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A Conversation on Conservation: Contemplating the Impact of Climate Change in the Latin America-Caribbean Region

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Climate Change
illustration by Margaret Scott

The Latin American and Caribbean regions contain nearly half of the world’s diversity of plant and animal species and half of the world’s tropical forests, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). The persistence of global warming and prevalence of greenhouse gases and other environmental toxins is contributing toward a rise in the rate of destruction of freshwater, marine and especially forest habitat—a result expected to profoundly impact biodiversity in the region. Amazon deforestation, El Niño weather patterns, and rising sea levels contribute to and are affected by climate change in Latin America, leading to erosion and deterioration in such vital sectors as water resources, ecosystems, agriculture, and human health.

Although many Latin American countries have had a history of environmental concern when it comes to protecting their valuable natural resources, some of the greatest threats to environmental degradation and destruction in the region come from a lack of systemization of policy concepts aimed at supporting sustainable development and natural resource preservation. Another longstanding problem has been an inability of many governments to institute and implement environmental legislation that works and is not easy prey to corruption or narrow interests. Nevertheless, specific examples of environmentally conscious policies can be found throughout the Caribbean and Latin America, particularly those highlighting Amazon conservation and adoption of alternative energy sources.

Climate Change Felt Deeply Throughout Latin America and the Caribbean
Giulio Volpi, WWF’s Climate Change Coordinator for Latin America recently observed that “climate change impacts are being felt across Latin America, ranging from drought in the Amazon to floods in Haiti, from vanishing glaciers in Colombia to hurricanes… across the region the capacity of natural ecosystems to act as buffers against extreme weather events is being undermined.” Some of the greatest threats to the environment lie in deforestation, overfishing, water pollution, inadequate coastal development, and chemical management, whereas the greatest opportunities to fight climate change reside in the design of responsible infrastructure projects and viable land use planning, renewable energy sources, and the drafting of efficient environmental policy, law and trade. It is universally agreed that inaction in the face of current dire predictions of global warming and climate change in Latin America will not only result in a loss of biodiversity, but will additionally lead to often irreversible adverse effects on ecological balances as well as human health in the region.

Glacial Melting in the Andes
Recent news reports have told of the curious disappearance of a small glacial lake in southern Chile which has sparked new concerns over global warming in the Andean region. After the 100-foot deep body of water seemingly vanished over the course of a month, local scientists were left baffled as to the cause. Soon enough it was discovered that a large fissure at the bottom of the lake had allowed the water to drain out into a nearby fjord and subsequently into the ocean; however, the circumstances leading up to the formation of the fissure were not fully comprehended, as no large earthquakes had been reported in the area. After careful examination, meteorologists concluded that added water pressure, as a consequence of glacial melting, had placed excessive stress on the lake, leading to the creation of the fissure.

Along similar lines, two of Chile’s Andean neighbors, Peru and Bolivia, are at considerable risk when it comes to global warming. Peru is home to the planet’s largest expanse of glaciers located in a tropical region (containing 70 percent of Latin American glaciers), while Bolivia contains 20 percent. According to the July 14 issue of The Economist, the glaciers are melting fast; a 1997 study found that glaciers situated in Peru had been reduced by 22 percent since 1960. The American Geophysical Union (AGU) predicts that most of the glaciers in the lower Andes will be gone in a decade, with total glacial runoff drying up within the next twenty years. The consequences for Peruvians may be in the extreme and located on opposing spectrums: as the ice melts, newly formed mountain lakes may unleash massive floods on villages below them, triggering devastating mud slides along the way, or, without glaciers to regulate water flow, floods may alternate with periods of drought. Residents in the Andean region rely heavily on a supply of freshwater from glacial runoff for drinking and irrigation purposes, with more than 70 percent of Peru’s electricity coming from hydroelectric dams located at the mouths of glacial rivers. Either way, glacial melting in the Andean region could end in catastrophic consequences, both economically as well as regarding human health.

Extreme Weather Patterns and Rising Sea Levels in the Caribbean
According to the non-profit Climate Institute, perhaps the greatest challenge to the Caribbean in the near future with regard to climate change will come from the increased incidence of super hurricanes. In fact, with the hurricane season having begun in early June, the region has already seen five substantial occurrences, including Erin, which is currently breaking over Texas, and Dean, the now-forming first Atlantic hurricane of the season—two storms which have coincided one after the other, and which were both quickly upgraded upon formation, according to last-minute news reports. The Caribbean is particularly vulnerable to such furious acts of nature, with current research on the subject suggesting that the warming of the ocean, an effect of global climate change, increases the frequency of hurricanes. Super hurricanes in the past have resulted in several thousand deaths, largely in Central America. Furthermore, global warming is increasing the intensity and frequency of El Niño weather patterns. An intergovernmental panel on climate change hosted by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) in 2001 concluded that El Niño weather patterns were responsible for much of the climate variability in Latin America. The panel reported that the effects were felt across the continent, from dry conditions in Northern Brazil and the Pacific coast of Central America, to severe drought in large parts of Mexico, and flooding in Colombia and Peru.

With the onset of glacial melting, the planet will see an inevitable rise in sea level. This would be particularly devastating for the Caribbean region, where scientists note that small increases in sea level may erode away significant portions of the shorelines of island nations. Secondary consequences of such coastal erosion include the loss of valuable beachfront, a result which is sure to deliver a huge blow to the region’s top economic activity—tourism. The 2001 findings of the UNEP and WMO panel also pointed out that coastal flooding, as a result of a rise in sea level, will negatively affect the ecosystems of mangroves, a plant which is crucial in providing a natural buffer against flooding, high winds, and erosion.

Loss of Biodiversity in the Amazon and Belize
Although it may not pose a direct threat to humans, the loss of biodiversity in Latin America and the Caribbean is a bona fide issue that must be addressed by the regional as well as international communities. The previously mentioned 2001 UNEP and WMO panel stated with a high degree of confidence that Latin America accounts for one of the Earth’s most significant concentrations of biodiversity, and the impacts of climate change are expected to accentuate the risk of biodiversity loss in the near future. Today, the rainforests of South America and Mesoamerica are suffering the heaviest consequences of climate change with respect to a grievous loss of biodiversity.

Groups involved with the impact of global warming and the process of Amazon deforestation are now aware of the particular impact it is having on the Latin American region, where Brazil (which alone contains a quantity of rainforest equal to twice that of all countries in Africa and Asia combined) is losing its rainforest at an astonishing rate of 1 percent per year. Considering the fact that rainforests support the highest concentrations of biodiversity on the planet, loss of these vital tracts of vernal lands merits the utmost of attention. Deforestation in the region adversely affects the process of evapo-transpiration of plants, a consequence which is likely to result in a reduction in precipitation, and in expansion of more arid conditions in the Amazon and Mesoamerica regions. Tree mortality increases under these drier conditions, and the tropical rainforests continue to be severely threatened by multiple inroads on their habitats.

Climate change may be particularly harmful in developing countries, where significant losses to natural habitats and wildlife already can be observed. A recent UN report showed that with the current trends toward climate change, the natural habitat of Belize in Central America may be especially vulnerable. The small country contains a highly bio-diverse Barrier Reef, which, according to the CARICOM Climatic Change Center, is highly susceptible to climate change, and on the verge of destruction. With increased sunlight and warmer waters coursing through the region, higher tides, flooding, and the death or relocation of many species will soon be increasingly witnessed. Likewise, the disappearance of several amphibian species in the cloud forest region of Costa Rica already has been observed and is thought to be due to climate change.

Implications for Humans: Food Production Decline and Disease Spread
Climate change in Latin America and the Caribbean is predicted to negatively affect factors relating to human health, especially with respect to food production and disease. An Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study in the early 1990s established that in the face of increased global temperatures, countries at lower latitudes would suffer most in regard to food production. Warming at lower latitudes brings on greater heat and water stress as well as a shortening of the crop cycle, which can be expected to result in larger decreases in crop yield than at higher latitudes, where small increases in temperature can benefit crops otherwise limited by colder temperatures. Developed and developing countries at low altitudes can be expected to be equally affected. However, developing countries will inevitably have fewer resources available to deal with such changes. As is the case with most developing countries geographically situated near the Equator, Latin American nations will be among those bearing the brunt of food production decline in the face of climate change. The 2001 UN intergovernmental panel also pointed out that heavy losses in the agricultural sector will directly affect regional economies, as 30-40 percent of the working population are typically employed in the agricultural sector. Such losses would inevitably have dismal implications for issues of poverty, hunger, and overall living standards.

Temperature increases in the Southern Hemisphere could bring about the spread of dangerous tropical diseases such as malaria and dengue, the number of incidences of which would be expected to swell as more geographic regions become climatically suited to harbor the disease-bearing carriers. Members of the intergovernmental UN panel of 2001 stated that increased temperatures and levels of precipitation have changed the geographical distribution of many water-borne infectious diseases such as cholera and meningitis. The diseases are now appearing at higher altitudes and higher latitudes than ever before. More frequent El-Niño type weather patterns can be expected to lead to increased incidences of water-borne diseases in much of northern South America, as well as more intense hurricanes in Central America. Densely populated centers such as Mexico City and Santiago may experience human health crises on a major scale, as profound climate change brings about increasingly hotter summers and colder winters. Unprecedented heat waves as well as freezing temperatures are being recorded each year; in July, Buenos Aires saw a major snowfall for the first time in nearly a century.

Small and Large Alike Must Deal with the Problem
In response to this potentially devastating environmental crisis, various countries have enacted new laws or formed alliances with others to identify and then implement common, environmentally-friendly practices with hopes of tracking the effects of global warming. From smart energy alternative initiatives in St. Lucia, to a completely “green” city in the heart of Brazil, large and small nations alike are taking on the challenge of confronting climate change. Specific measures enacted come in the form of laws, initiatives, as well as business deals, and have at times involved coalitions of a number of countries together with international institutions. The following sections briefly describe a few approaches to climate change undertaken by a range of countries in the Caribbean and Latin America.

St. Lucia’s Pioneering and the Global Sustainable Energy Islands Initiative
The small Caribbean island nation of St. Lucia is the world’s first Sustainable Energy Demonstration Country. At the Bonn Climate Conference in 1999, the government of St. Lucia announced that it would use solely non-carbon based fuels as a source of alternative energy on the island. Along with this adoption, St. Lucia began to remove tariffs on renewable energy technologies and support equipment, and in July 2001, approved a 10-year Sustainable Energy Plan. As members of the Small Island Developing States (SIDS), St. Lucia, Grenada, Dominica, and St. Kitts & Nevis account for only a tiny fraction of greenhouse gas emissions, but because of their location barely above sea level, they are among the most vulnerable to the dangerous effects of climate change, such as sea level rise and extreme weather conditions. Conversely, the islands are among the most suitable candidates for alternative energy development and utilization due to the typically harmonious availability of natural resources and current low energy consumption patterns.

The Global Sustainable Energy Islands Initiative (GSEII) is an offshoot consortium of the aforementioned Sustainable Energy Demonstration Country concept instituted in St. Lucia. According to its website, the GSEII supports the “interest of all small island states and potential donors by bringing renewable energy and energy efficiency projects, models, and concepts together in a sustainable plan for small island nations.” The consortium consists of international NGOs and multilateral institutions, such as the Organization of American States (OAS), and is meant to support small island nations as well as potential private investors and donors who wish to bring about the adoption of alternative energy technology in an effort to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Although representing the smallest countries both in area as well as population, these bold Caribbean nations succeed in doing their part to confront the challenge of global climate change.

World Bank Partnerships and the Clean Development Mechanism
The World Bank, which has suffered a number of blows to its reputation as well as to its development model in recent months, has taken a proactive role in the issue of climate change. Under a specific market mechanism called the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) created by the Kyoto Protocol, the World Bank has negotiated several deals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in developing countries. In particular, the World Bank’s new project in Bolivia will reduce methane emissions by converting the gas into carbon dioxide through a combustion process. According to the Environment Department at the World Bank, the CDM allows industrialized countries with greenhouse gas reduction commitments to invest in emission-reduction projects in developing countries instead of at home, where such cutbacks would typically be more costly. Using this mechanism, the Bank has so far channeled upwards of $200 million into the Latin American region, yet the process continues to be open to debate over whether the richer nations are essentially buying their way out of compliance.

Brazil’s “Green” City and New Amazonian Conservation Measures
As one of the world’s most diverse developing nations, Brazil has taken the lead in setting new trends in urban planning. Located deep in the southern province of Paraná lies Curitiba – the first “green” city. The city’s population of 1.8 million consumes 23 percent less fuel per capita than the Brazilian national average, and the city boasts over 1,000 green public areas as well as 16 parks and 14 forests. In total, Curitiba has 54 square meters of green space per citizen, and the city’s extensive bus system operates at less than a tenth of subway costs. Curitiba also contains a well developed recycling system which separates organic waste, trash, plastic, glass, and metal. At the forefront of Brazilian investment in alternative energy technologies, Curitiba has successfully demonstrated that urban planning can go hand in hand with environmental friendliness.

A recent article in the New York Times highlighted Brazil’s new approach toward conservation of portions of the Amazon rainforest located within its national borders. Recent calculations have put Brazil as the fourth largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions, due primarily to deforestation. It is estimated that a portion of the rainforest as large as New Jersey is lost each year. To combat this environmental hazard, Brazilian President Lula da Silva has recently stated that he would be more willing to discuss issues of market-based programs which would assist in curbing carbon emissions that result from massive deforestation. In addition, many governors of individual states in Brazil have begun programs of financial compensation for areas of “avoided deforestation,” whereby individual farmers and indigenous peoples are given payment for the “environmental service” of not harming the rainforest. Future programs along the same lines look to the assignment of monetary values for greenhouse gas emissions as a way of limiting them. A noteworthy plan of the da Silva government aspires to begin the construction of a large network of dams throughout the Amazon River to supply electricity via hydropower to the industrial heartland of Brazil. As an emerging agricultural and industrial power, Brazil stands to lose much over global warming; in 2004, the first ever hurricane recorded in the South Atlantic hit Brazil hard, and, according to the recent UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, anticipated temperature increases in the near future are expected to transform the tropical rainforest into savannah land in the Eastern Amazon. Nevertheless, as one of the few countries in the region confronting this serious issue of climate change, Brazil is at least taking some steps in the right direction.

The Big Picture
Climate change is already affecting Latin America and the Caribbean, especially among the poorest sections of the hemisphere, where they are least capable of coping with it. The region faces devastating consequences in the integrity of its food and water supply, disease, biodiversity loss, and coastal degradation. However, select examples in the region have shown that not only can urbanization and ecology exist together peacefully and effectively, in fact, they must. Policymakers at all governmental levels have the obligation to strive for success in the proposal and execution of environmentally sound policies. At the local level, the private and public sectors as well as ordinary citizens need to be aware of what they can do in the face of global warming. Of equal or perhaps even greater importance, the developed countries outside of the region must realize that both their policies and pollutants affect not only their immediate area, but are felt throughout the globe. As the U.S. and other rich nations call for environmental policy reform in underdeveloped nations, they too have a responsibility to be proactive in financially supporting policy adoption around the world, especially in poorer countries where implementation may be more difficult to achieve. With so much at stake, it is necessary that these countries in the Western Hemisphere make a serious commitment to the reduction of climate vulnerability, while simultaneously halting deforestation and supporting ambitious endeavors into renewable energy technologies.