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World: Conference On Climate Change Underlines Seriousness Of Global Warming

By Andrea Boyle

A 12-day United Nations conference on climate change wrapped up today in Milan. Officials say the impact of global warming is increasing -- affecting both the environment and people's health. Some 150,000 lives are said to be lost each year as a result of climate change.

Prague, 12 December 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Delegates to a UN conference on climate change have reaffirmed the importance of the Kyoto Protocol on limiting greenhouse gases, even as the future of the pact is hazy due to the U.S. rejection of the treaty and Russia's failure so far to ratify it.

Delegates from 180 nations today ended the 12-day conference, which concentrated on the latest evidence that the Earth's atmosphere is becoming warmer -- and what should be done about it.

Earlier this month, Russia announced its decision not to ratify Kyoto, effectively killing the accord. But spirits in Milan were lifted today after a Japanese newspaper ("The Daily Yomiuri") quoted Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov as saying his country is preparing what he called a "special action plan" to ratify the treaty.

Klaus Toepfer, chief of the UN's Environment Program, underscored the importance of Kyoto, which aims to reduce emissions of so-called greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide that are believed to contribute to global warming by trapping heat in the Earth's atmosphere. Toepfer said recent events -- such as last summer's deadly European heat wave and the ongoing melting of the polar ice caps -- prove that climate change is a problem that must be dealt with now.

"Climate change is not a prognosis for the future. Climate change is happening now," Toepfer said.

Scientists say last summer's heat wave across Europe resulted in at least 20,000 deaths. That figure underlines a report released by the UN in conjunction with the World Meteorological Organization and the World Health Organization (WHO) that finds climate change was responsible for 150,000 deaths worldwide in 2000.

WHO scientist Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum says health is inextricably linked to climate. "Extreme weather events such as floods and droughts, heat waves and cold waves affect people in the world pretty much every day, and they often make the news," he said. "However, more subtle and gradual effects, such as the effects of changing temperature and precipitation on infectious diseases, on diarrheal disease, on vector-borne diseases and on malnutrition often go unnoticed, but are probably more important."

The report estimates that climate change accounts for 2.4 percent of the world's cases of diarrhea, one of the leading causes of death worldwide. Heat exacerbates bacterial contamination of food. Additionally, Campbell-Lendrum says 2 percent of all cases of malaria can be blamed on climate change. Increased temperatures cause increased rainfall, which creates new breeding grounds for mosquitoes, the carriers of the disease.

Campbell-Lendrum acknowledges there are greater dangers to world health than global warming, but notes that focusing attention on climate change is not a wasted endeavor. "What they should do is draw attention, draw the health sector's attention, to the fact that climate change threatens to take some of our most important problems and make them even worse," he said.

A group of nations led by the European Union has pledged $410 million per year beginning in 2005 toward a fund to help poor nations adapt to and prepare for severe weather events.

Climate scientist Thomas Loster compiled data about the European heat wave and presented it at the conference. "If we analyze only modern data and only for Germany, this was a one-in-450-years event. And if we look in the whole set of data since measurements began, it was even a one-in-10,000-years event," he said.

Wildfires in Australia, Europe, the United States, and Canada, as well as strong monsoon rains in Asia, were also noted as becoming increasingly worse. Loster says global warming is shortening the return period for extreme events -- another sign the situation is getting worse.

Loster, who does research for insurance giant Munich Re, also spoke about the economic impact of weather events influenced by global warming. "We saw in the past 10 years, 3.6 times more major weather-related loss events. The economic losses from weather-related events increased by a factor of six," he said.

Meanwhile, representatives from Saudi Arabia and other nations from the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) argued that money from the fund should be given to their countries if consumers begin shifting to solar and wind power.