Climate Change and Latin America

Climate change. We’ve all heard the horror stories: entire cities going under water, destruction of vast croplands, complete extinction of species, terrifying dust storms. These stories— exaggerated as they may seem— hold truth. Climate change is a global issue, arguably the most impactful issue that our generation faces. Carbon emissions, the greatest being carbon dioxide, raise global temperatures by trapping solar energy in the atmosphere and leading to a shrunken water supply, increased incidents of severe weather, changes in food supply, and concerning geographical shifts. The United States and Latin America both play significant yet vastly different roles in the battle against climate change and carbon emissions. Here’s why December’s Paris Climate Summit matters to them, and here’s why it should matter to you.

2015 will be different. Nearly twenty years later, U.S. policy has changed dramatically— this September the United States issued a Joint Presidential Statement on Climate Change with China, building on last November’s historic announcement by President Obama and President Xi of ambitious post 2020 climate targets for both countries. The two powerful nations describe a common vision including two elements to strengthen the ambition of the Paris outcome: firstly that each country’s initial emission targets are merely stepping stones to what needs to be a much more ambitious carbon reduction program and secondly that countries must develop and transition into low-carbon economies.

Meanwhile, Latin America continues to question their climate change motives— these countries have mixed commitments on fighting climate change, and there is no consensus on what actions they should take relative to more developed and highly polluting countries. What is clear, however, are the major implications that the summit will have on Latin American countries, the most significant being how wealthy countries will support developing countries. If the past is any indication, wealthy countries have little desire to financially support developing countries in their battle against carbon emissions—individual countries have been required to take control of their own emission levels. However, climate change is too imminent for nations to continue self-interested policies. Wealthy countries will need to step up if any progress is to be made.

Latin American countries themselves have been making strides: Brazil has reduced deforestation by 70% and kept 3.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere by preventing deforestation and burning of trees. Mexico submitted its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC), proposing to unconditionally reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases by 25% below baseline emissions in 2030. Mining giant Chile is poised to unveil a measure which will include incentives for thermoelectric power plants to lower their emissions of carbon dioxide. Although these measures are important and progressive, the real problem for developing countries is to decide at which point other, competing issues— defense, education, healthcare, economic development— take priority over the environment. Ultimately, developing countries do not have the capacity to effectively combat environmental degradation when government institutions are unstable and unreliable.

Due to this priority jumble, Latin America accounts for only 9.5 percent of global emissions, yet its average per capita emissions are higher than most developing nations and some European countries. Nevertheless, all American countries must take action in reducing emissions regardless of development levels. The United States, along with other developed nations, should be responsible for overseeing the creation and evolution of stable institutions, governments, and opportunities for direct foreign investment in Latin America that private industry and external governments are willing to support. Countries with extreme inequality including Colombia, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, and Peru must grow and strengthen their middle class. With a more stable economic situation, countries will have fewer social tensions and more resources to devote on low-carbon investments in clean energy, sustainable transportation, biodiversity protection, and energy efficiency.

Several other nations have also published their goals for December’s summit. The way we, as individuals and as a global community, react to this growing problem will define the future of our environment, our planet, and the continuation of humanity as we know it. To support further conversation, two approaches have been suggested: the first is that more effort should be made outside of the UN process by engaging cities, local governments, and businesses in lowering emissions.