WASHINGTON — A sweeping new study on the effects of climate
change — which the report says is already disrupting the lives and livelihoods
of the poorest people across the planet — creates a diplomatic challenge for
President Obama, who hopes to make action on both climate change and economic
inequality hallmarks of his legacy.
The report, published this week by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change, concludes that the world’s poorest people will suffer the most
as temperatures rise, with many of them already contending with food and water
shortages, higher rates of disease and premature death, and the violent
conflicts that result from those problems.
Rajendra K. Pachauri, the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change, and Christopher Field, the co-chairman of the group that wrote the
report, discuss its warning.
Those countries and nongovernmental organizations point to a 2009 pledge by
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to create a $100 billion annual
climate fund for poor countries by 2020. The World Bank justified such an
expenditure in a 2010 report concluding that it would take up to $100 billion a
year to offset the ravages of climate change on poor countries.
Climate policy experts say that the United States, as the world’s largest
economy, would be expected to provide $20 billion to $30 billion of that annual
That puts Mr. Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, who has been working
aggressively behind the scenes to forge a United Nations climate change treaty
in 2015, in a tough position.
But both men know there is no chance that a Congress focused on cutting domestic
spending and jump-starting the economy will enact legislation agreeing to a huge
increase in so-called climate aid. Since 2010, the Obama administration has
spent about $2.5 billion a year to help foreign countries adapt to climate
change and adopt low-carbon energy technology.
It will be a stretch even to continue that level of spending. Many Republicans,
who control the House and have a chance to gain the Senate this fall, question
whether climate change is real.
“If the White House actually wants something like this, it should begin by
building support among congressional Democrats, but — at this point — I don’t
see any real signs of support from House or Senate Democratic leaders at all,”
said Michael Steel, a spokesman for Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio.
Vulnerable nations, emboldened by the new United Nations report, are demanding
more, not less, from the United States.
Ronald Jean Jumeau, the United Nations ambassador from the island nation of
Seychelles, and a spokesman for the Alliance of Small Island States, compared
the proposed fund with the amount of money Congress approved after Hurricane
“We know that $100 billion is not going to be enough,” Mr. Jumeau said. “After
Sandy, Congress voted for $60 billion in recovery for New York, New Jersey and
Connecticut — for one storm. It shows you how much $100 billion is going to
The window is starting to close on Mr. Obama’s ability to broker a treaty that
could significantly reduce greenhouse gas pollution in time to avoid the most
disastrous effects of climate change. This fall, at the United Nations General
Assembly, world leaders will meet to put offers on the table for a climate
change pact, a mix of commitments to cut fossil fuel pollution at home and
provide money to poor countries to adapt. A few months later, at a two-week
summit meeting in Lima, Peru, they will negotiate a draft of a final treaty that
is set to be signed next year in Paris and take effect in 2020.
Diplomats say the new report has increased pressure on governments to reach a
“By underscoring impacts and vulnerabilities, the report makes clear the urgency
for strong action to reduce emissions and build greater resilience,” said Todd
D. Stern, the State Department’s chief climate change negotiator.
In a speech in London last fall, Mr. Stern made clear that there was no chance
that the United States would finance most of any climate adaptation fund with
taxpayer dollars. “The fiscal reality of the United States and other developed
countries is not going to allow it,” he said. Mr. Stern and others say the bulk
of that money will have to come from private investors and corporations.
Nongovernmental organizations say that relying chiefly on the private sector
will not be enough, especially as food supplies grow short. “The scientists
could not have been more clear, particularly in the area of food security,” said
Timothy Gore, an analyst for Oxfam, the antipoverty group. “There is no
government that’s going to be able to stick around very long if the price of
bread keeps going up, if they can’t feed their people.”
“I challenge anyone in the U.S. government to explain how the private sector is
going to invest in what’s needed on the ground, like funding farmers in the
Sahel region facing crop loss from changing rainfall patterns,” Mr. Gore said,
referring to the area of Africa just south of the Sahara.
Hanging over the coming negotiations will be the specter of the failed 1997
Kyoto Protocol. Vice President Al Gore promised in those talks that the United
States would act on climate change, only to have the Senate refuse to ratify
that treaty. At a 2009 climate summit meeting in Copenhagen, Mr. Obama promised
that Congress would soon pass a sweeping climate change bill. Just months later,
the bill died in the Senate.
Mr. Obama is now trying to bolster his credibility on the issue by flexing his
executive authority and acting without Congress. His administration is moving
ahead with aggressive new Environmental Protection Agency regulations to reduce
carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants. At talks around the world, Mr.
Kerry and Mr. Stern have sought to persuade other nations that, this time, the
United States will be able to keep its commitments, since they do not require
action from Congress.
The United States’ inability to offer more substantial aid to countries that did
little to cause global warming will probably remain a major sticking point with
developing nations, including India and China.
Still, Connie Hedegaard, the European Union commissioner for climate action,
said she hoped that could eventually be overcome: “I think the $100 billion mark
can be reached. It was understood in Copenhagen that it had to be a mix of
public and private money. I think vulnerable groups — families in Bangladesh or
the Philippines — don’t care whether a dollar coming their way is public or
A version of this news analysis appears in print
on April 1, 2014, on page A3 of the New York edition
A new analysis halves longstanding projections of how much sea levels could
rise if Antarctica’s massive western ice sheets fully disintegrated as a result
of global warming.
The flow of ice into the sea would probably raise sea levels about 10 feet
rather than 20 feet, according to the analysis, published in the May 15 issue of
the journal Science.
The scientists also predicted that seas would rise unevenly, with an additional
1.5-foot increase in levels along the east and west coasts of North America and
the east coast of southern Africa. That is because the shift in a huge mass of
water away from the South Pole would subtly change the shape and rotation of the
Earth, the authors said.
Several Antarctic specialists familiar with the new study had mixed reactions to
But they and the study’s lead author, Jonathan L. Bamber of the British
Glaciology Center, agreed that the odds of a disruptive rise in seas from
warming over the next century or so remain serious enough to warrant the world’s
They also uniformly called for renewed investment in ice-probing satellites and
field missions that could within a few years substantially clarify the risk.
There is strong consensus that warming waters around Antarctica, and Greenland
in the Arctic, would result in centuries of rising seas. But glaciologists and
oceanographers still say uncertainty prevails on the vital question of how fast
coasts will retreat in a warming world in the next century or two.
The new study combined computer modeling with measurements of the ice and
underlying bedrock, both direct and by satellite.
It did not assess the pace or likelihood of a rise in seas. The goal was to
examine as precisely as possible how much ice could flow into the sea if warming
seawater penetrated between the West Antarctic ice sheet and the bedrock
beneath. For decades West Antarctic ice has been identified as particularly
vulnerable to melting because, although piled more than one mile above sea level
in many places, it also rests on bedrock a half mile to a mile beneath sea level
That topography means that warm water could progressively melt spots where ice
is stuck to the rock, allowing it to flow more freely.
Erik I. Ivins, at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, described the new paper as
“good solid science,” but added that the sea-level estimates cannot be verified
without renewed investment in satellite missions and other initiatives that are
A particularly valuable satellite program called Grace, which measures subtle
variations in gravity related to the mass of ice and rock, “has perhaps a couple
of years remaining before its orbit deteriorates,” Dr. Ivins said.
“The sad truth is that we in NASA are watching our earth-observing systems fall
by the wayside as they age – without the sufficient resources to see them
Robert Bindschadler, a longtime specialist in polar ice at NASA’s Goddard Space
Flight Center, said the study only provided a low estimate of Antarctica’s
possible long-term contribution to rising seas because it did not deal with
other mechanisms that could add water to the ocean.
The prime question, he said, remains what will happen in the next 100 years or
so, and other recent work implies that a lot of ice can be shed within thattime.
“Even in Bamber’s world,” he said, referring to the study’s author, “there is
more than enough ice to cause serious harm to the world’s coastlines.”