New international climate report has profound implications for Latin America

The new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate confirms what countless people in Latin America and the Caribbean already know – something is seriously wrong with the weather and it’s time we start doing something about it. The report released in Sweden today confirmed with 95% scientific certainty that human actions are behind the warming planet, melting ice and weather extremes we’re witnessing. These impacts of climate change are already being felt acutely in Latin America and the IPCC’s latest report likely means the region should brace itself for more. Fortunately, by acting now to drastically reduce carbon pollution – from energy production, transportation, and deforestation –the very worst scenarios can still be avoided.

The new report, the first installment in a series of four documents, assesses the scientific evidence that our climate is changing. Across Latin America, people are already seeing changes first hand:

  • Warmer temperatures harm marine resources.  Higher ocean temperatures directly threaten the highly productive coral reefs that help maintain many of the region’s local fisheries and tourism sectors. Increased water temperature is a leading cause of coral bleaching, a potentially fatal process that limits coral’s access to food.  The Caribbean has already lost an estimated 80% of its corals due to a combination of warming water, pollution, overfishing and degradation.  This loss of corals can have serious ramifications. According to a study by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the annual cost of the collapse of the Caribbean’s corals could be between $7 billion and $12 billion. 
  • Hotter temperatures and changing rainfall patterns impact agriculture. Climate change has already and will continue to have a profound effect on the region’s agriculture sectors. Over the past 20 years droughts in Costa Rica have already caused losses of $168 million in agriculture and cattle ranching. Elsewhere in Central America, an increase in temperature of 1 degree Celsius could make it harder to grow staple crops like corn and beans, with production in some places potentially dropping by over 30 percent. This could drastically change the outlook for farming families in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.  
  • Melting glaciers threaten drinking water, food and power. Glaciers in Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, and Ecuador have shrunk between 30 to 50 percent since the late 1970s – a rate unprecedented in over 300 years. Glaciers located at lower altitudes – those closest to cities and towns – are bearing the brunt of the impact. Most Andean glaciers below 5,000 meters could retreat entirely by the middle of the century, according to a recent assessment in the region. The disappearance of these glaciers puts at risk the drinking water of 30 million people, as well as the water used for generating electricity and agricultural irrigation. Rural farming communities are often hit first and hit hardest. As the glacial melt they rely on to grow staple crops dries up, they are forced to move to cities that already struggle to meet growing demand for drinking water, sanitation and electricity. 
  • Vulnerable areas are more exposed during extreme weather. Latin America is no stranger to the devastation brought by tropical storms. Ingrid and Manuel, the back-to-back storms that hit Mexico earlier this month, are just the latest tragic example. As climate change increases the number and intensity of tropical storms, communities in the region will continue to be slammed. In addition to loss of life, the IDB estimates that between 2021 and 2025 tropical storms will cost the economies of Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean between $110 billion and $149 billion.

For Latin America, climate change is not a distant threat – it’s the reality today. So it should come as no surprise that a majority of people surveyed across the region rank climate change as a major threat to their country. Fortunately, acting now can help avoid the worst impacts. According to the co-chair of the science panel that produced the new IPCC report, “determined intervention and strong mitigation offer a chance of keeping global mean warming under 1.5  C.” In short, we have the ability to avoid the most catastrophic impacts by quickly slashing greenhouse gas emissions.

In the face of IPCC’s new report, Latin America’s leaders now have two key responsibilities. They must act quickly to reduce the vulnerability of their communities, water resources, agriculture, coasts and biodiversity. And they must show the political will necessary to steer their countries toward a low-carbon development path by tapping into the region’s abundant clean energy resources, transitioning to cleaner transportation solutions and ramping up efforts to halt deforestation. This type of leadership on climate will help shield Latin America from the very worst impacts and demonstrate to other regions that there’s simply no longer a moment to lose.