Stormy Weather

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What a week of weather it has been. What a month. What a year. Raging rivers in Italy. Gales in France. Fires in Greece. Water, water everywhere in Wales. Rain in Spain. A tornado in Bognor Regis. What? A tornado in Bognor Regis? That's supposed to be an English seaside resort of sunny shores and gentle showers, not some dusty town in America's Tornado Alley. And stately, centuries-old oaks in the gardens of Versailles in Paris are not supposed to be ripped up like palm trees in a Key West hurricane. All over Europe it's the same story. Last month flash floods and mudslides wiped away the heart of the village of Gondo in southwestern Switzerland, and Italy's River Po overflowed from the Alps to the Adriatic, carrying away $2.6 billion in losses of homes, fields and businesses. It was the opposite problem last July in Greece, where heat waves with temperatures hitting 42C produced drought and devastasting, wind-driven wildfires. Deluges, droughts, fires, landslides, avalanches, gales, tornadoes: Is it just our imagination, or is Europe's weather getting worse?

The short answer is yes, the weather certainly is getting worse. The cause is air pollution that pours greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere to produce global warming that can alter weather patterns. Whether the specific storms that knocked down trees in Paris last Christmas, flooded the Po Valley last month and battered Britain last week can be attributed to the warming trend is a subject of serious and contentious scientific debate. But most climate experts agree that so-called extreme weather events are becoming more frequent, and that the weather worldwide over the coming 100 years will change drastically.

Europeans can expect more rain and flooding in the north as well as drought and desertification in the south. Glaciers will melt in the Alps, parts of Spain and Italy will turn as dry as the Sahel, forests will thrive in Sweden and, yes, tornadoes will rip up trees in places like Bognor Regis. The scientists say that even if the world's governments and industries meet international goals on reducing greenhouse gases which they probably will not it still won't be enough to prevent severe changes to the world's weather. Their advice to governments, businesses and private citizens about this is grim: get used to it.

A landmark report released last week by a team of 27 European climatologists warns that the trend in global warming may be irreversible, at least over most of the coming century. That, they say, means governments should start planning immediately to adapt to the new extremes of weather that their citizens will face with bans on building in potential flood plains in the north, for example, and water conservation measures in the south. "We make almost 50 recommendations for policy and research in this report," says Martin Parry, a scientist at Britain's University of East Anglia who edited the so-called Acacia report assessing effects and adaptation to future weather changes in Europe. "It really is imperative that we take the first steps in adapting to climate change now."

That represents a subtle but significant shift in attitudes toward global warming, and some activists are dismayed at the suggestion that the world should adapt to the warming trend rather than try to halt or reverse it. Next week at the Hague, representatives of 160 countries will gather to assess progress since the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. In that undertaking, governments pledged to cut greenhouse emissions worldwide by 5.2% below 1990 levels by 2012. They are far from meeting that goal, and the Hague conference is likely to turn into a wrangle of finger pointing over who is at fault. Campaigners for drastic cuts in emissions fear that talk of "adapting" rather than "mitigating" will ease political pressure on the big polluters such as the U.S. and Japan.

Parry rejects the suggestion that he and his scientific colleagues are giving up on mitigation. "This doesn't mean we're throwing up our hands and walking away," he says. "Kyoto is only the first step, and there will be successes in mitigation in the future. But in the meantime we must adopt policies of adaptation. We want to have two strings in our bow."

The adaptation string will have to shoot many arrows if the changes predicted by Parry and his colleagues take place. They say there will be a general warming of Europe, with much wetter weather in the north and much drier conditions in the south. That will mean extensive northern flooding, while parts of the agriculturally productive south will turn into near-desert. In the Alps, much less water will be held on mountains in the form of snow and instead will run off to feed devastating flash floods. Alpine glaciers will melt and tundra from Lapland to Siberia will vanish. The level of the Mediterranean Sea will rise half a meter by 2050, inundating coastal wetlands and wiping out whole species of bird and sea life.

All this because, says the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, global temperatures could rise by as much as 6C in the 21st century, 10 times as fast as temperatures have risen in the last 100 years. "Who wants to look forward to a world where things are changing 10 times as rapidly as they did in the previous 100 years?" asks Tom Wigley, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado. "I just don't want to go there."

Neither will he nor anybody else want to go to the regions hardest-hit by climate change, some of which are already the poorest in the world. "There will be a south to north shift of climatic resources," says Parry. "This will change the political geography of the Continent. The most adverse effects will be in poor, rural areas, the least adverse in wealthy urban areas. That's the global situation as well dry areas getting drier, wet areas getting wetter." MORE>>

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Africa will suffer in ways that scientists cannot fully predict, but the Sahel will probably become even drier and more prone to drought and famine than it already is. For Europe, that will mean a growing influx of hungry Africans who could come to be known as "weather refugees." Other visitors from the south will be such pathogens as malaria, dengue fever and encephalitis as warmer weather encourages the northern movement of disease-carrying mosquitoes. Generally warmer water can more easily harbor cholera and other waterborne diseases, which will be more readily spread during frequent floods

Some argue that the ultimate result of global warming will be a paradoxical but even more catastrophic development: global cooling. As the arctic ice cap melts, a flow of fresh water into the North Atlantic could disrupt conveyer currents including the Gulf Stream, which is what keeps Northern Europe warm. "There is an argument that short-term global warming could actually lead to long-term cooling," observes Steve Hall, an oceanographer at Britain's Southampton Oceanography Centre. "One moment we are basking in a Mediterranean climate and the next, icebergs are floating down the English Channel."

Few scientists, including Hall, believe such a scenario is likely, even a century from now. Some even question the accuracy of predictions such as those in the Acacia report. "The science of climate change is enormously complicated," says Julian Morris, an environmental analyst at London's Institute of Economic Affairs. "The data are inconclusive, contradictory and confusing." Temperature measurements, for example, have been taken for only a relatively short period of time and may be skewed by such factors as urban expansion. The climatologic history of the world is long, he says, and man's knowledge of it is short. "Attempting to make clear assessments of what is driving the climate over these much shorter time spans is fraught with difficulty."

But the growing scientific consensus is that momentous changes are coming. Not all of them, however, are bad. Forests of Scandinavia and northern Russia will grow faster and farther north than before, helping draw off CO2. "We may have longer growing seasons in northern latitudes, which farmers can exploit to have more than one harvest in a single year," says Michele Bernardi, an agrometeorologist at the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome. Indeed, some of the climatic changes will produce limits on emission: soil left fallow in the hotter south will serve as a "sink" to absorb CO2. Heating needs will plummet in the warmer north, greatly reducing emissions although high heat in the south will turn on millions of CO2-spewing air conditioners.

It is also possible that, despite governmental and industrial foot dragging, greenhouse emissions will come down. The environment-conscious Germans have shown that relatively simple changes in attitudes and lifestyle can bring significant reductions in the industrialized world, where about a third of emissions come from private households. Recycling cans and paper, lowering thermostats, improving home insulation and switching off unused lights have helped Germany reduce emissions by an impressive 18.5% since 1990, far surpassing the Kyoto target. But Europe overall is lagging. "Right now, the E.U. countries aren't doing enough to respect the Kyoto Protocol," says Michel Mousel, head of the French government's commission on the greenhouse effect.

One of the most contentious issues at the Hague meeting will be whether developed countries should be allowed to gain emission "credits" by promoting such projects as forestation in the developing world. The idea, called the Clean Development Mechanism, would allow industrialized countries to emit a ton of CO2 for every ton "sequestered" in new forests grown in the Third World. "Some governments are doing everything they can to avoid doing what they said they would," fumes Michel Raquet, the climate adviser for Greenpeace International. "The Hague conference could end with industrial countries increasing their greenhouse emissions while remaining within the Kyoto guidelines." The chief target of environmentalist wrath is, of course, the U.S., the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases and the leading advocate of trading emission credits with the developing world. But the U.S. position has been up in the air because of the recent presidential election.

Whatever happens at the Hague, most climate scientists believe that global warming is already irreversible. "Even if we achieved zero emissions now, which is impossible, we will have a rise of sea level for centuries to come," says Hans-Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. It may be possible to limit the extent of the changes if the world is willing to cut emissions by 80% over the course of the coming century. But that means huge changes in lifestyle, and soon. "Climate protection will be successful only if we manage to change our energy system in the next decade or two," he says.

Only an optimist, and an uninformed optimist at that, could hope humankind will succeed in making such radical changes in time to avert the bad weather ahead. So the best advice is to get out the umbrellas and hip boots and head for high ground. Storms are coming; the water is rising. We and our descendants will have to learn to live with it.

With reporting by Helen Gibson/London, Barry Hillenbrand/Washington, Nicholas Le Quesne/Paris, Martin Penner/Rome and other bureaus