts in the War on Warming
By ANDREW C. REVKIN
Over the last few decades, as scientists have intensified their study
of the human effects on climate and of the effects of climate change
on humans, a common theme has emerged: in both respects, the world is
a very unequal place.
In almost every instance, the people most at risk from climate change
live in countries that have contributed the least to the atmospheric
buildup of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases linked to the
recent warming of the planet.
Those most vulnerable countries also tend to be the poorest. And the
countries that face the least harm — and that are best equipped to
deal with the harm they do face — tend to be the richest.
To advocates of unified action to curb greenhouse gases, this growing
realization is not welcome news.
"The original idea was that we were all in this together, and that was
an easier idea to sell," said Robert O. Mendelsohn, an economist at
Yale. "But the research is not supporting that. We're not in it
The large, industrialized countries are more resilient partly because
of geography; they are mostly in midlatitude regions with Goldilocks
climates — neither too hot nor too cold.
Many enjoy gifts like the thick, rich soil and generous growing season
of the American corn belt or the forgiving weather of France and New
But a bigger factor is their wealth — wealth built at least partly on
a century or more of burning coal, oil and the other fossil fuels that
underlie their mobile, industrial, climate-controlled way of life.
The United States, where agriculture represents just 4 percent of the
economy, can endure a climatic setback far more easily than a country
like Malawi, where 90 percent of the population lives in rural areas
and about 40 percent of the economy is driven by rain-fed agriculture.
As big developing countries like China and India climb out of poverty,
they emit their own volumes of greenhouse gases; China is about to
surpass the United States in annual emissions of carbon dioxide.
But they remain a small fraction of the total human contribution to
the atmosphere's natural heat-holding greenhouse effect, which is
cumulative because of the long-lived nature of carbon dioxide and some
other heat-trapping gases. China may be a powerhouse now, but it has
contributed less than 8 percent of the total emissions of carbon
dioxide from energy use since 1850, while the United States is
responsible for 29 percent and Western Europe 27 percent.
Disparities like these have prompted a growing array of officials in
developing countries and experts on climate, environmental law and
diplomacy to insist that the first world owes the third world a
The obligation of the established greenhouse-gas emitters to help
those most imperiled by warming derives from the longstanding legal
concept that "the polluter pays," many experts say.
"We have an obligation to help countries prepare for the climate
changes that we are largely responsible for," said Peter H. Gleick,
the founder of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development,
Environment and Security in Berkeley, Calif. His institute has been
tracking trends like the burst of new desalination plants in wealthy
places running short of water.
"If you drive your car into your neighbor's living room, don't you owe
your neighbor something?" Dr. Gleick said. "On this planet, we're
driving the climate car into our neighbors' living room, and they
don't have insurance and we do."
Around the world, there are abundant examples of how wealth is already
enabling some countries to gird against climatic and coastal risks,
while poverty, geography and history place some of the world's most
crowded, vulnerable regions directly in harm's way.
Here are four views of the climate divide.
Prone to Drought, and All but Unable to Predict the Weather
BLANTYRE, Malawi, March 29 — Twice a day, 25-year-old Harold Nkhoma
checks a series of gauges at the government's weather station here in
Malawi's second-biggest city.
He skips the barometer because its light doesn't work and he can't
read the figures. He has waited six months for new batteries.
He ignores the evaporation pan designed to show how quickly water is
absorbed into the soil. Peeled-off paint and missing wire mesh have
left it useless. And he bypasses the glass sphere that measures the
duration of sunshine by burning marks on paper strips. It has been out
of paper for four years.
His supervisor, Werani Chilenga, is disgusted. Broken equipment,
outmoded technology, slipshod data and a sparse scattering of weather
stations are all that his national agency can manage on a $160,000
"We cannot even know the duration of sunshine in our country for four
years, so how can we measure climate change?" said Mr. Chilenga, a
meteorological engineer. "Oh, oh, it is pathetic!"
The lack of meteorological data is just one challenge as Malawi
struggles to cope with global warming. Add to that a lack of
irrigation; overdependence on a single crop, maize; shrinking fish
stocks; vanishing forests; and land degradation.
Last March, Malawi, which has a population of 14 million people and is
one of the world's poorest countries, identified $23 million worth of
urgent measures it should take in the next three years. It delivered
them to the United Nations program that helps poor nations deal with
A year later, the government is still negotiating with donors. "It is
sad that up until now we have not gotten the monies that have been
talked about," said Henry Chimunthu Banda, the minister of
environmental affairs. That is not to say Malawi is standing still.
The government is moving toward bigger grain reserves, changes in
agricultural practices and construction of a new dam. Nine out of 10
Malawians are subsistence farmers.
Austin Kampen, 39, is an early adapter. A nonprofit group last year
gave him hoses and a huge bucket — a rudimentary but effective crop
He plants a variety of maize more likely to survive shorter growing
seasons and backs it up with cotton, vegetables, potatoes and cassava.
He still lost his entire harvest in January when the river overflowed
after a week of nonstop rain, submerging his seven-acre field and
leaving 75 of his neighbors homeless. Still, he said, he will manage
to plant anew this season.
Another farmer, Jessie Kaunde, also aims for resilience. But her
bravest effort failed.
Armed with a $68 loan, she dug two fish ponds in 1999 behind her house
north of Blantyre. Since drought struck three years ago, they are
nothing but giant grassy pits.
"I am really disappointed," she said.
One reason is that other farmers have planted by the river that fed
her ponds, causing the riverbanks to cave in and disrupt the water
flow. Such planting is illegal but enforcement is weak, said Everhart
Nangoma, an environmental specialist formerly with CURE, a nonprofit
group focusing partly on climate change.
"Malawi is getting ready, but we are not there," Mr. Nangoma said. "We
are not ready at all." - SHARON LAFRANIERE
Prone to Drought, but Moving Ahead on Desalination
PERTH, Australia, March 27 — Looking out over a sparkling blue bay on
Australia's west coast, Gary Crisp, an alchemist for the new century,
saw an ocean of drinking water.
Behind him was an industrial park filled with tanks, pipes, screens,
filters and chemicals for converting seawater into drinking water — 17
percent of the water supply for this city of 1.5 million people.
As the world warms and clean water becomes a prized commodity, the
Perth Seawater Desalination Plant is using the renewable resources of
wind and ocean to produce it, along with a finite resource that is
less available in many other countries: money.
The $313 million plant, among the largest in world (behind giant
plants in Israel and the United Arab Emirates), opened in November and
is already running at capacity, producing up to 38 million gallons of
water a day, nearly enough to fill 100 Olympic-size swimming pools.
The seawater is sucked into the plant through a pipeline whose mouth
is 200 yards offshore. Once inside, it is filtered through fine
membranes in a complex process called reverse osmosis.
About half the water is purified and sent into the city water system
to mingle with water from other sources. The salt remains in the other
half, which is flushed back out to the ocean.
The plant is one of the newest in a rapid spread of desalination
plants in countries that can afford them. Though the plants are
expensive to build, water from them costs only $3.50 per 1,000
gallons. They are commonplace in the Middle East, where oil pays for
water, and Southern California is home to many smaller plants. What
sets the Perth plant apart is not only its size but its engine — wind
The plant is driven by power from 48 turbines in the Emu Downs Wind
Farm, about 100 miles to the north, that can produce 80 megawatts of
electricity a day, more than three times the needs of the plant. That
avoids the trade-off at most desalination plants, which are powered by
fossil fuels that produce greenhouse gases.
"We call it alchemy — converting wind to water," said Mr. Crisp, the
Perth plant's principal desalination engineer.
The treated water offers people here in the world's most arid
continent "security through diversity," in the local phrase,
complementing dams, aquifers and recycling. Water conservation could
be a powerful tool, but few politicians dare to suggest any measures
more aggressive than limiting the use of lawn sprinklers — a privation
Perth's plant is helping to avoid.
Half the water used domestically in Perth goes to gardens, Mr. Crisp
said; of the water used indoors, 30 percent goes into washing
machines. Affluent suburbs use twice as much water as the city proper,
Australia is suffering some of the worst droughts in its recorded
history. Stream flows into dams in Perth have shrunk by two-thirds in
the last 30 years, even as its population swells by more than 20,000
people a year.
Perth is talking about building one or two more plants in the coming
years, and similar plants are in the early stages of development in
Sydney and the town of Tugun in Queensland.
Having proved itself, the plant will have its official opening next
month. Standing by the sparkling blue bay, people will be invited to
drink from small plastic bottles bearing labels that read, "Limited
edition desalinated water from the Perth Seawater Desalination Plant."
- SETH MYDANS
At Risk From Floods, and Defensless When the Rivers Rise
DHANAUR, India, March 28 —Year after year, the Baghmati river swells
with the rains and, rushing down from the Himalayas, submerges this
back-of-beyond village into utter ruin.
Year after year, it sweeps away cattle and goats. It sends mud houses
collapsing back into the earth. It kills dozens of people in and
around Dhanaur, and that's during a mild monsoon, like last year, when
Pavan Devi's 19-year-old son, Vikas Kumar, went to a communal toilet
in the fields and was swept away by a fast-moving stream.
In 2004, the last major flood, the death toll stood at 351 in Bihar
state, which is home to this village and many others sitting on some
of the most vulnerable floodplains in India.
Their vulnerability is likely to grow. Since 1950, in concert with
global warming, monsoon rains over India have increasingly come as
heavy downpours rather than gentle showers, Indian scientists reported
last year. That pattern is raising the risk of sudden floods.
Cities are prone to peril as well: In 2005, 37 inches of rain in 24
hours crippled the country's commercial capital, Mumbai, killing 400
The picture here in this destitute, crowded corner shows how
ill-equipped India remains in dealing with that looming danger,
despite its newfound prosperity. Nationwide, about 20 million acres of
land are affected by floods each year, according to the government;
they affect 4.2 million Indians each year on average, according to
Here in Dhanaur, for nearly three months of monsoon, everyone lives at
the water's mercy. The well-off save their firewood and food grains
for the annual disaster. The poor beg and borrow to eat, and they camp
out on higher ground in tents made of cement bags.
They bathe and defecate in the floodwater. They drink from it, too.
Who can afford to boil it before drinking, a father of six named Hira
Majhi asked. With prices more than doubling during the rainy season,
there is never enough money for cooking fuel, and hand pumps are
routinely submerged. Last year, after his 4-year-old son contracted
black fever, a deadly disease endemic here, Mr. Majhi rowed for an
hour, in a homemade canoe made of water hyacinth leaves. No government
ambulances ply here.
The most vulnerable to these annual floods are those who sit lowest on
the pecking order. Mr. Majhi, for instance, belongs to a low caste
group so poor for so long that they are commonly known as musahars, or
the rat-eaters. He is landless. He works on other people's fields,
usually only during the sowing and harvesting seasons. Because the
land remains under water for so long, there is only one harvest each
year. Floods and droughts hit families like his the hardest of all.
The measures taken by the government to adapt to the annual floods are
rudimentary at best. Some parts of the road have been built with
conduits underneath to let water pass, but the road itself is pocked
with gaping craters, and locals say it is usually impassable for weeks
at a time during the rains. No embankments have been built;
construction upstream was suspended 30 years ago, though it is
scheduled to resume later this year. Enterprising villagers have built
Last year, for the first time, the government put an early warning
system into effect. Local officials went around with a bullhorn, on
cycle-pulled rickshaws, warning of imminent floods. But there were no
shelters to go to, except the local village school, where there was no
drinking water or latrines.
In mid-March, the Baghmati rose up during an unexpectedly early spring
flood. In less than a day, it wreaked havoc.
Sunil Kumar, one of the more well-to-do farmers here, lost three acres
of wheat, a third of his annual income. He walked across his own soggy
field and then across his neighbor's, examining patches of barley and
mustard and peas — all waterlogged and ruined.
"It is our misfortune living here," he said. "There is no system of
water control." - SOMINI SENGUPTA
At Risk From Floods, but Looking Ahead With Floating Houses
MAASBOMMEL, the Netherlands, March 29 — Anne van der Molen lives on
the edge of the River Maas, by definition an insecure spot in a
country constantly trying to keep water at bay. But she is ready for
the next flood.
Excited, even. "We haven't floated," she said of her house, "but we're
looking forward to floating."
Her two-bedroom, two-story house, which cost about $420,000, is not a
houseboat, and not a floating house of the sort common across the
world. It is amphibious: resting on land but built to rise with the
water level. It sits on a hollow concrete foundation and is attached
to six iron posts sunk into the lake bottom. Should the river swell,
as it often does in the rain, the house will float up as much as 18
feet, held in place by two horizontal mooring posts that connect it to
the neighboring house, and then float back down as the water subsides.
It is part of a new experiment in living. The 46 houses here are meant
to address two issues at the heart of the housing debate in this
low-lying, densely populated country, said Steven de Boer, a concept
developer at Dura Vermeer, the company that developed the project.
These are lack of space for new housing to meet a growing demand and
the need to anticipate relentlessly rising sea levels and a heightened
chance of flooding rains because of climate change.
Worries about water levels are not a hypothetical issue here in this
village in Gelderland province, southeast of Amsterdam. In 1995, the
Maas and other rivers overflowed their banks and breached the dikes,
forcing 250,000 people to evacuate their homes. Now the dikes are
higher, but with a possible sea-level rise of several feet within a
century or so, much more is needed.
"All the universities are united in one big program with the
government; we have a team of some 500 people working on
climate-proofing the Netherlands," said Pier Vellinga, a professor of
climate change at the University of Amsterdam. "Whatever happens —
Greenland melting or tropical storms surging on the Atlantic — we are
here to stay. That is becoming our national slogan."
That means developing new guidelines for building in flood-prone
areas, introducing insurance for those who live in exposed places,
building higher dikes and exploring ways for farmers to adapt to a new
For private firms, it means experimenting with new housing, as Dura
Vermeer is doing here in Maasbommel. The company has also built a
floating greenhouse near the Hague and, along with other firms, has
received government approval to try other kinds of housing in 15 areas
in the country at risk for flooding. Other proposals — for entire
floating cities, for instance — are still preliminary, but are being
talked about seriously as a possible way forward.
In Maasbommel, Mrs. van de Molen loves the feeling of almost being
part of the river.
"Dutch people have always had to fight against the water," she said.
"This is another way of thinking about it. This is a way to enjoy the
water, to work with it instead of against it." - SARAH LYALL
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