Is it worse to be swallowed by the sea or racked by famine?
As climate change tightens its grip on the world, institutions charged with protecting the most vulnerable nations could be faced with just such a question. Because there is no international consensus for ranking the possibilities of future devastation -- and because there are limited dollars lined up to help cope with climate change -- some countries already are battling over who will be considered most vulnerable.
"This is a major, major topic of discussion and debate at the moment," said Saleem Huq, head of the climate change group at the U.K.-based International Institute for Environment and Development.
Judging who is most threatened has real-world implications. Those at the top of the list -- if ever such a list is developed and agreed upon internationally -- could decide who is first in line to tap a multibillion-dollar Green Climate Fund.
The trail toward making such a determination, experts say, is strewn with scientific and political land mines. After all, many scientists consider China -- susceptible to droughts, typhoons and sea level rise -- to be the world's most threatened nation. But with a gross domestic product of $4.99 trillion, should it be as eligible for aid as poverty-stricken Bangladesh?
Some small island nations like the Seychelles are middle-income countries, yet climate change threatens their very existence. And where in the mix to put a Colombia or Pakistan, which doesn't fit neatly into any prescribed U.N. category yet suffers catastrophic flooding?
"There is simply no objective, scientific way of categorizing a ranking of 100-plus countries in order of who is more vulnerable than another," Huq said. "The moment someone comes up with a list, there's a problem."
Yet economists are trying. Last year, the British firm Maplecroft developed an extensive ranking that analyzed countries' exposures to weather extremes, sensitivity to damage tied to poverty, population, internal conflicts, dependence on agriculture, and capacity to adapt (Climatewire, Oct. 21, 2010).
And in January, former World Bank economist David Wheeler published a sweeping study quantifying the vulnerability of 233 nations, the risk to people in each of those countries from extreme weather events and agricultural loss, and putting the criteria in multiple dimensions.
'There's no one truth'
Wheeler, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, said the research is vital in order to sensibly allocate scarce climate change funding in proportion to the problems that countries are facing. He said it's important to consider not only the weather-related threats facing a country, but also the nation's ability to cope with crisis -- everything from per capita GDP to whether a country has strong governing institutions and control over corruption.
"We have to combine these different aspects. There's no one truth," he said. In Wheeler's assessment of nations rich and poor, China came out as far and away the world's most vulnerable nation overall, followed closely by India. Bangladesh and Trinidad and Tobago also made the top 10, as did the African nations of Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Burundi, Sudan and Rwanda. But a different examination limited to just vulnerability to extreme weather risk found new countries on the endangered catalog, like Djibouti, Kenya, Somalia, Mozambique and the Philippines.
No rankings, experts agreed, take into account the political calculations that must also come into play when deciding how to prioritize and allocate money. Indeed, national leaders fiercely object to any ranking system that doesn't have their country at or near the top.