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Highly destructive climate impacts loom for a small number of cities and countries

Fiercer storm surges brought on by climate change will claim the most land in Latin America, uproot the most people in the Middle East and wreak the greatest economic destruction in East Asia, new research finds.

Economists with the World Bank's energy and environment research team say worsening weather threatens 52 million people, more than 29,000 square kilometers of agricultural land, and 9 percent of coastal nations' gross domestic product (GDP) across the globe.

If they are not shared with more protected countries, the burdens will be grotesquely uneven. Some countries, like the Bahamas, could see more than more than half the coastal GDP swept away. Others, like Namibia, could lose half their coastal land but suffer a somewhat smaller financial blow.

The coastal economic hit to China, meanwhile, is enormous in actual dollars -- about $31.2 billion. Far smaller is the projected financial ruin to the Philippines' coastal economy, about $4.2 billion. But the losses represent 17 percent of China's coastal economy and more than 52 percent of the Philippines', the authors found.

Susmita Dasgupta, lead environmental economist at the World Bank, explained that the climate change threats hold "a very high stake for a small number of cities and countries."

The working paper comes at a key moment for the climate change debate. Policymakers increasingly are discussing the need to help vulnerable countries cope with global warming impacts that scientists fear can't be averted. Money to help protect countries is considered a central element of a new international global warming agreement.

Better data and more foreign aid may ease the burdens

But activists say they are eager for more information about specific ways that countries and communities will be hit by floods, droughts and rising sea levels. On a practical level, they say, that's the kind of data that can really help governments and nonprofits work to protect populations from the worst impacts of climate change.

David Waskow, climate change policy director for the international aid organization Oxfam, said some of the most useful information comes from local communities themselves, which can directly speak to the changes they experience in storm surge intensity and the impacts on their local economies. But, he said, bringing global and regional data on climate change impacts down to the country and community levels is increasingly critical.

"There's no question that this kind of analysis is absolutely essential to figure out what kind of resources will need to be devoted, and also what strategies and approaches are going to be most effective," he said.

The report examines the impact of increasingly intense storms in 84 countries across five regions, calculating for a 10 percent increase in wave height or extreme sea levels over the course of a century. By overlaying the zones that would suffer temporary inundation with population, economic and agriculture statistics from the regions, the authors were able to tease out the different threats facing various regions and nations.

Dasgupta said she hopes the study will help policymakers better decide how and where to direct funding, and noted some of the practical measures -- like improving drainage systems -- that need attention in poor countries.

Huge disparities in each region

"Resources are scarce. You can not cover all the low-lying areas along the coast," she said. "We're talking about setting priorities here." But she noted that the report does not take into account the different measures that many countries already are taking to adapt to climate change. She and others argued that the extent to which countries are working to address climate impacts is as much of a key to future funding decisions as the threats a nation may face.

Among the findings:

  • The top city in each region at risk from intensifying storm surges: Hai Phong, Vietnam; Barisal, Bangladesh; Bugama, Nigeria; Ciudad del Carmen, Mexico; and Port Said, Egypt.
  • Sub-Saharan Africa: For the 29 countries in the region with a coastline, storm surges are most threatening to Mozambique, Madagascar, Nigeria and Mauritania. Together, those countries are expected to suffer 53 percent of the total increase in area storm surges. Mozambique, in particular, with a larger coastal community and coastal economy, also will see some of the greatest threats to its people and GDP. Ghana, where the coastal economy is responsible for $1.26 billion last year in cocoa exports and other agriculture trade, and Togo, where subsistence agriculture contributes 40 percent of the GDP, also will see some of the most severe coastal economic hits.
  • In East Asia and the Pacific, China, Vietnam and Korea will see surge zones increase dramatically. More land (about 14,407 square kilometers) will be inundated in Indonesia than anywhere else, followed by China and Vietnam. But in Korea, the relatively small amount of land -- 902 square kilometers -- expected to be hit makes up more than 61 percent of the entire country. (A square kilometer is 0.385 of a square mile.) The authors find a similar disparity when it comes to GDP. China, for example, could see an absolute loss of $31.2 billion in coastal economy, while Thailand's loss could amount to $10.2 billion and Taiwan's $13.7 billion. But the coastal economic hit taken by the Philippines, Myanmar and Korea will amount to a larger percentage of the region's GDP.
  • In Latin America, the worst storm surges will hit Jamaica and Nicaragua. Meanwhile, Mexico and Brazil, with larger coastal zones than other countries in the region, will also suffer severe coastal inundation. On the other hand, increased storms in countries like the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic and El Salvador -- where more people live and work on the coasts -- could hurt more people and ruin more economies. The authors estimate that the Bahamas could suffer a 65 percent loss to its GDP, while Belize could face a 61 percent crash.
  • United Arab Emirates, one of the richest countries in the Middle East, will lose more than half of its coastal GDP. So, too, will Yemen, one of the region's -- and the globe's -- poorest countries. At the same time, authors found that storm surges will inundate half of Yemen's coastal land and devastate more than half of the country's coastal population.
  • In South Asia, Bangladesh and India will suffer the most ruin of agricultural land and harm to coastal populations and the greatest threat to the coastal economy. But the authors note that in relative impacts, Pakistan is most threatened, with more than 35 percent of the people and 38 percent of the country's GDP at risk.

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