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Climate Change in Latin America: Running out of time


By Javier Farje, LAB editor

“…above all, the magnificent snowy mass of illimani, towering into the sapphire blue sky with glaciers that seem to hang over the city though they are forty miles away, its three pinnacles of snow turning to a vivid rose under the departing sun”. 

British historian and traveller James Bryce described the mountain that stands like a guardian over La Paz, Bolivia’s main city and the centre of power, in his 1920 book “South America, Observations and Impressions” (1)

Ninety years later, another witness – Karen Luyckx, CAFOD’s representative in Bolivia – tells a different story: 

“I am standing here in front of Illimani, which is one of Bolivia’s most ancient and beautiful mountains, but sadly it is melting really fast. And the snow from this mountain range provides half of the drinking water for Bolivia’s capital, La Paz. Scientists predict that as early as 2025, this glacier will have completely disappeared” (2).

Much has changed over the period. To start with, technology. While Bryce describes Illimani in a heavy book with dark green covers, Karen gives her account through YouTube. And, much more significantly, nature itself has changed and not for the better. There is only one explanation for the difference between Bryce’s romantic description and Karen’s apocalyptic warning: climate change.

The region

Latin America is being affected by climate change, even though its level of greenhouse gas emissions is relatively low. Like Africa and Asia, the continent is the victim of the industrial greed of the North and its failure to take responsibility for its actions.

The fact is that climate change affects most those who pollute least. According to the US Energy Information Administration, Latin America and the Caribbean were responsible for only 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions from the consumption of fossil fuels in 2005. Whereas, for example, North America emitted 6.9 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide and Asia and Oceania pumped out 11.2 billion tonnes, Latin America and the Caribbean emitted 1.1 billion tonnes in the same year (3).

It is now almost universally agreed by scientists that these anthropogenic emissions are heating the planet. Despite Latin America’s relatively low level of emissions, the 4th Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published in 2007, says that the region’s temperature increased by an estimated 1°C between 1900 and 2000, which was a larger increase than the one recorded in North America (4).

This is changing rain patterns. According to the IPCC, regions in Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and north Peru have experienced an increase in rainfall, whereas rainfall has fallen in the south of Argentina, Chile and Peru. This is changing farming calendars, with farmers unable to grow crops in the same way they used to.

Furthermore, nature is changing in quite dramatic ways. According to a report called “Low Carbon, High Growth, Latin America Responses to Climate Change”, published by the World Bank in 2009, the changes in rainfall patterns and the higher temperature have caused or will soon cause: “the warming and eventual disabling of mountain ecosystems in the Andes; the bleaching of coral reefs leading to an anticipated total collapse of the coral biome in the Caribbean basin; the damage to vast stretches of wetlands and associated coastal systems in the Gulf of Mexico; and the risk of forest dieback in the Amazon basin” (5).

Latin America has five of the world’s 10 richest countries in terms of biodiversity. If the World Bank’s predictions come true, much of this extraordinary natural wealth will be lost.

Communities in danger

In 2006, a group of environmental and development NGOs published their Third Report on Climate Change and Development in Latin climate-change-1(1).jpgAmerica. Based on scientific data and the observation of their own field workers, they conclude that global warming will increase the intensity of meteorological phenomena, including an increase in the intensity of hurricanes and tropical storms, an increase of sea levels, affecting big costal cities in the region, and the warming of regions in the highlands, provoking the melting of glaciers, causing a shortage of water in the region that is the source of 35% of the planet’s drinking water on the planet (6).

Global warming is already affecting the health of communities in tropical and semi-tropical areas in Latin America and the impact is likely to get worse. According to the World Bank report, “In Colombia, there is evidence that temperature is important for dengue transmission, while increased precipitation is a significant variable contributing to malaria transmission. An increase in the number of cases of malaria in Colombia has already been observed, from about 400 per 100,000 in the 1970s to about 800 per 100,000 in the 1990s. Based on statistical models of the incidence of both malaria and dengue, and forecasts of change in precipitation and temperatures (derived from eight global circulation models used in the fourth assessment of the IPCC), the total number of dengue victims is forecast to increase by around 21 percent by 2050 and by 64 percent by 2100. Similarly, the incidence of malaria is expected to increase by 8 percent by 2050, and by 23 percent in 2100.”

So the problem of the melting of glaciers, which is affecting the whole of the Andean region, from Colombia to Chile, is just one of the many consequences of global warming in Latin America. As Karen Luyckx explains in her YouTube piece, snow and ice from the Illimani mountain are the main source of water in La Paz. The government of Evo Morales has already been forced to adopt emergency measures to tackle water shortages, creating a new focus of potential instability in a country where the opposition has vowed to block the president’s reforms.

The damage caused by climate change and global warming in the region is widespread and diverse – changes in rainfall patterns, loss of biodiversity, more illnesses, higher sea levels, changes in the weather, devastated ecosystems.

As so often is the case, the poor are the ones suffering the most and the problems are likely to multiply. Farmers will be unable to produce enough food to feed themselves and the urban centres. Communities will flee from tropical regions to avoid diseases. Hurricanes will become ever more powerful, affecting with particular severity Caribbean countries as the authorities are ill-equipped to take the measures needed to prepare for such eventualities.

The resources promised by the big polluters to help poor countries to adapt to climate change have been scarce and insufficient. And yet, the USA, China and Canada, just to mention three of the biggest polluters, have not even reduced their emissions of greenhouse gases.

After the failure of COP15 in Copenhagen, many activists feel that the world should not be wasting more time in COP16 in Mexico City in December 2010. And an alternative approach is being forged at the grassroots. More than 7,000 delegates from all walks of life, from activists to communities affected by climate change, gathered in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba to hold the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth. They talked about their problems and propose solutions that, they feel, can really work. It’s time to speak out louder than ever.

[1] Bryce, James. South America, Observations and Impressions, The MacMillan Company, New York 1920.

[2] YouTube, 5 November 2009. 

[3] U.S Energy Information Administration.

[4] 4th Assessment Report, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2007.

[5] Low Carbon, High Growth, Latin America Responses to Climate Change. Full Report.

 [6] ¿Con el Agua hasta el Cuello? América Latina y El Caribe. La amenaza del cambio climático sobre el medio ambiente y el desarrollo humano. Tercer Informe del Grupo de Trabajo sobre el Cambio Climático y el Desarrollo. 2006.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

Low Carbon, High Growth, Latin America Responses to Climate Change. Full Report.

World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth.


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