A searing future


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<!--intro-->The Silk Road to Samarkand is hot and dusty--and the devastating droughts and searing heat of this part of central Asia are almost certain to get worse. In a blistering new analysis of global warming's winners and losers, climate scientists warn that temperatures in the region, which now regularly exceed 40 °C, are due for some of the biggest increases in the coming century.<!--/intro-->

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The study, from the newly founded Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, predicts that some countries will warm up more than twice as much as others during the coming century. As negotiators from more than 160 countries gather in The Hague this weekend to plan ways of curbing emissions of greenhouse gases, many will for the first time be armed with a detailed prediction of how their country will fare if nothing is done.

The study predicts more than 5 °C of warming for a string of Asian countries, from Kazakhstan to Saudi Arabia, that are already among the hottest and driest in the world. Several, including Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Iran, have suffered famine this year. They are followed by other drought-ridden countries in West Africa. Mike Hulme, director of the centre, says: "What is critical about our report is that for the first time it shows individual countries how much warming to expect and how the burden of climate change will be distributed across the world."

In line with previous predictions, the study confirms that the biggest temperature rises are likely to be in Russia and Canada, whose large Arctic territories are expected to be more than 6 °C warmer by the end of the 21st century.

Some countries can look forward to global warming with more equanimity, at least as far as temperatures are concerned. The six nations set for the least warming, at around 3 °C or less, are Ireland and Britain in the northern hemisphere, and New Zealand, Chile, Uruguay and Argentina in the south.

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Hulme's study divided national wealth by the predicted temperature rise to assess the likely impact of warming on each country's population. The four most vulnerable countries by this measure are Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Sierra Leone and Tanzania. Each has only $100 of its GDP per inhabitant to cope with every degree of warming. The least vulnerable country is Luxembourg, with $8800 per capita for each degree of warming. Almost without exception, the nations that are most threatened by global warming produce the smallest amounts of greenhouse gases, says Hulme.

But another leading climate scientist from the University of East Anglia questions Hulme's analysis. Developing nations need not be passive victims, says Mick Kelly of the university's Climatic Research Unit. Many poor developing countries "have developed a considerable capacity to cope and adapt" to climate threats such as floods and drought, he says. "It could be argued that the heavy dependence of the industrialised nations on technology untested against environmental trends means these nations are among the most susceptible to climate change."

Fred Pearce

From New Scientist magazine, 11 November 2000.