It's too late to halt global warming, some experts say, so they're advising nations to take steps to soften the impact of looming changes in the world's climate.
Climate scientists and policy experts say that governments should, at the very least, start thinking harder about how to cope with the havoc global warming would wreak. And some say governments should start taking steps now, such as building dams that won't be overwhelmed by a rise in sea level.
What some say:
Thousands (of islands) would be wiped off our country's map because of sea-level rise.
Adaptation . . . should be done now.
- Agus Sari, delegate from Indonesia
Nonetheless, such measures are expected to be low on the agenda at the mammoth global warming conference that starts Monday in Buenos Aires.
Although some scientists dispute the accuracy of global warming forecasts, most expect the average temperature of the Earth to rise a few degrees by the end of the next century, with dire results. A warmer planet is likely to suffer through more droughts and floods. Sea levels will rise, encroaching on low-lying areas.
Although some skeptics say the temperature rise is natural, most scientists agree that humans are causing global warming by rampant use of oil, gas and coal. The burning of fossil fuels produces greenhouse gases - substances that linger in the atmosphere and trap heat.
At a meeting in Japan last year, 160 nations agreed to a treaty that would slow the onset of global warming. Known as the Kyoto Protocol, it requires dozens of nations to cut back greenhouse-gas emissions.
But most experts say the treaty's effects will be minimal. The measures in the Kyoto Protocol alone are expected to keep the global temperature only four-tenths of a degree lower than if there were no treaty at all, according to a recent estimate by Tom Wigley of the National Center for Atmospheric Research.
Such figures have led many experts to say prevention isn't enough. They want countries to start making themselves less vulnerable to the ravages of global warming, a strategy known as adaptation. "When you look at those numbers, you realize it has to be a two-pronged approach," says Martin Parry, a geographer at University College in London.
Parry and others argue that such measures will help in any event. Proposed measures include:
- Breeding food crops that can better withstand drought.
- Discouraging people from living in flood plains.
- Making irrigation and water use more efficient.
Action now will be cheaper in most cases than action taken later, adherents say. For example, builders recently decided to make the pilings 3 feet taller on a bridge being built from mainland Canada to Prince Edward Island, to ensure that ships could still pass underneath if sea levels rise.
"Imagine the cost of going back and raising the bridge 50 years from now," says Joel Smith, a climate impact expert at Stratus Consulting Inc.
Still, there has been little thought about what the world should do if such floods and droughts were to begin. There have been no international meetings devoted to the subject. The Kyoto treaty almost ignores it. That, climate experts say, must change. "You have to think about every strategy," says Stephen Schneider of Stanford University, a veteran global warming expert. "I think we need to put (adaptation) explicitly on the global agenda."
But one of the thorniest problems is how to pay for it. Poor countries will suffer most from warming - and seem to be the nations least to blame for causing it. These nations argue that it's only fair that the developed world help pay for measures that might be needed.
The Kyoto Protocol directs some money to projects for defanging climate change, but the pot of money will not be very big. Developing nations may press for more money at the Buenos Aires negotiations, says Agus Sari, one of Indonesia's delegates to the meeting.
Sari ticks off reasons why Indonesia is worried. It has one of the world's longest coastlines. It is an archipelago with as many as 17,000 islands. "Thousands would be wiped off our country's map because of sea-level rise," he says. "Adaptation . . . should be done now."
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