Climate Change, Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean, Tierramerica

CLIMATE CHANGE: Latin America’s Perpetual Fever

Diana Cariboni* - Tierramérica

MONTEVIDEO, Nov 25 2009 (IPS) - “To use a soccer metaphor, which Brazilian politicians like so much, the Kyoto Protocol was the 10-minute warm-up before the real game begins,” said scientist Carlos Nobre in reference to global climate change treaties.

The ice is melting on Popocatépetl volcano in Mexico. Credit: Mauricio Ramos/IPS

The ice is melting on Popocatépetl volcano in Mexico. Credit: Mauricio Ramos/IPS

“The real game should begin now, although there are many who would rather remain in the warm-up phase indefinitely,” added the Brazilian expert, who was among the authors of the 1990, 2001 and 2007 reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which was a co-recipient of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, along with former U.S. vice-president Al Gore.

Nobre’s opinions appear, with those of another 22 noted experts, in the “First Regional Report on Climate Change: Latin America and the Irreversible Effects of a Warmer Planet”, published Nov. 19 by Tierramérica in Montevideo.

Nobre, head of the Land Science Centre of Brazil’s national space agency, INPE, underscored the urgent need for governments participating in the anxiously awaited meet in Copenhagen in December to reach some sort of firm agreement to cut climate-changing emissions.

The 15th Conference of Parties (COP 15) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change will be the venue for the final debate on the future of the Kyoto Protocol (the only international agreement that sets targetss for reducing greenhouse gas emissions), and for creating a new global model for confronting the problem.

The results of the questionnaire that Tierramérica submitted to experts in various fields reflect widespread scepticism about the chances for success at the Copenhagen conference.


Meanwhile, some “600 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean are experiencing the effects of climate change in a dramatic way, with droughts, floods, melting glaciers, rising temperatures, new agricultural pests and diseases,” states the 40-page text, available on-line in Spanish, at http://www.tierramerica.info/docs/informe-cambio-climatico-2009.pdf.

The Latin American and Caribbean region overall produces relatively low greenhouse gas emissions, but is highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

The most harmful impact is the increase in climate variability, according to the responses in the poll of scientists. In the 1995-2006 period, 11 of the 12 years were among the hottest on record of global temperatures since 1850.

In Mexico City, the average temperature “increased more than four degrees (Celsius) since the early 20th century,” said Fernando Tudela, Mexico’s deputy secretary of environmental planning and policy.

Abrupt weather variations – drought, heavy rains, hail and frost – take a toll on agriculture because crops are not always able to adapt, and the associated losses aggravate poverty among farmers, says the report.

According to simulations projected through 2100, Latin America and the Caribbean could suffer agricultural income losses of 12 percent in a scenario of limited climate change, or 50 percent in a more severe scenario.

Several of the questionnaire respondents said it is the farmers themselves who are reporting the effects of climate change.

The changing climate patterns “are recognised by the vast majority of Andean farmers, who are great observers of weather, because their crops and survival depend on it,” said Peruvian anthropologist Jorge Recharte, director of The Mountain Institute’s Andean Programme.

However, even when it comes to tracking the effects of the phenomenon, Latin America comes up short.

“In order to determine the impact on agriculture, we need a reliable database on climate and on agricultural production that encompasses long periods, of 80 to 100 years. In the region, very few countries have that type of records,” said Walter Baethgen, director of the Latin American and Caribbean programme at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia University, in New York.

The Water Centre for the Humid Tropics of Latin America and the Caribbean (CATHALAC) calls for generating climate information in agricultural planning, improving irrigation and planting techniques (including the elimination of pesticides), optimising soil use, and establishing action plans based on studies of vulnerability. All of which must also take into consideration all sectors involved.

It would be difficult for countries, especially smaller, poor nations, to enact these strategies on their own.

Peruvian scientist José Marengo, who has worked for many years in Brazil, warned that the region lacks “a coordinated effort in information sharing on climate and water, and there are no organised efforts among countries to tackle climate change.”

Veterinarian and rural sociology expert Edith Fernández-Baca Pacheco, also of Peru, added that “the contingency plans at the regional level, or warning systems for extreme weather events, if they exist, are in their early stages.”

The region’s agricultural sector must also contribute to fighting climate change by cutting emissions of carbon dioxide from deforestation and of methane from livestock production, say the scientists consulted.

The Brazilian government took a step in that direction on Nov. 13 when it announced its commitment to reduce by 36.1 to 38.9 percent the greenhouse gas emissions the country is projected to produce by 2020 under current trends, with GDP growth of five to six percent a year.

A problem in Latin America’s mountainous regions is the ever-faster shrinking of glaciers. With a warmer climate, they are not being recharged during the winter months. Worldwide, glaciers are the planet’s largest reservoir of freshwater.

In 2004, Chacaltaya mountain, which rises to an altitude of 5,300 metres near the Bolivian capital, La Paz, “lost one of the highest glaciers” in South America, states the report. Although scientists had predicted the glacier would disappear in 2013, it already happened earlier this year.

Shrinking glaciers throughout the Andes puts many of the region’s cities at risk of water shortages.

Marengo, the Peruvian expert in meteorology and one of the contributors to the IPCC reports, believes that alternatives to water supplies from the glaciers – desalinisation of seawater, deep wells or connecting watersheds through giant infrastructure projects – are too costly.

Furthermore, “the Andean countries are highly dependent on hydroelectric energy,” pointed out John Nash, the World Bank’s lead economist for Latin America and the Caribbean. Many of the region’s dams need water from the glaciers to operate, especially during the dry season when rains are not refilling reservoirs.

Latin America is also feeling other effects of global warming that could be irreversible, such as the transformation of the Amazon jungle into savannah, the deterioration and loss of mangrove forests, and the dramatic reshaping of the coastline as a result of rising sea levels.

Further evidence of climate change is the expansion of disease vectors to areas beyond their normal habitat. This is the case of the Anopheles mosquito, which transmits malaria, and has spread from tropical zones at less than 1,000 metres above sea level to areas higher than 2,000 metres.

And biodiversity is also feeling the pressure. An increase of three to four degrees Celsius over the next 50 years “will be the main cause of the potential death of the Amazon rainforest,” says the report.

Even under scenarios of relatively low greenhouse gas emissions, regions like Central America and the Andes will see a turnover of species of more than 90 percent.

Mario Bidegain, of the atmospheric sciences unit at the University of the Republic of Uruguay, put an even darker spin on the persistence of uncertainties.

“It is still being debated at the scientific level that if we reach a temperature increase of more than two degrees Celsius, it could give rise to a new state of equilibrium in the climate system, which could make a large portion of the human population disappear from the planet,” he said.

(*This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.)

 
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