New York - As the United Nations was awash with climate change studies and gatherings throughout 2007, a recurring question was whether it is too late to cut greenhouse gas emissions enough to save the world's poor from global warming. An end-of-the-year report by the UN prominently quoted Martin Luther King's sermon on social justice in the 1960s, saying that time ineluctably rushes on, deaf to man's plea for it to stop so humans can correct their errors.
"Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: Too late," King said.
Since the UN-backed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) began rolling out a series of damning reports in February, the UN has made climate issues its top priority. The 192-nation General Assembly held an unprecedented one-day climate change conference in September, attended by more than 80 world leaders.
Three IPCC reports, compiled by more than 2,000 scientists, said global warming was "unequivocal" and largely the result of human activity. They warned that the world had eight years left to begin reducing greenhouse-gas emissions or face the disastrous consequences that come with a planet heated by more than 2 degrees Celsius.
The World Meteorological Organization said the concentration of carbon dioxide - the chief pollutant - in the atmosphere reached the highest level ever recorded in 2006.
Water vapour, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide - the three major greenhouse gases in the atmosphere blamed for global warming - can remain there for 100 years, the UN Development Programme and UN Environment Programme said in a November report.
"What we do today about climate change has consequences that will last a century or more," according to the study, titled Human Development Report. "The part of that change that is due to greenhouse gas emissions is not reversible in the foreseeable future."
But while scientists and government leaders focus on ways to fight climate change, the UN worries that the danger could derail its ambitious plans to reduce poverty on Earth.
It warned that conditions among the world's 2.6 billion poorest people - those living on less than 2 dollars a day - and the poorest countries will spiral downward as the earth heats up, sea levels rise and agricultural lands are flooded or wilted by droughts.
Another 600 million people will face malnutrition. The sub-Saharan region, with its large concentration of poverty would suffer potential productivity losses of 26 per cent by 2060.
By 2080, 1.8 billion people will face water shortage and large areas in South Asia and northern China will be hit by ecological problems as glaciers retreat and rainfall patterns change.
Flooding and tropical storms could displace up to 332 million people in coastal and low-lying areas, among them more than 70 million Bangladeshis, 32 million Vietnamese and 6 million Egyptians.
Diseases will spread amid global warming, putting an additional 400 million people worldwide at risk of malaria.
"For millions of people, these are events that offer a one-way ticket to poverty and long-run cycles of disadvantage," the report said.
The UN said the potential human costs of climate change have been underestimated. The shocks caused by droughts, floods, storms and other natural disasters have already driven up the number of poor, and global warming will only intensify those impacts.
The UN in 2000 set a goal of halving the number of poor by 2015, but the report said the results will be unequal: some countries are on track to reach the target while others have fallen far behind.
Vietnam has already halved the number of poor and provided universal primary education ahead of the 2015 goals. Mozambique has also significantly reduced poverty, improved education enrollment and cut down on child and maternal mortality rates.
But the report wondered whether climate change might derail those achievements.
"In today's world, it is the poor who are bearing the brunt of climate change," the report said. "Tomorrow, it will be humanity as a whole that will face the risks that come with global warming."
The report warned that the world was edging closer to "tipping points," which are events beyond human control that could lead to ecological catastrophes, including the melting of the Earth's ice sheets that could transform human settlement patterns.
The consequences of those ecological disasters may not be seen now, but future generations will have to live with them, the UN said.
The UN development report was published ahead of a major UN climate conference on the Indonesian island resort of Bali in December, where governments hoped to map out a strategy to complete talks by 2009 on a replacement for the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012. The UN General Assembly plans to meet in February to review outcomes of the December Bali conference.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who took up the climate change mantle since taking office in January, travelled to Antarctica for a first-hand look at the melting ice shelves and to Brazil's Amazon rainforest, where he reported that the so-called "lungs of the earth" are being "suffocated."
The UN itself plans to move towards "carbon neutrality" in its worldwide operations, starting with its headquarters in New York, which is scheduled to undergo a largescale renovation by the end of 2008.
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