Q&A: Gary Yohe on Vulnerable Nations

No matter what action we take to reduce emissions, the carbon already in the atmosphere will continue to warm the globe over the next century, creating winners and losers in business and agriculture. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported earlier this month, developing countries will have a particularly difficult time adapting to the rising sea levels and altered agricultural cycles, while developed countries of the north will have an easier time of it. Gary Yohe, an economist at Wesleyan University, has studied the potential damage from global climate change. The leader of the team that created the vulnerability index featured in this week's issue of NEWSWEEK International, he spoke to Barrett Sheridan about adapting to a warmer world. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Are any countries making serious efforts at adapting to the effects of global warming, or is it just too early?
Gary Yohe:
I think it's generally too early. And it really has to be local decision makers, on the adaptation side anyway, that get involved. A federal government can provide some underlying support in terms of information, financial resources. But in terms of trying to decipher a one-size-fits-all response to this or that or something else, it's really a very difficult task to try to think about.

Some tasks seem more suited to wide-scale efforts. Countries will have to adapt their agricultural practices, for instance.
I think that's exactly right. But, say, in the United States, farmers get a lot of their advice about what to do from the seed manufacturers. You have to recognize that farmers and agricultural extension services and seed manufacturers and all those sorts of people who will respond to climate change are neither dumb nor clairvoyant. So you have to presume that they will make a response. They'll change seeds, they'll change planting dates, build some irrigation. They're used to this. They're good at it. In the developed countries, anyway.

Japan and the United States are widely considered technological leaders, but they rank lower than the Baltic countries. Why?
Among the things that are important [in terms of vulnerability] are the distribution of income, the ability to process information and the ability to take advantage of adaptive capacity that exists. And while the U.S. is very, very wealthy, and generally, you think that the distribution of income isn't particularly bad compared to the world, there are some pockets of poverty, and that means that there are significant numbers of people who can't take advantage of the adaptation options. Frankly, I would use [Hurricane] Katrina as an illustration of that. The response after the devastation of Katrina suggests that despite the fact that we had all this capacity, our adaptation left a lot to be desired.

Until recently, it seemed like the focus of the public dialog was on mitigation—how we can decrease our carbon emissions. But now it seems talk has shifted to how best to adapt to the effects of climate change.
Yes. Absolutely. I think that the research community, the environmental community, the policy community have begun to realize that it's not a choice of one or the other, you have to do both. That has helped overcome a fear by many people—I think you could probably see it in the early reaction of the environmental community in the U.S.—that if you talk about adaptation to climate change, you're essentially giving up. You're saying, "We're not going to solve it, we're not going to slow it down, all we're going to try to do is treat the symptoms." There was a concern that if that was the decision that was made, then you just go on your merry way and think that you can treat the symptoms. But I think now that we're beginning to see this whole problem as a risk-management problem.

It seems unfair that the industrialized countries who are responsible for climate change are the least vulnerable ones, while those that emit little to no carbon are the ones who are going to be in trouble.
I think that's an accurate characterization and it's probably why a lot of developing countries have been pushing for four or five years for the creation of adaptation funds. Frankly, they have a thousand legal legs to stand on. There are articles [in the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change] that talk about helping the least advantaged people on the planet adapt to the impact of climate change.

So the developed world needs to tailor solutions for the developing world to local conditions?
To some degree. But people from New England shouldn't be going into developing countries and saying, "Here's a set of technical options, pick one and it'll work." Developing countries need to develop the technology and the responses that are consistent with their way of life, their economies, their social structures. The adaptation fund will be structured so that developing countries apply for support for particular initiatives.

Something that the World Bank, for instance, might administer.
Yeah, something like that. Other people sort of liken it to the Marshall Plan.

Are you optimistic that this will happen?
Yeah, I have to be. I'm doing this for a living, so if I'm not optimistic that something like this is going to come to fruition then I'm just sort of batting my head against the wall.