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Climate Change Poses Economic Challenges To Latin America And The Caribbean

By Odeen Ishmael

CaribWorldNews, CARACAS, Venezuela, Fri. Oct. 2, 2009: The United Nations Climate Change Conference will take place in Copenhagen, Denmark, during December 7-18, 2009.

There still remains optimism that this conference will result in the revision the Kyoto Protocol and will produce a framework for climate change mitigation beyond 2012. However, as revealed by the intransigence of some of the leaders of the industrialized world during the recent UN General Assembly debate on climate change, there is growing skepticism that this may not happen.

Global warming is a critical global problem and all countries, particularly the most vulnerable ones, must urgently apply strategies to adapt to the changing environment which, no doubt, will impact heavily on their economic development. In these poor economies, those who will be hardest hit will be the hundreds of millions of small farmers, fisher-folk and the forest-dependent people. The strategies to be developed must, therefore, include the review of land use plans, food security programs, fishing and forestry policies to protect the disadvantaged poor from the detrimental effects of climate change.

Some of the immediate effects of climate change in Latin America and the Caribbean are a 0.1 degree Celsius rise in temperature over the last decade, exceptionally strong hurricanes on both the Atlantic and Pacific sides of the region, heavy flooding in southern Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, and disastrous drought in Chile, south-western Argentina and Peru.

The Latin American and the Caribbean region – encompassing South America, Central America and the Caribbean islands – is at present responsible for 12 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, with Brazil and Mexico being the biggest `producers.` But although the region is responsible for a relatively small proportion of global greenhouse gas emissions –  the main cause of global warming and climate change – it must take serious measures to apply a low-carbon development program which is also aimed at encouraging high productivity and growth.

Already, some governments are starting to realign their development plans to cope with the on-going change. For instance, Guyana has instituted a Low-Carbon Development Strategy (LCDS) which is currently examined seriously in the region as a pattern worth emulating. In presenting the LCDS, the Guyana government shows that to combat the catastrophic effects of climate change, developed countries have the responsibility to assist those poorer nations which are trying to propel their economic development.

Ecuador has also introduced an initiative aimed at developing alternative sources of income earning, to reduce the unsustainable tapping of natural resources and to optimize conservation of biological diversity.

Currently, Latin America and the Caribbean require billions of dollars to handle the economic impact of climate change but, as is widely known, these funds are not easily obtainable internationally.

A World Bank study, released last year, points out that natural disasters such as storms, drought and flooding – all related to climate change – cost roughly 0.6 percent of the GDP of the affected countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. The study notes that if the frequency of natural disasters increases from one every four years to one every three years, per capita GDP could shrink by two percent per decade in the region. And it emphasizes that the economy of the Caribbean region alone could suffer $6 billion dollars in losses by 2050 in tourism, coastal protection, and the pharmaceutical and fishing industries.

The long-term effects in the region, according to the report, include the disappearance of tropical glaciers, the expansion of tropical diseases, the destruction of biodiversity and ecosystems like coral reefs and rainforest, a drop in agricultural production and the destruction of coastal infrastructure.

Depending on the severity of climate change, agricultural productivity could decline sharply by 2010 in South America. Actually, since last year, a high proportion of farm owners in various countries in the region have been complaining of serious losses of economic productivity.

Significantly, the region is noted for having some of the world`s richest forest and marine ecosystems.  It also supports a third of the world`s wildlife and it has immense water resources in its huge Amazon, Orinoco, Rio de la Plata and Essequibo river basins. In addition, the enormous Amazon rainforest is the home of thousands of rare animals, insects and plants and helps reduce global warming by absorbing carbon dioxide and producing oxygen.

But these pristine areas are under threat from local and foreign exploitation through the growing demand from consumers in the industrialized countries for forest and agricultural products, oil and minerals. As a result, illegal logging, mining and energy-related development, and large scale farming in the forest areas have led to the destruction of natural vegetation and the contamination of lakes, rivers and coastal waters. All this has impacted seriously on the region`s indigenous people, displacing villages, polluting drinking water and damaging lands on which their lives depend.

The harmful effect of climate change is already noticeable in the coastal waters. With the rising sea levels flooding coastal urban areas, there will be and upsurge in environmental migrants as people move in a disorganized manner to higher ground. As is widely known, climate change is devastating some areas of the South American coastline, and several plant and animal species are at risk. Throughout the entire region, mangrove swamps are in danger of disappearing and if immediate action is not taken, numerous species, particularly fish, could be lost forever.

Immediate measures must to be taken to give fish stocks a chance to rebuild and sustain themselves and reduce pressures on the ecosystem which compound the impacts of climate change.
Obviously, marine life is threatened by over-fishing, the increasing demand by mankind for water, as well as the current pattern in climate change. Marine biologists have pointed out that by 2050, unless there is a reversal in the current harvesting pattern, the supply of food fish from the oceans will be critically depleted.

Without a doubt, climate change is having a detrimental effect on fish stocks in the Atlantic Ocean since it is a primary cause of the reduced propagation of plankton which generates the food chain. Serious over-fishing in the fishing banks of the North Atlantic has seriously depleted the cod stocks there.

And as fish stocks in the North Atlantic disappear due to over-fishing and other damaging fishing practices, industrialized countries have increasingly turned to the developing world, in particular the ocean waters off Latin America and the Caribbean countries, to satisfy their demand for seafood. This is certainly adding to the growing problems affecting food security in the region. Surely, without strong local controls, fish and shrimp populations in the region can be easily depleted, thus further endangering the marine ecosystems. The overall results will certainly be devastating unless strict controls are put in place to protect these vital resources.

When world leaders meet in Copenhagen in December, these are clearly some of the issues those of Latin America and the Caribbean must bring to discussion table. Their strong united voice must be sounded to ensure that the conference achieve its objectives.

EDITOR`S NOTE: Odeen Ishmael is a Guyanese commentator on South American political affairs, and the views expressed are solely his.