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HONOLULU, Hawai‘i (March 6, 2001 – East-West Wire)---The El Niño of 1997-98 was a wake-up call for policymakers worldwide to consider climate changes when planning for long-term development, an expert on climate impact said at the East-West Center. And countries need to face such challenges together.

During those years, El Niño -- an occasional invasion of warm water from the Western Pacific into the Central and Eastern Pacific -- led to death and destruction as a result of drought and fires in Indonesia; drought, frost and famine in Papua New Guinea, and severe water shortages in the Pacific islands, said Michael H. Glantz, senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. Flooding washed out Kenya's aging and neglected infrastructure and sparked outbreaks of infectious diseases. For Australia, on the other hand, unexpected heavy rains fell just when parched farmlands needed it, added Glantz, an adviser to Columbia University's Earth Institute for Climate Affairs.

"Bureaucrats in government, CEOs in corporations and teachers in schools need to be educated about how climate affects the economy," said Glantz, a leading researcher on climate and society. "If we don't understand how to deal with weather extremes now, will we be any smarter in 2050 when researchers say we will have to face dramatic climate changes? It's pay now or pay later."

Stressing that "climate touches everything," Glantz ticks off his list: warm winters hurt the textile industry in Peru but mean cheaper fuel bills in the Northeastern United States; warmer ocean currents force fish populations to move; a dry year in southern Brazil raises the price of coffee. Climate can influence how and where foreign aid will be spent, and global warming could cause international insurance companies to raise rates.

Glantz said El Niño and other climate forecasts are a government's earliest warning that climate-related problems may occur, and such information must be considered in decision-making. He added that countries in a vulnerable region should join together to develop regional early-warning systems.

That task began recently at the East-West Center's Training Institute on Climate and Society in the Asia-Pacific Region. Representatives from 14 countries attended. Eileen Shea, the East-West Center's climate expert who organized the three-week program, said participants agreed that a regional approach to developing and using climate information was not only desirable, but essential. Now Shea and the participants are organizing such an Asia-Pacific Climate Information System. This effort builds on Shea's work with the South Pacific Regional Environment Programme and other regional institutions to develop a Pacific Islands Climate Information System.

"Improving our ability to deal with year-to-year variations in climate like El Niño can reap near-term benefits and teach important lessons about how to reduce our vulnerability to longer-term climate change," Shea said.

Shea has led a number of forums on how a community -- business leaders, policymakers, educators and scientists -- can share climate information to support planning and development. For example, the tourism industry should consider rising sea levels caused by global warming when looking at future hotel sites in the Pacific islands, and governments should plan ahead for future changes in water supplies.

Eileen Shea can be reached at 808-944-7253 or 

Michael Glantz can be reached at 303-497-8119 or 

A summary of a U.N. survey headed by Glantz and entitled "Lessons Learned from the 1997-1998 El Nino: Once Burned, Twice Shy?" can be found at  or requested at 

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