ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
After five days of debate and all-night, down-to-the-wire negotiations, scientists and government representatives have agreed to a new report on the effects of global warming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations scientific group, released its findings today in Brussels.
Haggling over the fine print diluted some of the original language. Even so, NPR's Christopher Joyce says the final report is a stark depiction of what is in store for the planet: flooding, droughts, extinctions of plants and animals, and high costs for everyone.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: This is the fourth report from the U.N. climate panel in 17 years, and it's proved to be one of the hardest hitting ones. The first chapter came out in February after tough negotiations. It said that scientists are 90 percent sure that humans are warming the planet. What the panel addressed today was, so what? Their answer is: trouble. Many coastal communities will flood. Severe droughts will damage crops. There will be stronger storms and hurricanes, heat waves, and the death of many coral reefs. Many of the world's plants and animals will be at higher risk of extinction.
But scientists who wrote the report wanted to say they had very high confidence in their findings. That means they think they have a nine out of 10 chance of being right. That started a fight, according to Patricia Romero Lankao, one of the scientific authors who works at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado.
Ms. PATRICIA ROMERO LANKAO (National Center for Atmospheric Research): Some countries like China and Saudi Arabia, they didn't want to accept our statement that it was very likely that global warming was causing those impacts on physical and biological systems.
JOYCE: China is expected to pass the U.S. as the leading emitter of greenhouse gases that warm the planet. Saudi Arabia owns the largest reserves of oil. Their government officials won that fight, taking out the word very and reducing certainty to eight out of 10.
Lankao says European scientists also wanted to stress how seriously the economies of poor nations in particular would be damaged and how little they actually contributed to warming compared to industrialized countries. Lankao says the U.S. allegations sought to tone down that language.
Despite the compromises, the final document makes it clear that big impacts are on the way and that the world is already changing. Among the authors was climate scientist Linda Mearns also from the Atmospheric Center in Colorado.
Ms. LINDA MEARNS (Climate Scientist, National Center for Atmospheric Research): I mean, examples are earlier melting of lake ice in the great lakes and later freezing; plants, flowers, blooming sooner; the migratory pattern of birds changing most distinctly through the second half of the 20th century.
JOYCE: Mearns said today's report moves the climate debate into new territory.
Ms. MEARNS: The real heart of the climate change issue is now shifting more from the climate science, physical science, and more into the impacts, and then also issues of mitigations about how we reduce greenhouse gases.
JOYCE: The IPCC report isn't all dire news. Some temperate regions like North America will probably see longer growing seasons for crops, for example, but effects will differ regionally. In a study published this week in the journal Science, climate researcher Richard Seager at Columbia University says the southwestern U.S. could see the kind of long-term drought that caused the dust bowl in the 1930s.
Mr. RICHARD SEAGER (Climate Researcher, Columbia University): The overall pattern, if you're going to distill it down to something very simple, is that the dry regions get drier and the wet regions get wetter.
JOYCE: Many of the hardest hit regions are where the poor live - in Africa and in many other parts of the tropics. But climate scientist Linda Mearns says wealthy countries such as the U.S. should not think they'll escape.
Ms. MEARNS: Poor populations within the country will probably suffer more. And of course one can, you know, take the example of Katrina, and the people who suffered most there were the poorer residents.
JOYCE: There's more to come from the U.N. panel. They'll report in May on what kinds of things can be done to lessen the impacts of climate change.
Christopher Joyce, NPR News.
SIEGEL: On May 1st, NPR in partnership with National Geographic will begin a yearlong series, "Climate Connections." It's a journey around the world to look at the impact of climate change. And we'd like you to help us shape our coverage. We want to know what you want to know. So go to npr.org, search for the word climate, and tell us your story ideas and the issues that you would like us to explore.