China and India Will Pay

Though others started global warming.

You can see their point. China and India account for 10 percent and 3 percent, respectively, of the man-made greenhouse gases now in the atmosphere, compared with 75 percent for the developed world (according to data compiled by the World Resources Institute). So why, they ask, should they cut their emissions of carbon dioxide? In July, an Indian official bluntly told Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that his country (the world's fifth-leading greenhouse-gas emitter) would not accept emissions cuts as part of a global climate treaty. China, now the world's No. 1 carbon emitter, has been less belligerently recalcitrant, but in a policy statement demands that developed countries "take responsibility for their historical cumulative emissions and current high per capita emissions to … substantially reduce their emissions" while developing countries pursue "economic development." Read: no emissions cuts here.

Standing on principle is laudable, not to mention catnip for domestic audiences who resent being told by SUV-driving Americans to cut CO2 emissions. But the stance has one little downside. A special place in climate hell is being reserved for India and China. That is, they will suffer more from global warming than, for instance, Western Europe. In part, that reflects the fact that nature always batters the poor more than the rich, as Hurricane Katrina showed. The rich can afford to move, build sea walls, turn on the AC, and buy more expensive food; the poor starve, drown in typhoons, see their shanties swept away in tidal surges, and die in the heat waves and disease outbreaks that will become more common in a mercury-rising world.

But India and China are also in line to suffer disproportionately because of how climate change is affecting different geographic regions. For instance, more of China and India—especially in the north—will broil (by which I mean experience median temperature increases of 8 or 9 degrees Fahrenheit) than Western Europe will, according to the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. As patterns of rainfall shift to more deluges as well as more droughts due to the when-it-rains-it-pours phenomenon that global warming causes, both countries will also suffer more floods. Indeed, China's south and west are already experiencing a sevenfold increase in deluges compared with the 1950s. And both countries will need to increase irrigation more than the world average of 1 to 3 percent by the 2020s—up to 15 percent in China and 5 percent in India. Pacific cyclones are expected to become more severe, with stronger winds and Noachian rainfall.

Perhaps most ominous, the availability of fresh water will decrease in China and India, which is not what you want as irrigation needs also rise. Both countries get much of their fresh water, for agriculture and drinking, from glaciers on the Tibetan plateau and in the Himalayas, which feed the Ganges, Indus, Yangtze, and Yellow rivers. The Himalayas have been warming three times as fast as the world average, with the result that their glaciers are shrinking more rapidly than anywhere else and could disappear by 2035. The Ganges and Indus could become seasonal rather than year-round rivers. Water availability for hundreds of millions of Chinese and Indians is therefore projected to fall 20 to 40 percent in this century. Combined with an earlier spring snowmelt (bringing water when farmers don't need it), that could slash farm output 10 percent by 2030, projects the IPCC, and even more per capita. China is already experiencing its worst drought in half a century, with 300 million people facing shortages of drinking water and 50 million acres of crops (notably spring wheat) lost or damaged. Overall, projects the IPCC, Asian rice production will fall 10 percent for every 2-degree rise in growing-season minimum temperature.

The wild card is how climate change will affect the monsoons, says climatologist Gerald Meehl of the National Center for Atmospheric Research. The Indian monsoon is born from temperature differences between land and sea. In summer the huge Asian landmass heats up more than the Indian Ocean, driving air masses from ocean to land and bringing pounding winds and the rains that agriculture depends on. Some climate models show that as global warming heats land more than sea, the Indian monsoon will become more intense. More powerful monsoons are already causing tragic collateral damage, killing 2,200 people in India in 2004 and regularly displacing tens of thousands more. The Indian monsoon has also been striking earlier than its historical late-June arrival, threatening to put it out of sync with crop cycles. China could experience the opposite—a weakening summer monsoon—as global warming alters circulation patterns over the tropics.

So, let's see: principle, fairness, and righting the historical balance trump droughts, deluges, and starvation. Really?