Africa and much of south Asia face extreme risk from climate change but top carbon polluters will be relatively shielded from its ravages, according a ranking of 166 nations obtained by AFP Wednesday.
Somalia, Haiti and Afghanistan top the Climate Change Vulnerability Index, calculated from dozens of variables measuring the capacity of a country to cope with the consequences of global warming. "We wanted to look at what is going to impact human populations," explained Fiona Place, senior environmental risk analyst at Maplecroft, a Britain-based firm that provides global risk intelligence for businesses.
Even if the world agrees at make-or-break climate talks in December to slash CO2 emissions, many of those impacts -- rising sea levels, increased disease, flooding and drought -- are already inevitable, UN scientists say.
Of the 28 nations deemed at "extreme risk", 22 are in Africa. Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are similarly threatened, with Pakistan right on the edge and India not far behind.
At the other end of the spectrum, Norway, Finland, Japan, Canada and New Zealand are best insulated, due to a combination of wealth, good governance, well-managed ecosystems and high resource security. The United States and Australia -- the largest per capita emitters of CO2 among developed nations -- are comfortably within the top 15 countries least at risk, according to the index.
With the exception of Chile and Israel, the rest of the 41 nations in the "low risk" category of the ranking are European or from the Arab Peninsula.
Japan's enviable position is due to its highly-developed infrastructure, its stable political and economic system, and its overall food and water security, explained Place. Although it imports much of its energy needs, it does so from many sources, spreading the risk. "Japan is also relatively rich in biodiversity, including well-managed forests. Human induced soil erosion is not a critical issue," she said.
"That's in contrast to, say, Ethiopia" -- or dozens of other poor nations -- "where there's a high population density and soil erosion is a real issue, impacting the ability to grow crops," she said.
One weak point in Japan, however, is the high concentration of populations along the coast exposed to rising sea levels. "Japan does need to take very seriously the issue of climate change vulnerability," Place said.
Another country threatened by ocean levels, which many scientists say will go up by at least a metre by century end, is Bangladesh, most of whose 150 million people live in low-lying delta areas.
Among the so-called BRIC economies -- Brazil, Russia, India and China -- only India is in the "high risk" group, due to high population density, security risks and especially its resource security. India's food vulnerability was highlighted last month by a study in the British journal Nature which said that the country's underground water supply was being depleted at an alarming rate. China and Brazil face "medium" risk, while Russia is in the "low" category.
Many small island states literally at risk of being washed off the map by rising seas, such as Tuvalu and the Maldives, were not included in the ranking.
The climate change index is based on 33 distinct criteria grouped into six sub-indices: economy, government institutions, poverty and development, ecosystems, resource security, and population density in relation to infrastructure. The two items weighted most heavily are potential impact of rising sea levels, and mismanagement of land resources, both forests or agriculture.