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Katrina rings alarms on climate change: World Bank

By Laura MacInnisFri (Reuters) - September 9, 2005

Hurricane Katrina may serve as a wake-up call on climate change for developing nations, many of which are vulnerable to devastation from global warming, the World Bank’s top environmental official said on Thursday.

Ian Johnson, the World Bank’s vice president for environmentally and socially sustainable development, told Reuters the storm’s heavy damage in the southern United States would have important implications for poorer countries.

“Just think of the catastrophic impact it’s had in a country that’s pretty well organized, pretty rich. Transfer that to a country that isn’t and may not have the same level of capacity to deal with these sorts of things,” Johnson said in an interview.

“Katrina is a terrible tragedy, but maybe it is a wake-up call to all of us to begin understanding what catastrophic events, what damage can occur,” he added.

In addition to fostering talks on emissions and promoting clean energy products, Johnson said the World Bank is working with private industry to find ways to protect poor nations from the expected environmental shifts linked to global warming.

“There is a real sense that the train has left the station, and that there is going to be a pretty significant impact of climate change,” Johnson said, adding the devastation in New Orleans had increased public sensitivity to these risks.

“Certainly in the press, it seems to have raised questions of the extent to which this is part of a global warming world,” he said. “I do think that public opinion is thinking a lot about these issues.”

In order to protect vulnerable regions, such as low-lying areas and those subject to landslides, Johnson said the World Bank was seeking to spur investment in flood controls and levees and to encourage stricter building standards.

Other ideas include greater reliance on water-resistant or drought-resistant crops to maintain agricultural productivity should weather patterns change, he said, adding new insurance products could also help those who would otherwise lose everything in a disaster.

While poor people in the New Orleans area were among the most affected in Katrina’s wake, Johnson said it was not the World Bank’s role to lend assistance to the United States or other wealthy developed economies facing environmental risks.

Still, he said it was important to draw lessons from the United States’ experience with the storm and its aftermath.

“It is the poor who suffer disproportionately in these events because they tend to be the least capable of resisting, they’re not as resilient, they are typically located and live in the areas that are most vulnerable,” he said.

“One hopes there will be positive lessons from this that we can apply, because it has been an awful, awful tragedy.”