Latin America and the Caribbean: The Region Very Vulnerable to the Impact of Climate Change
This article was originally written by Natsuko Utsumi for the World Bank’s web site.
Report warns of “irreversible” damage already affecting the region’s environment
Washington, DC, December 5, 2007 ― Climate change will have dramatic and costly consequences for the people and ecosystems of Latin America, according to the World Bank’s lead engineer for Latin America and the Caribbean Walter Vergara. Vergara’s warning comes in a collection of five reports “Visualizing Future Climate in Latin America” that outlines – and adds new detail to — the environmental problems facing the region.
Visualizing future Climate in Latin America
“In Latin America, climate impacts are very significant,” says Vergara, “and expected to irreversibly affect key ecosystems and the services they provide.” The new report gives detailed projections of how climate is expected to change by the period 2008 to 2099, based on calculations made by the “Earth Simulator” supercomputer and data made available by the Japanese Meteorological Research Institute. The results give tentative but crucial indications of how rising temperatures and changes in precipitation will affect key areas, thus providing a “route map” for adaptation strategies.
Vergara’s report “The impact of Climate Change in Latin America” draws on recent research to present a worrying picture of how the region is likely to be impacted, including the destruction of coral ecosystems in the Caribbean Basin, the rapid disappearance of glaciers and the intensification of hurricanes:
“The impact of Climate Change in Latin America”
− Coral bleaching is believed to have affected over 80% of coral reefs in the Caribbean Basin, following the heat and hurricane activity of summer 2005, with potentially far-reaching consequences for the fish that live and breed in the reefs. Bleaching also robs coral of its esthetic appeal, threatening the tourist trade.
− Temperature increases are expected to be particularly extreme in the Andes. “The rate of increase is projected at two or more times those projected for average temperature increases. Changes of this magnitude will irreversibly affect the ecology of the Andes. Most immediately affected are tropical glaciers and other high mountain ecosystems,” the paper reads.
− Most of the smaller glaciers are expected to be gone within a generation, while lower-altitude glaciers could completely disappear by 2026. The economic consequences of glacier retreat are considerable, “running into billions of dollars” for the power sector and affecting agriculture and the water supply. “These costs constitute in fact a climate tax imposed on populations that have contributed little to the problem,” Vergara argues.
− As is often the case with climate change, the regions and people most severely affected are often not those most responsible. Although, Latin America is not a major contributor of greenhouse gas emissions, the region is very vulnerable to climate impacts.
− The World Bank expert highlights the “moral imperative” for carbon-polluting nations to work to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. (Latin America produces only six percent of the worlds emissions.)
− Climate change may already have affected the circulation patterns that bring water vapor to the paramos, the wetlands of the Northern Andes, threatening the unique flora of mountain ecosystems. The retreat of mountain lakes poses the alarming possibility that water supplies may be affected for such major cities as Bogota and Quito.
− Rapid changes in the environment may even result in a vicious cycle, that undermines a low carbon economies. The loss of sources of hydro-electric power in the Andes may cause nations to reach for the cheapest alternative: fossil fuels.
− Even more worrisome is the potential desertification of large areas stemming from damage to the ecosystem of the Amazon Basin, whose rainforests play a crucial role in absorbing vast quantities of carbon dioxide and are home to a quarter of the world’s biodiversity.
− Climate models suggest the possibility of extreme drops in rainfall, coupled with rising temperatures, could lead to a process of gradual “savannization” in the Amazon Basin. The paper points that this is potentially the single most serious result of climate change in the region but notes that the “prospects and consequences are still poorly understood”.
The paper represents a major attempt to analyse the implications of climate change, as well as pointing to the ongoing need for further study, more detailed data and awareness of the limits of accurately predicting future climate.
The Earth Simulator reinforced studies that predict not just rising temperatures, but an enhanced hydrological cycle, with more unusually dry and unusually wet periods. The computer projected that most of North America and Latin America will see an extra 30 days per year when the maximum temperature will exceed 30 degrees centigrade. A recent study in Colombia formally tested and found a significant link between rising temperatures and rainfall and the Tropical Vector Diseases malaria and dengue fever. Climate change therefore points to rising health care costs for Latin America, the paper reports.
Hurricane intensification has been accompanied by an increase in the number of hurricanes making landfall in Mesoamerica since 1995, affecting the economy and ecosystems. The paper points out that four of the ten most active years for hurricane landfalls have occurred in the last ten years. “Latin America is a region that is very vulnerable to climate impact, and that is already taking place,” repeats Walter Vergara.
The World Bank has been involved in encouraging adaptation efforts based on the understanding that some of the impacts of climate change are now unavoidable and may be irreversible. The working paper highlights both the value of the projects the bank is involved in — and the need for more action.