The atmosphere is barreling toward a 4-degree-Celsius rise in global temperatures by the end of this century -- a world in which some nations may simply be unable to cope with or recover from disasters, a sweeping new World Bank study warns.
If a 4-degree rise over preindustrial temperatures happens, the results for developing nations will be devastating. Warming over land could reach as high as 10 degrees Celsius, or about 18 degrees Fahrenheit. Extreme heat waves will become the new normal. Cities in the poorest of countries, like Bangladesh, Mozambique and Vietnam, will bear the brunt of sea-level rise.
Meanwhile, the authors noted, the full scale of crop loss and disease -- particularly throughout Africa, Asia and the Mediterranean -- has yet to be calculated but will almost certainly be crippling.
"A 4-degree warmer world can and must be avoided. We need a global response equal to the scale of the problem," World Bank President Jim Yong Kim said in unveiling the report, "Turn Down the Heat."
He argued that because the most vulnerable people in the least developed countries suffer the brunt of disasters, adaptation -- helping communities become more resilient or adjust to new weather patterns -- cannot take the place of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
"We will never end poverty if we don't tackle climate change," Kim said.
First policy change from Kim
The report, largely a technical study that summarizes the existing literature on warming impacts, is the first major work on climate change to come out of the bank since Kim took the reins in July. He and World Bank Vice President of Sustainability Rachel Kyte said the goal was to establish the scientific underpinnings for acting on climate change.
Some analysts criticized the report for failing to address what the bank itself -- the world's leading institution charged with reducing poverty -- should be doing to help avert catastrophic warming. But many also praised Kim for raising the profile of the issue at the World Bank -- and throwing cold water on the oft-used argument that dealing with climate change is at odds with development.
"Kim is basically saying that he can't fulfill his mission, the mission of the World Bank to pull people out of poverty, if the climate is changing so fast," said Mike MacCracken, chief scientist for climate change programs at the Climate Institute, who reviewed of the report.
"I think he's taking a very appropriate step in trying to say, 'I've got a real challenge here,'" MacCracken said.
The report warns that a 4-degree temperature rise is all too possible. While the United States, China, India and other major global warming polluters pledged via the U.N. negotiations to cut carbon, various studies have shown that even if all of those promises were met, the world would still be on a trajectory of well more than 3 degrees Celsius.
The World Bank report says that if all the pledges are met, there remains a 20 percent chance of exceeding a 4-degree-Celsius rise in temperatures from preindustrial levels by 2100. If those pledges are not met, the likelihood is even higher -- more than 40 percent -- of warming exceeding 4 degrees by the end of the century or even decades sooner.
Concerns about sea-level rise increase
Kyte said that a growing number of countries are asking for help in incorporating impending climate impacts into their economic options. Citing Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where the government spent $2 billion on a flood protection plan that "proved completely inadequate," Kyte said taking the 4-degree science into account is already a must for economic planning. Nations from the Philippines to Gabon are starting to understand that.
"There has been an absolute sea change in the conversations we were having with our clients from just a few months ago," she said.
Environmentalists said they remain concerned that the bank continues to lend for coal projects, despite its growing embrace of renewable energy and building countries' resilience to weather disasters.
Two years ago, the World Bank funded a deeply controversial 4,800-megawatt coal plant in South Africa. Currently, it is paving the way for approving financing for a 600-megawatt coal plant in Kosovo using lignite, the dirtiest form of coal. Meanwhile, activists say, Pakistan and Mongolia are vying for coal aid to their energy-poor nations.
The World Bank board, meanwhile, shelved a proposed strategy that would eliminate coal loans to middle-income countries, and the issue of formally changing bank policies with regard to coal has not again been openly brought to the floor.
"The bank has made a compelling case that a hotter world will cause untold harm to the prosperity and well-being of millions of people in its client countries, and that acting now to limit warming makes great economic sense. But it hasn't said what the bank will do differently to rise to the challenge," said Steve Herz, a senior attorney with the Sierra Club.
Trying 'not to invest in coal'
"Clearly, new thinking is needed, and this will be a key test of President Kim's leadership," Herz said.
David Waskow, international climate policy director for Oxfam America, agreed. "Jim Kim is absolutely right that this report should shock us into action. There really is no alternative to urgent action, given the devastating consequences of climate change for food security, health and basic well-being."
But, he said, "Now the question for the World Bank is how it will ensure that all of its investments respond to the imperatives of the report -- its investments should be consistent with countries' efforts to adopt low-carbon pathways and build their resilience to climate impacts that are already wreaking havoc with poor people's lives."
Kim said the World Bank is "taking a hard look" at all of its work in light of climate change. But he also gave no indication that the worrisome trends outlined in the report will alter the World Bank's most controversial portfolio: lending for coal-fired power plants.
"We are involved in coal in very, very rare circumstances," he said. "Only in the most extreme circumstances do we ever get involved in coal."
He said the World Bank has doubled its lending for renewable energy and noted that 70 percent of its lending to China is focused on the green economy. But in some countries requiring bank aid and in need of energy access, he argued, coal is the only option.
Citing a board rule, Kim said the World Bank board members "do everything we can not to invest in coal. Everything we possibly can."