Who Will Win, and Who Will Lose

America is scared of global warming. In a recent poll by Yale's Center for Environmental Law and Policy, 83 percent of Americans called global warming a "serious" problem, up from 70 percent in 2004, and 63 percent agreed that the United States "is in as much danger" from environmental threats including global warming "as it is from terrorists."

If even gas-guzzling Americans are alive to the danger, you know most nations now accept climate change as real. But how will they adapt? Some are well positioned to weather changes in climate that will affect agriculture, trade, housing and poverty; others aren't. To identify who's ready and who's not, the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change asked some scientists to turn their attention to assessing countries at risk. One groundbreaking recent study by Columbia University's Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), came up with a way to rank nations by how prepared they are to adapt to climate change, given their physical exposure to the expected symptoms of global warming (do they have a long coastline? Do they sit in storm paths?).

The list puts in stark relief a central irony of climate change—that the biggest carbon emitters stand to gain the most, or lose the least, in a warming future. Western nations rode their coal-fired locomotives and gas-guzzling automobiles to levels of wealth the world has never seen before, yet now that the destructiveness of this path is clear, they are emerging as the least vulnerable to warming. At the same time, they are asking more-vulnerable nations, particularly emerging powers like China and India, to make costly investments in alternative sources of energy and other measures to combat global warming. Both the rich and the poor are going to have to invest billions to adapt—for instance, they'll have to redesign seaside urban areas as sea levels rise —but the costs obviously hit the least wealthy hardest. In fact one of the most profound economic changes of our time—the rapid rise of India and China relative to the west—could conceivably be slowed if not reversed by global warming. The countries at the top of the list—the ones least vulnerable to climate change—are rich economies of the north. The Baltic countries of Sweden, Finland and Norway hold the top three spots; Canada comes in at fifth place, and the United States rings in at ninth (China is 52nd and India 74th).

A high rank does not imply invincibility: most top 10 countries have long coastlines—Canada's stretches for 200,000 kilometers—making sea-level rises a dangerous prospect. Rather, the countries in top places exhibit the broad range of socioeconomic conditions and institutions necessary to adapt successfully to the global-warming threat by, for example, designing efficient evacuation systems, or building sea walls. Japan (no. 6) already has a sophisticated warning system that issues alerts for storms and dangerous tides.

Other well-off countries are also thinking about adaptation, and wondering how the challenges they've faced in the past will change as the climate warms. The Netherlands (14) has spent centuries adapting to their low-lying terrain, and they're already looking at how rising sea levels will affect existing dikes and barriers. Conversely, in Israel (25) the problem has always been too little water—and it's a problem that global warming will likely worsen. The Israeli cabinet is studying the issue, and plans to have a comprehensive water security strategy within four years.

At the bottom of the list one finds "the usual suspects," says Gary Yohe, a Wesleyan University economist who helped craft the CIESIN list. They're largely found in impoverished sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian subcontinent. Many of the most vulnerable nations are singled out in IPCC reports for various risks. Parts of Bangladesh, for example, can expect more-frequent flash floods. Meanwhile, a rise in water-surface temperatures will make cholera epidemics more likely in East African nations like Mozambique and Somalia. More-advanced nations might be able to drain standing water and clear other disease vectors, or construct flash-flood warnings, but the low-development levels of countries like these mean few resources are available for battling potential threats.

As with economic development and health care, poor countries are asking for adaptation help from the developed world. The World Bank has already begun assisting the Pacific countries most directly affected by climate change. But many see the need for something more comprehensive—a Marshall Plan for climate change, or an international fund for adaptation administered by the United Nations. Developing countries, says Yohe, "have been pushing for four or five years for the creation of these sorts of things, and frankly they have a thousand legal legs to stand on." The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, for one, commits rich countries to assisting the most vulnerable developing nations.

Adaptation is a tricky affair in part because local factors make universal solutions impossible. In Bangladesh, for instance, the government's attempts to evacuate flood plains before cyclones hit failed because poor farmers refused to leave behind their cattle. The government's solution was to build simple earth mounds on the otherwise flat plains, which farmers could escape to—with their cattle—when the waters rose. The example shows that money alone won't solve the myriad problems of adaptation. Potential solutions will still need to be tailored to local situations.

Beyond the rich-poor divide, the list shows that some countries punch well below their weight. Middle Eastern nations rank lower than other countries of similar income, largely because they've underinvested in development programs and institutions that would raise their ability to adapt. Saudi Arabia, with a per capita income of $12,000, ranks 49th, two spots below Kyrgyzstan, which has a per capita income of $1,700. One reason is that Saudi Arabia scores poorly on water-resource management, putting it at risk for increased droughts as rainfall patterns alter. Other countries perform better than expected. Costa Rica ranks 37th better than its neighbors, because it has paid greater attention to its environment in the past by, for example, protecting a quarter of its land in nature reserves. That bodes well for the likelihood that it will rise to future challenges such as improving hurricane evacuations as storms grow more intense.

As the case of Costa Rica shows, the adaptability of a country to global warming has much to do with its environmental stewardship overall. Researchers at Yale developed their own ranking of countries, called the Environmental Performance Index, that takes account of environmental performance on 16 indicators ranging from water resources to air quality. The EPI hews surprisingly close to CIESIN's vulnerability index. Developed countries earn top marks, with Baltic countries still outperforming the others. (Sweden and Finland remain in the top three, but New Zealand takes top place.) Poor African and Asian nations pull up the rear. Current environmental performance "tells you who has developed the underlying economic structures that will allow them to address challenges like climate change," according to Dan Esty, a Yale professor who helped create the list. "Countries that have sophisticated environmental-management capacity," he adds, "will take action not only to reduce greenhouse gases but also to build structures that will provide defenses against the potential impacts of climate change, whether that's building sea walls or helping farmers shift to new crops as changes in agriculture emerge." The challenge of global warming, it seems, is inextricably bound up in the overall challenge of maintaining the environment.