Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Katrina dwarfed by regional climate impact say top aid and environment groups

New Economics Foundation
August 29, 2006

A new report from unique coalition of development and environment groups says act now on climate change before Latin America goes ‘Up in Smoke’

As the United States marks the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, on Tuesday 29 August 2006, a major new report from a coalition of the UK’s biggest environment and development groups reveals the untold story of the impact that extreme weather, exacerbated by climate change, is having on the whole of Latin America and the Caribbean. It also highlights the hard work and ingenuity that poor, local communities are using to cope.

Hurricane Katrina dominated news headlines around the world a year ago, but, as the report documents, other hurricanes and extreme events in the region have gone largely unreported. Almost indistinguishable in name, Hurricane Catarina, the first hurricane ever to hit Brazil, struck the southern coast in March 2004 and left 33,000 people homeless. Hurricane Wilma struck Cuba in October 2005 leading to the evacuation of 640,000 people. Extreme weather has always been a problem for people in Latin America and the Caribbean. But, as new evidence set out in the report shows, climate change is set to turn an already rough ride into an impossible one.

The report, Up in Smoke? Latin America and the Caribbean, confirms that largely regular and predictable temperature and rainfall patterns, are changing, becoming less predictable and often more extreme. It catalogues the impact of climate change and environmental degradation ranging from drought in the Amazon to floods in Haiti and elsewhere; vanishing glaciers in Colombia to extreme cold in the Andes; and hurricanes, not only in Central America and the Caribbean, but also in southern Brazil. Across the region the capacity of natural ecosystems to act as buffers against extreme weather events and other shocks is being undermined leaving people more vulnerable.

In particular, the report shows:

* New evidence of the likely impact of water shortages: around 35 per cent of the world’s freshwater is found in Latin America. Glaciers melting in the Andes will change river flows and threaten water supplies for people, industry, agriculture and nature. Disputes over access to water resources are certain to increase as a consequence of climate change.
* Evidence of the impact of illegal logging and deforestation: in Brazil attempts to control illegal logging are unravelling fast. This is of particular concern as a substantial amount of the world’s carbon emissions stems from deforestation - the Brazilian Amazon is a prime source. In El Salvador forests that acted as natural watersheds are now built-up areas and shopping centres - evidence shows that this worsened the impact of flooding during Hurricane Stan in 2005. Ironically additional stress could now come from rising demand for biofuels, which if not properly managed, can place additional strain on already vanishing forests.
* Dramatic new images of glacier melt: warming in high mountain regions is melting glaciers, snow and ice, affecting farming and the availability of water to coastal cities and for tourist activities. Glaciers are currently disappearing fastest in the Venezuelan, Colombian and Peruvian Andes.
* Hurricanes and tropical storms are likely to increase in intensity: with 26 tropical storms and 14 hurricanes, the 2005 hurricane season is rated one of the most active and destructive in history.

The report, with a foreword by Juan Mayr, one of the world’s leading environmentalists and former Colombian Environment Minister, calls on wealthy, developed countries to take responsibility for the damage that climate change is already causing, to reduce and stabilise emissions and, critically, for a new development model for Latin America and the Caribbean that will set the region on a path to sustainable development.

The impact of Climate Change in Latin America and the Caribbean is magnified by other types of environmental abuse. Poor communities have little say in, or are themselves victims of ‘mega projects’ such as road schemes through tropical forests, as well as illegal logging and deforestation, over-fishing, mining, and government neglect. Such environmental damage makes it more difficult for poor communities to cope with climate change, with often devastating consequences:

* Poverty: projected changes in climate could increase the impacts of already serious chronic malnutrition affecting a large sector of the Latin American population. Climate change will also have major economic impacts on agriculture, fisheries, coral reefs, tourism, and water availability.

* Health: diseases like malaria, dengue and Chagas’ disease, as well as infectious diseases like cholera, are set to spread. Higher surface temperatures will worsen the effects of pollution and high concentrations of ground-level ozone, especially in urban areas. Wider impacts on access to food and to safe drinking water will interact with direct health impacts in a potentially lethal cocktail.

And, the report says, the impact of climate change on Latin America and the Caribbean could have serious consequences for the rest of the world. If more permanent seasonal El NiƱo-type conditions lead to a long-term drying out and die-off of the Amazon rainforest, the UN expert body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change believes that the subsequent release of carbon to the atmosphere could alter the global carbon balance.

This could then become one of the environmental feedback mechanisms that scientists fear will trigger irreversible and catastrophic global warming.

But, the coalition says that a growing consensus on the need for action gives reason for hope. We know what the main causes of climate change are, how to reduce future climate change, and how to begin to adapt. In fact, many positive measures are being taken – by governments, by civil society and by people themselves – to reduce the causes of climate change and to overcome its effects. There is also much that rich countries can learn from poorer ones. For example, when New Orleans was inundated during and after Hurricane Katrina around 1,500 lives are thought to have been lost, yet in six major hurricanes that ran over Cuba between 1996 and 2002, only 16 lives were lost.

With the challenge clear and many of the solutions known: the point is, says the coalition, to act on a scale commensurate with the challenge.

Renewing their pledge to play their part in trying to halt dangerous climate change and to help bring about a global solution that is fair and rooted in human equality, the coalition calls on the international community to urgently:

* Cut greenhouse gas emissions. Rich countries need to meet and exceed their targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions set under the Kyoto Protocol. Commitments should be progressively raised after 2012 in a way that puts industrialised countries on track to reach cuts of up to 80 per cent by 2050. More sustainable lifestyles and energy efficiency are a priority.
* Stop illegal logging and deforestation and assist the region in climate-friendly development. Wealthy countries need to act first and fastest to cut emissions, but Latin American countries should also implement sustainable development policies that prioritise both energy efficiency and renewable energy. To help mitigate climate change and to maintain valuable ecosystems, they should stop illegal logging and reduce, and eventually halt, deforestation.
* Map national vulnerabilities in detail and apply the ‘climate test’. There is an urgent need to develop detailed maps of the complex impacts of global warming, integrating climate-change-related risks with other threats. All policies and programmes should face the test of whether they will leave people in Latin America and the Caribbean more or less vulnerable to the effects of global warming. The test will be: is this climate friendly and climate proof?
* Support community-based coping strategies and disaster risk reduction. Many donors prioritise ‘technological fixes’. But promoting disaster reduction at local level by supporting community-coping strategies is far more effective and yields immediate benefits that stretch beyond just tackling climate-driven disasters. ‘Good adaptation’ also makes ‘good development’.
* Increase support for small-scale agriculture. Dramatically increased support for small-scale agriculture is needed, along with an approach to farming based on maximum appropriate diversification.
* Apply new standards for the private-sector. Corporate involvement in Latin America in such sectors as energy, logging, mining, water, and the construction of infrastructure, such as pipelines and transport links, must take on board that development in the region needs to meet sustainability criteria.

The report concludes that Latin America and the Caribbean needs to be freed from a one-size-fits-all development approach. Effective responses to climate change will differ everywhere depending on local circumstances, so a new flexibility is needed. The greatest challenge is to build climate resilience and resistance, and to secure livelihoods at local level.

In his foreword to the report Juan Mayr, one of the world’s leading international environmentalists, says, “It is the right time to re-think the development model for Latin Americaand the Caribbean. It’s also the right time to re-think the model of international aid. Without question, it’s about an ethical commitment that can be put off no longer.”

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