Development & Aid, Environment, Tierramerica

Latin America's Perpetual Fever

MONTEVIDEO, Nov 23 2009 (IPS) - Twenty-three Latin American scientists responded to an extensive questionnaire from Tierramérica. The result is a map of the biggest challenges that climate change poses for the region, from a journalistic perspective.

The glaciers of Mexico's Popocatépetl volcano are disappearing. - Mauricio Ramos/IPS

The glaciers of Mexico's Popocatépetl volcano are disappearing. - Mauricio Ramos/IPS

“Using 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 with a note of irony in reference to global climate change treaties.

“The real game should begin now, although there are many who would rather remain indefinitely in the warm-up phase,” 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, along 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 Center of Brazil's national space agency, INPE, underscored the urgent need for governments participating in the much-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 closing debate on the future of the Kyoto Protocol (the only international agreement that sets requirements for reducing emissions of greenhouse gases), 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 skepticism about 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 electronically, in Spanish, at

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

The most harmful 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.

The more abrupt weather variations – drought, heavy rains, hail and frost – take a toll on the farming sector because crops are not always able to adapt. The associated losses deepen poverty among the population that relies on farming, according to 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 intense scenario.

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

The changing climate patterns “are recognized 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 Program.

However, even when it comes to diagnosing the effects, Latin America comes up short.

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

The Water Center for the Humid Tropics of Latin America and the Caribbean (CATHALAC, for its Spanish name) calls for generating climate information in agricultural planning, improving irrigation and planting techniques (including the elimination of pesticides), optimizing soil use, and establishing action plans based on studies of vulnerability, taking into consideration all sectors involved.

It would be difficult for countries, especially for smaller and poorer nations, to take up 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 organized efforts among countries to confront 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 the developing stages.”

The region's agricultural sector must also contribute to fighting climate change by reducing emissions of carbon dioxide from deforestation and of methane from livestock production.

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, as well as to maintain gross domestic product (GDP) growth of five to six percent a year.

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

In 2004, Chacaltaya mountain, which rises 5,300 meters 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 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 – desalinization 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 also feels other effects of global warming that could be irreversible, such as the transformation of the Amazon jungle into savanna, 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 meters above sea level to zones higher than 2,000 meters.

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 forests,” 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 a 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.

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