Helping climate change solutions cross borders: the U.S. must work with Latin America on climate and energy during next four years

The U.S. Latino vote in 2012 was rightly predicted to play a pivotal role, but that didn’t bring Latin America much closer to center stage during the election. While many Latino voters have a strong interest in U.S. policy toward Latin America, both candidates largely ignored the region during the campaign. Before the election some analysts even concluded that regardless of who won the presidency, U.S. policy toward the region in terms of trade, security and other priority issues for U.S.-Latin America relations would largely remain the same. Yet on one issue there would have been a clear difference if President Obama’s opponent had won – and not for the better: climate and energy.

During the campaign Governor Romney mocked climate change – a very real phenomenon that is already having severe consequences in Latin America and the Caribbean. In Central America, changing weather patterns already threaten the livelihoods of one million farmers and the production of two of the region’s most important staple crops. Caribbean fisheries that provide 10 percent of the region’s protein intake are also highly vulnerable.  Meanwhile in South America, entire cities like Lima, La Paz, and Santiago depend on rapidly melting glaciers for their fresh water. In sharp contrast to his opponent, President Obama made clean energy a cornerstone of his first administration and has promised to do more on climate change. 

The climate change impacts wreaking havoc in Latin America are driven by dirty energy and fuel use all along the Americas.  Strengthening collaboration with Latin America on climate and energy solutions by growing clean energy markets south of the border makes sense for regional relations and the climate. It also makes sense at home where Latino voters are steadily increasing in numbers – in 2012 an estimated 24 million were eligible to vote, up 4 million since 2008 – and closely watching the issues they care about.  While the Latino vote is not a monolith, there are issues that resonate widely and deeply with the community. The importance of immigration, health care, education and jobs is, of course, no surprise. But U.S. Latinos also overwhelmingly want political leaders to support clean air and clean energy, in part because the community is disproportionately affected by toxics in our air and water. In fact, around the nation, Latinos have already called for power plant standards that will help curb pollution in the US and climate change globally.

Many Latino voters also have strong and enduring ties to Latin America and the Caribbean where climate disruptions linked to global warming are increasingly common. Long before Sandy hit US shores Latinos with friends and family members in Latin America understood that climate change was neither something to be mocked nor some far off threat. It’s a deeply serious problem and it’s already happening. The solutions will require strengthening collaboration along the Americas.

Under the first Obama administration the U.S. took some steps on climate and energy initiatives for the hemisphere:

  • At the 2009 Summit of the Americas, President Obama invited regional governments to join an Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas (ECPA) that could help harness the hemisphere’s potential for clean, sustainable energy. ECPA partnerships have focused on energy efficiency, renewables, fuel efficiency and ending energy poverty.
  • U.S. funding through the Clean Technology Fund has supported investments in Mexico that are helping to tap into the large scale wind energy potential in the country and contributing to urban transport transformations that help cut CO2 emissions.    
  • The Joint Initiative on Urban Sustainability (JIUS) established in 2011 between the United States and Brazil supports investment in sustainable urban infrastructure. By bringing together government, community and industry leaders, this effort aims to help green Brazilian cities’ water, energy, and transportation and waste systems.
  • Some states have also taken steps to strengthen cooperation with Latin America. Massachusetts signed an MOU with Chile to boost innovation including on clean energy, smart grid technology, energy efficiency and energy storage.

Under the new Obama administration the U.S. must seize the opportunity to ramp up existing efforts and form new strategic partnerships on climate and energy with Latin American governments and communities.

In 2012, Latinos once more put their faith in Obama.  He’ll now need to follow through on promises to address the issues they care about – including working on climate change solutions at home and abroad with regional neighbors. Together, the U.S. and the Latin America and Caribbean region can move the hemisphere towards cleaner energy and low-carbon, sustainable growth.

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