March 25, 2009 / 6:56 AM / 10 years ago

U.N. plans guide to fighting climate-change disasters

OSLO (Reuters) - A proposed U.N. study of climate extremes will be a practical guide for tackling natural disasters and fill a gap in past reports focused on the gradual effects of global warming, experts said.

A flooded paddy field is seen in Vietnam's central province of Quang Ngai January 2, 0009. REUTERS/Vietnam News Agency/Thanh Long

Floods, mudslides, droughts, heatwaves or storms are often the main causes of destruction and human suffering tied to climate change, rather than the creeping rise in average temperatures blamed on a build-up of greenhouse gases.

“We are saying a lot about changes in mean temperatures but the impacts on real people, real companies, are taking place at the extremes,” said Chris Field, a co-chair of a group in the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Better knowledge of extreme climate events could help governments, companies or humanitarian organizations to cope with natural disasters, he told Reuters on Tuesday during a March 23-26 IPCC meeting in Oslo.

“Most importantly (a special study) will be a guide for how we can get going with practical measures in countries vulnerable to climate change,” said Ellen Hambro, head of the Norwegian Pollution Control Authority which is hosting the talks.

About 100 scientists are meeting in Oslo to map out a possible special U.N. report about climate extremes by Field’s group, under a proposal by Norway and the U.N.’s International Strategy for Disaster Reduction.

Rising sea levels, for instance, are a threat to coasts, especially low-lying tropical islands. But most erosion happens during extreme storms, said Field, who is director of the U.S. Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology.

And plant ranges are gradually shifting because of climate change. But crop failures that can lead to hunger often happen because of a single extremely hot day when flowers are maturing.

A special report would take about two years to write, if approved by an wider IPCC meeting in Turkey next month. Field said there was enthusiasm among experts for the idea. “It’s something ripe for progress now,” he said.

Among benefits, Field said that better knowledge of extremes could help develop better coastal defenses to withstand storms and rising seas. It might also help relief agencies plan ways to manage heatwaves, droughts or floods.

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Editing by Louise Ireland

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