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African Vulnerability to Global Heating

Lawrence MacDonald reported for Global Development on a United Nations conference about climate change. The conference just opened in Nairobi.

According to the BBC, the focus of the conference is on helping poorer countries adapt. (This is the 12th set of U.N. climate talks since the Rio Earth Summit of 1992.)

A U.N. report released on the eve of the talks, "Vulnerability and Adaptation in Africa", forecasts dire impacts on the continent. has a useful short summary about how the worst to be hit by the effects of Global Heating are the least prepared to respond to the impact of climate change. According to the U.N. report, rivers will run dry, crop yields will fall, and rising seas could engulf cities.

Also getting attention at the Nairobi meeting is a 700-page report that the U.K. government released last week.The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change (named for Sir Nicholas Stern, a former World Bank chief economist) warned of major economic dislocations, and of a disproportionate impact on the poorest countries. In contrast to the U.N. report, the Stern Report is clear about the urgency of addressing the root of the problem -- global heating -- and it speaks to the costs of inaction.

"The contrast between the two reports is revealing," writes MacDonald.

The U.N. report focuses on adaptation partly because of the difficulty in getting countries to agree on mandatory reductions on greenhouse gas emissions. The U.S. refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change has made it a toothless tiger.

The U.N. report has thus been left to propose ways to "climate-proof" African countries, such as:

* sea and river defenses
* boosting water supply infrastructure for drought-prone regions
* planting of natural defenses such as trees and mangroves
* development of new crop strains resistant to higher temperatures or drought
* public education on issues such as saving water

Climate proof the poorest societies on earth? Get real! The richest nation on earth was unable to defend New Orleans against rising sea levels and we are supposed to believe it will be possible to construct a reliable system of levies to protect Africa's coastal cities?

Four out of ten people in Africa lack access to running water and we are told that public education about not wasting water is going to help them cope with global warming?

To be sure, adaptation must be part of the solution. But to focus primarily on adaptation because cutting the rate of global warming is seen as politically unfeasible is like stocking bomb shelters with food and water, instead of pushing for arms control and nuclear non-proliferation, because the nuclear powers are opposed to disarmament.

The Stern Report strikes a better balance, including attention to adaptation but focusing squarely on the need to address the problem at its source. The report's key findings provide a solid basis for action:

* There is still time to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, if we take strong action now.
* The costs of stabilising the climate are significant but manageable; delay would be dangerous and much more costly.
* Action on climate change is required across all countries, and it need not cap the aspirations for growth of rich or poor countries.
* A range of options exists to cut emissions; strong, deliberate policy action is required to motivate their take-up.
* Climate change demands an international response, based on a shared understanding of long-term goals and agreement on frameworks for action.

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