The Century of Drought
The Century of Drought
By Michael McCarthy
The Independent UK
Wednesday 04 October 2006
One third of the planet will be desert by the year 2100, say climate experts in the most dire warning yet of the effects of global warming.
Drought threatening the lives of millions will spread across half the land surface of the Earth in the coming century because of global warming, according to new predictions from Britain's leading climate scientists.
Extreme drought, in which agriculture is in effect impossible, will affect about a third of the planet, according to the study from the Met Office's Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research.
It is one of the most dire forecasts so far of the potential effects of rising temperatures around the world - yet it may be an underestimation, the scientists involved said yesterday.
The findings, released at the Climate Clinic at the Conservative Party conference in Bournemouth, drew astonished and dismayed reactions from aid agencies and development specialists, who fear that the poor of developing countries will be worst hit.
"This is genuinely terrifying," said Andrew Pendleton of Christian Aid. "It is a death sentence for many millions of people. It will mean migration off the land at levels we have not seen before, and at levels poor countries cannot cope with."
One of Britain's leading experts on the effects of climate change on the developing countries, Andrew Simms from the New Economics Foundation, said: "There's almost no aspect of life in the developing countries that these predictions don't undermine - the ability to grow food, the ability to have a safe sanitation system, the availability of water. For hundreds of millions of people for whom getting through the day is already a struggle, this is going to push them over the precipice."
The findings represent the first time that the threat of increased drought from climate change has been quantified with a supercomputer climate model such as the one operated by the Hadley Centre.
Their impact is likely to even greater because the findings may be an underestimate. The study did not include potential effects on drought from global-warming-induced changes to the Earth's carbon cycle.
In one unpublished Met Office study, when the carbon cycle effects are included, future drought is even worse.
The results are regarded as most valid at the global level, but the clear implication is that the parts of the world already stricken by drought, such as Africa, will be the places where the projected increase will have the most severe effects.
The study, by Eleanor Burke and two Hadley Centre colleagues, models how a measure of drought known as the Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI) is likely to increase globally during the coming century with predicted changes in rainfall and heat around the world because of climate change. It shows the PDSI figure for moderate drought, currently at 25 per cent of the Earth's surface, rising to 50 per cent by 2100, the figure for severe drought, currently at about 8 per cent, rising to 40 cent, and the figure for extreme drought, currently 3 per cent, rising to 30 per cent.
Senior Met Office scientists are sensitive about the study, funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, stressing it contains uncertainties: there is only one climate model involved, one future scenario for emissions of greenhouse gases (a moderate-to-high one) and one drought index. Nevertheless, the result is "significant", according to Vicky Pope, the head of the Hadley Centre's climate programme. Further work would now be taking place to try to assess the potential risk of different levels of drought in different places, she said.
The full study - Modelling the Recent Evolution of Global Drought and Projections for the 21st Century with the Hadley Centre Climate Model - will be published later this month in The Journal of Hydrometeorology .
It will be widely publicised by the British Government at the negotiations in Nairobi in November on a successor to the Kyoto climate treaty. But a preview of it was given by Dr Burke in a presentation to the Climate Clinic, which was formed by environmental groups, with The Independent as media partner, to press politicians for tougher action on climate change. The Climate Clinic has been in operation at all the party conferences.
While the study will be seen as a cause for great concern, it is the figure for the increase in extreme drought that some observers find most frightening.
"We're talking about 30 per cent of the world's land surface becoming essentially uninhabitable in terms of agricultural production in the space of a few decades," Mark Lynas, the author of High Tide, the first major account of the visible effects of global warming around the world, said. "These are parts of the world where hundreds of millions of people will no longer be able to feed themselves."
Mr Pendleton said: "This means you're talking about any form of development going straight out of the window. The vast majority of poor people in the developing world are small-scale farmers who... rely on rain."
A Glimpse of What Lies Ahead
The sun beats down across northern Kenya's Rift Valley, turning brown what was once green. Farmers and nomadic herders are waiting with bated breath for the arrival of the "short" rains - a few weeks of intense rainfall that will ensure their crops grow and their cattle can eat.
The short rains are due in the next month. Last year they never came; large swaths of the Horn of Africa stayed brown. From Ethiopia and Eritrea, through Somalia and down into Tanzania, 11 million people were at risk of hunger.
This devastating image of a drought-ravaged region offers a glimpse of what lies ahead for large parts of the planet as global warming takes hold.
In Kenya, the animals died first. The nomadic herders' one source of sustenance and income - their cattle - perished with nothing to eat and nothing to drink. Bleached skeletons of cows and goats littered the barren landscape.
The number of food emergencies in Africa each year has almost tripled since the 1980s. Across sub-Saharan Africa, one in three people is under-nourished. Poor governance has played a part.
Pastoralist communities suffer most, rather than farmers and urban dwellers. Nomadic herders will walk for weeks to find a water hole or riverbed. As resources dwindle, fighting between tribes over scarce resources becomes common.
One of the most critical issues is under-investment in pastoralist areas. Here, roads are rare, schools and hospitals almost non-existent.
Nomadic herders in Turkana, northern Kenya, who saw their cattle die last year, are making adjustments to their way of life. When charities offerednew cattle, they said no. Instead, they asked for donkeys and camels - animals more likely to survive hard times.
Pastoralists have little other than their animals to rely on. But projects which provide them with money to buy food elsewhere have proved effective, in the short term at least.
Call for Action on Climate Change
Wednesday 04 October 2006
The world must act now to curb climate change, as doing nothing will cost more long-term, UK officials have said.
British government official and former World Bank chief economist Sir Nicholas Stern said pursuing alternative energy made economic and environmental sense.
He was addressing a closed-door meeting in Mexico of representatives of 20 of the world's most-polluting nations.
The two-day gathering hopes to reach agreement on ways to meet future energy demands while cutting emissions.
On Wednesday, World Bank president Paul Wolfowitz and World Energy Council chairman Andre Caille will address the delegates.
The meeting in Monterrey is the latest round of talks on the climate action plan decided upon at the G8 Gleneagles Summit last year.
Ministers from G8 nations are joined at the event by representatives from the emerging economies of China, India, Brazil, and South Africa.
Organisers hope the meeting will be able to make progress on a number of issues, including:
British Environment Secretary David Miliband quoted findings reached by Sir Nicholas in his report, which was commissioned by the UK government.
"He shows that the longer action is delayed, the more expensive it is," Mr Miliband said.
"What he says is that... it is imperative we take action to prevent further climate change because the economic costs - never mind the human costs and the costs to the environment - will far outweigh the costs of mitigation."
Also at the meeting, Claude Mandil, head of the International Energy Agency (IEA), presented the findings of extensive research carried out by the agency.
Mr Mandil told the BBC that the technologies needed to cut emissions for the foreseeable future already exist.
However, he warned that investment in new low-carbon technologies was needed now - otherwise a fresh generation of inefficient, carbon intensive power stations would become locked into the global energy mix.
But he said that he was not optimistic that there was a political will to deliver the necessary support, and that there was "a huge gap between words and deeds".
Costing the Earth
The Ministerial Dialogue on Climate Change, Clean Energy and Sustainable Development was created by the UK when it held the presidency of the G8 in 2005.
One of the dialogue's aims was to attempt to reach an informal agreement between industrialised and developing nations on a long-term strategy to cut emissions.
The world's biggest polluter, the US, has not ratified the UN's Kyoto Protocol - the international agreement on reducing nations' greenhouse gas emissions.
President Bush rejected it, saying it would harm the US economy and fail to deliver any meaningful reductions.
Emerging economies, led by China, argued that if the world's richest nation was not part of the Kyoto targets, it was unfair to expect developing nations to be subject to legally binding limits.
Campaigners hope the Sir Nicholas' findings will help deliver a consensus among the big polluters.
"We are urging the G8 not to miss another opportunity to take action in favour of the poorest people of the world, who are already struggling to cope with the effects of climate change," said Rachel Roach, a climate change policy adviser for the aid charity Tearfund.
But she added: "Unfortunately, it may well be that this week's meeting is another case of lots of talk but little action."