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CLIMATE CHANGE: South American Scientists Call for Social Commitment

Kintto Lucas

QUITO, Oct 18 2007 (IPS) - Counteracting the effects of climate change in Latin America requires the involvement of society, two of the South American scientists on the IPCC, which was awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, said in Ecuador.

Argentine physicist Osvaldo Canziani, a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which was granted the Peace Prize along with former U.S. Vice President Al Gore by the Norwegian Nobel Committee last week, told IPS Wednesday that greater social participation is needed to stem this global problem.

We must end the false contradiction between science and politics, so that scientists and politicians work together, and governments become aware of the threats their countries face and implement “long term actions and plans,” he said.

“When those in power talk about their priorities being health, education and the welfare of the people, they don’t realise that, unfortunately, global warming affects all of these things,” said Canziani, who is co-chair of the IPCC Working Group II, on climate change impacts, adaptation and vulnerability.

Permanent monitoring networks and oversight bodies are needed to assess the effects of climate change in each country, and to seek possible ways of mitigating these impacts, he said.

“It must always be remembered that lack of monitoring and information in advance leads to loss of human life,” Canziani said. “The immediate and most urgent measure is to achieve human beings’ adaptation to constant climate change, but for this to happen, our surroundings must be understood, which means assessing the resources we have.”

Every country should improve its measurement of climate change, train more research personnel, and build up capabilities. Above all, they should not try to copy foreign approaches that don’t fit in with local conditions, he recommended.

All this should go hand in hand with the protection of natural resources by the government and the scientific community, as otherwise the problem will grow more critical over time, he said.

Fellow Argentine scientist Graciela Magrín, lead author of the chapter on Latin America in the IPCC’s Fourth Report, released in September, says it is essential for governments, private and public institutions, social organisations and educational establishments to constantly carry out actions to reduce the environmental impact of climate change.

“I’m not saying that people should stop using cars, but they could cut down on their use, on the one hand with better public transport systems, and on the other by means of more responsible behaviour like car-pooling between three or four people, instead of just one person in each car,” she said.

Magrín, an agronomist and expert on agricultural meteorology, said that these small changes in behaviour may make all the difference in the future, although it will still be essential for rich countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, especially the United States, which is the largest emitter.

Because of climate change, the South American coastline is at risk, and several plant and animal species could become extinct, she said.

“In Ecuador, about 1,400 kilometres of mangrove swamps are in danger of disappearing, and if immediate action isn’t taken, a large number of species, particularly fish, could be lost throughout the region,” she said.

Canziani pointed out that rising sea levels will flood coastal urban areas and cause a surge in environmental migrants as people flee to higher ground.

The burning of fossil fuels like coal, gas and oil, deforestation, cattle-raising and other activities emit gases, such as carbon dioxide, that trap the sun’s heat in the atmosphere and intensify the greenhouse effect.

This process of global warming has unleashed climate change on a global scale, according to the scientific consensus represented by the IPCC.

Magrín outlined the IPCC report’s main findings, and said that “the climate has already changed, and this has caused an average rise in sea level of between 10 and 20 millimetres per century.”

“This in itself is not alarming, but it is estimated that in the next 100 years the average rise in sea level will be four millimetres a year, and this does represent a problem for future generations,” she said.

Civil society must organise and participate to confront this challenge, she said.

“The change is a global one, which implies that all the tools we have must be used, and all sectors need to work together,” she emphasised.

Canziani and Magrín are attending the Clima Latino international meeting on climate change in Latin America being held in the coastal city of Guayaquil and in the capital, Quito, from Monday to Thursday, under the auspices of the two city governments and the Andean Community trade bloc.

Ana Campos, a Colombian expert on natural disasters, said that some climate phenomena that affect South America have become more frequent and destructive in recent years, like the El Niño effect, when warm water replaces the normally cold current in the eastern Pacific ocean.

In Ecuador, the last El Niño event was associated with storms, floods and landslides, loss of human lives and negative effects on the economy.

According to Campos, El Niño used to appear in cycles of between 12 and 20 years, but now the phenomenon appears every seven or eight years, alternating with the contrasting La Niña effect, when unusually cold water temperatures off the South American Pacific coast bring drought to the continent in their wake.

In her view, the acceleration of the cycle “is a result of pollution that is affecting and speeding up all global warming, exacerbating the frequency of recurring phenomena and altering the dynamics. The phenomena are not only more extreme, but also more frequent,” she said.

“Industrial growth and all our misguided development models are affecting nature’s own rhythms,” she said.

“We have to work much more closely with the people to build awareness of the consequences of climate change and the urgent need to reduce the vulnerability of the region,” Campos stressed.

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