Latin America 4 degrees warmer? Not cool!

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So you may be wondering if those scenes from the movie 2012 are not too much of a stretch after all, huh?

In the Hollywood blockbuster, apocalyptic images of rising oceans, erupting volcanoes and crumbling cities prelude the end of the world as we know it. Well, let me tell you that even though I’m not a great fan of end-of-days films –I think they oversimplify issues and de-sensitize the public-- I do believe that the world as we know it is on a path to dangerous climate change

Consider the changes already taking place. For starters, average temperatures are rising consistently around the world in ways not seen before: 10 of the warmest years on record happened just in the past decade. The Earth’s ice sheets are melting, ocean levels are rising.

Greenland and Antarctica have lost 400 cubic kilometers of ice in a five-year span. Glaciers in the Andean region are vanishing. Since the 1950s oceans have warmed and are acidifying; sea levels rose by about 20 centimeters since pre-industrial times and are now rising at 3.2 centimeters per decade. Major food crop growing areas are increasingly affected by drought or floods. If you think this is already bad, think again.

A new report warns that temperatures could rise to 4 degrees Celsius (7.2 Fahrenheit) by the end of the century, accelerating the already catastrophic consequences we’re already witnessing in the global climate.

Latin America and the Caribbean will likely bear the brunt of this. First, part of the Amazon rainforest could slowly wither. Recent studies have projected an increasing likelihood of some forest “die back” and conversion to savanna-like vegetation, especially in the eastern and southern portions of the Amazon.

The Amazon in peril

Also, the region’s ability to continue being the world’s granary is in jeopardy.Since the Amazonian rainforests generate part of the rainfall for Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and southern Brazil, any significant forest die back, coupled with higher temperatures, could plausibly have a negative impact on the region’s highly productive grain belts.

Picture-perfect coral reefs? Those will be gone too --well before a 4 degree world. Recent scientific evidence points to increasing ocean acidification and severe reduction in coral reefs even at 1.5 degrees Celsius warming.

This will have a severe impact on the Caribbean’s tourism industry and the livelihood of coastal communities in the region. In this warmer scenario, there will be increased risk of major flooding and storm damages in Central America (Atlantic and Pacific coasts) and the Caribbean due to a combination of sea level rise and storm surges from hurricanes.

All told, these potential climate impacts threaten to reverse decades of poverty reduction and sustainable development efforts.

So, is Latin America prepared? The immediate answer is: not quite. But there are signs that the region is on the path to becoming more resilient to a warmer environment.

Green is the answer

Latin American countries are already adopting measures to weather, pardon the pun, the impacts of climate change, as a recent report on green and inclusive growth notes.

The region has actually become a “green lab” for innovation with eco-friendly transportation systems, CO2 reduction plans, clean energy, payments for environmental services and forest conservation programs merging state-of-the-art technology with the local communities’ knowledge.

All this paves the way for sustainable development that is: cleaner (with lower emissions); more efficient (in its use of energy); more resilient to disasters (magnified by climate change) and, above all, more inclusive (by ensuring the poor are equally protected from a warmer world).

In addition, the region is testing the following strategies to help adapt to current climate shocks, thereby learning how to deal with future ones:

  • Infrastructure capable of withstanding these new climate “extremes”
  • Crop varieties able to perform well in droughts/floods/heat coupled with strategic investments for efficient irrigation;
  • Seed banks to conserve critical crop, tree, livestock germplasm for future adaptive breeding programs
  • Landscapes redesigned and managed to deal with multiple threats
  • Social safety nets improved for vulnerable groups
  • Proactive disaster risk management and insurance systems to allow rebound from catastrophic damages
  • Information systems and decision support systems for decision makers
  • Weather & climate monitoring and services to multiple sector clients
  • Early-warning alert systems and emergency response plans
  • Systematic regional climate change and impact assessments  

Warming of 4°C can still be avoided. Numerous studies show that there are technically and economically feasible opportunities to hold warming likely below 2°C.

In other words, the level of impacts that the world will experience now rests squarely on the action or inaction of governments, the private sector, and civil society.


Erick Fernandes

Global Lead, Technology, Innovation, and Climate Smart Agriculture, World Bank

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