Opinion Piece

Climate change: A wake-up call

Bnamericas Published: Tuesday, April 01, 2014

A new report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, with input from hundreds of authors spanning 70 nations, says that human-created climate change is already having consequences across the globe.

Impacts have been observed from the tropics to the poles, the authors of the report concluded, in the ocean and on land, and in areas including agriculture, human health, water supplies and livelihoods.

"Unfortunately, our findings show that mitigation is not enough now, and we must also focus on adaptation," Sebastian Vicuña, the executive director of the Center for Global Change at Chile's Pontificia Universidad Católica, and one of the authors of the report, told me.

Andean glaciers are shrinking, while changing patterns in the Río de la Plata and rivers in the western Andes are being attributed to climate change. 

Climate change has caused increased tree mortality and forest fires in the Amazon, along with rainforest degradation. Agricultural yields are up in southeastern South America, while the livelihoods of Aymara farmers in Bolivia are in danger due to water shortages. In the region's seas, increased coral bleaching is evident in the western Caribbean, along with mangrove degradation on the northern coast of South America.

The UN's secretary general Ban Ki Moon said in a statement that "at present, the world is largely ill-prepared for climate related risks." In Central and South America key risks include water availability in semi-arid and glacier-melt-dependent regions; flooding and landslides in urban and rural areas due to extreme precipitation; decreased food production and food quality; and the spread of vector-borne diseases.

The message, then, is clear: we must change the way we live. Though Latin America only produces about 10% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, the fight against a changing climate is global. Moreover, the impacts are being felt and will be felt more acutely in developing nations, the report says.

The report was not all bad news, however. In some instances, the private and public sectors have begun to take steps to tackle the impact of a changing climate. The report found that in Central and South America, "ecosystem-based adaptation including protected areas, conservation agreements, and community management of natural areas is occurring. Resilient crop varieties, climate forecasts, and integrated water resources management are being adopted within the agricultural sector in some areas."

Leaders are responding. In one of her first acts as president, Chile's Michelle Bachelet said her government will unveil a new tax on carbon emissions. The region's energy sector is changing. For example, Uruguay will be able to meet 40% of its power needs from wind by 2015, and Peru aims to provide 2mn of its off-grid inhabitants with power through solar energy by 2016.

More is needed however, and action must be swift. An upcoming IPCC report will detail policy responses, Vicuña says. Meanwhile, the report just released shows us that climate change is not far off into the future, but instead happening right now. 

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