Climate policy debates are usually focused on future actions. But for many of Latin America's poorest people, the crisis is already underway.
Global climate change is currently responsible for 300,000 deaths per year. A May 2009 report by the Global Humanitarian Forum (GHF) estimates that the effects of climate change annually leave 325 million people in need of immediate assistance and impose $125 billion in economic losses. The report cites Latin America among the world's most vulnerable regions.
Both extreme weather events and gradual climate changes demonstrate the continent's vulnerability. The Andean region is particularly at risk from changing rainfall patterns and melting glaciers. In recent years, hundreds of thousands of people in Ecuador, Bolivia and Colombia have been displaced by massive floods, while cities dependent on glacier-fed water, like Quito and La Paz, are facing looming scarcity. In Mexico, an increasing number of floods in southern states has been accompanied by decreasing rainfall in the dry central corridor, leading to an 18-year-low in Mexico City's freshwater supply. Hurricanes routinely strike Central America and the Caribbean, but in 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that the number of intense tropical cyclones in the North Atlantic Ocean had increased significantly since 1970, projecting that their strength would continue to escalate. In Haiti, last year's four consecutive hurricanes drove an estimated 111,000 Haitians into emergency shelters.
Gradual temperature fluctuations and rainfall patterns have brought disease and hunger to Latin America. From February to May of this year, more than 200,000 cases of dengue fever were reported in South America-one of the worst such epidemics on record in Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Argentina. Regions of Peru, Brazil and Argentina are beginning to face declining crop yields due to increased El Niño variability, placing peasant farmers at risk of extreme poverty and hunger. A 2009 World Bank study (Low Carbon, High Growth: Latin America Responds to Climate Change) estimates revenue losses of 12 percent to 50 percent for small farms in Latin America this century.
A REGIONAL RESPONSE
The growing climate crisis is leading regional policymakers to turn their attention to harm-reduction strategies known as adaptation- where attention is focused on how to cost-effectively reduce the risk and damage from current and future climate change- and to shift their sights from the long term to the present. "This is a very big change in the way that countries are approaching climate change," says Dr. Walter Baethgen of Columbia University's International Research Institute for Climate and Society. Columbia's pioneering program provides data for managing droughts and floods to Chile, a dengue early warning system to Colombia and a water management program for the droughtaffected Brazilian state of Ceará. Information is then used to formulate more effective, forward-looking policies. In Chile, this type of data has helped the government to formulate procedures for declaring a state of emergency and for preparing and responding to disasters. …