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Is a Storm Brewing for Latin America?

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Home to nearly 600 million people, Latin America has long relied on its abundant natural wealth for both subsistence and export. A growing population combined with the reality of global climate change forces a re-examination of traditional land-use policies and development methods.


Published, 2016

Past emissions have set an unavoidable course of warming over the next two decades, which will affect the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people the most. We cannot continue down the current path of unchecked, growing emissions.” —World Bank

Changing rainfall patterns, bleached coral reefs, glaciers melting in the Andes—the early symptoms of climate change are already obvious in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC). How will these changes affect land use and economic development? Planners look at a changing planet and try to predict the impact of rising temperatures and more volatile weather patterns.

While much modern science predicts that global temperatures may rise by an average of about 2°C, recent studies suggest that they might increase about twice as much, or by as much as 4°C, by the end of the 21st century. Increases in temperature are projected to vary in different parts of Latin America. In what’s known as the high-emissions scenario, nearly all the land area will experience highly unusual heat extremes in the summer; these extremes will be unprecedented in nearly three-fourths of the land area. The costs of this change are estimated at anywhere from 1.5 to 5 percent of GDP across the region. Jorge Familiar, the Vice President of the World Bank for Latin America and the Caribbean, estimates, for instance, that Mexico may see a decrease of 3.5 to 4 percent in GDP that can be attributed solely to climate change. The Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) predicts that the LAC region may see damages on a yearly basis of up to US $100 billion by 2050 from flooding, drought, disappearing glacial runoff, and reduced crop yields.

Group President Jim Yong Kim The Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) predicts that the LAC region may see damages on a yearly basis of up to US $100 billion by 2050 from flooding, drought, disappearing glacial runoff, and reduced crop yields.

For the time in its history, the LAC region has seen the middle class grow to surpass the number of those in poverty. Extreme poverty has been cut in half since 2003, and progress continues. This historic achievement is significant for a region that has long been associated with inequality of wealth, particularly when other parts of the world are becoming more unequal. These positive changes may be in jeopardy, however, from climate change. As the World Bank’s Familiar puts it, “Climate change is not only an environmental challenge; it is a fundamental threat to Latin America’s development that risks undoing the hard-won achievements of the recent decades.”

Failure to act now on clear early warning signs could lead to far greater economic and social disruption in the mid-term, creating unparalleled challenges for Latin America’s leadership.”

Again, models vary, with two primary scenarios, the low-emissions model and the high-emissions model, dominating discussion. But here are some of the predicted changes:

Almost all countries will experience a drastic shift in precipitation. Some will see increases of anywhere from 10 to 30 percent. Others will undergo periods of drought typically only forecast every 700 years.

Sea levels will rise throughout the region. Freshwater aquifers near the coast may be infiltrated and ruined by salt water.

Changes in climate will act as a threat multiplier as massive areas are deforested, especially in the Amazon Basin. The onslaught of extractive industries in the LAC region, plus the endless pressure of subsistence and industrial agriculture, threatens a water supply that is already under pressure from climate change.

Farming, one of the mainstays of Latin America’s economy, employs millions while feeding the growing population and accounts for about a quarter of the region’s GDP. In a series of mostly negative impacts from climate change, one study anticipates a rising occurrence of heat stress for maize and soybeans, while another estimates crop yield declines worldwide of 3 to 8 percent for every 1°C rise in the mean global temperature.


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