16 December 2008

Climate change and South America: New beginnings in an old story

Like the rest of the world, South America (SA) is experiencing considerable environmental degradation. This is both a cause of and because of climate change; a result of human greed and apathy toward the natural world – a self-destructive social paradigm . Historically, SA has not been a significant factor in driving climate change (although currently Latin America as a whole is responsible for 12% of the annual global greenhouse gas emissions). That said, this does not mean the continent has escaped the some of the more deleterious effects of human environmental meddling.

Throughout South America (also Mexico), glaciers are in retreat (see these earlier posts). This tendency is particularly pronounced in the southern portion of the continent, Patagonia. In Chile, glaciers in the region have receded up to 580 meters due to reduced rainfall and rising temperatures in the region over the last century. Earlier this year, glaciers in Argentina were observed to break up in the winter for the first time. However, two glaciers have proven to be exceptions to the larger trend – one in Argentina and one in Chile are currently expanding.

The danger presented from the melting glaciers is not merely cosmetic. Rather, the receding glaciers represent a threat to the fresh water supply for both the local populace and agriculture. No glaciers means no fresh water, a dire situation. Still, local governments follow the same path. Recently in Argentina, a carefully crafted law meant to protect this resource was rejected in favor of business development and 'progress'. In Chile, near-future plans to address climate change are widely seen as insufficient.

One of the major sources of GHG emissions in SA (and globally) is deforestation. In an earlier post, some of the issues and attitudes regarding towards the Amazon rain forest were examined with the hope that Brazil would exercise the moral choice of conserving the rain forest for the long-term benefit of all. The actions of the Brazilian government tell one story; the annual tally of forest loss tells another.

The Brazilian government is making an attempt at conservation. A show of force with a crackdown on illegal loggers and a pledge to reduce the rate of deforestation by half in the next decade are some high-profile actions taken recently. Unfortunately, the annual amount of forest cleared has risen for the first time in three years. This is being driven by farmers and cattle ranchers clearing forest in response to capitalize on high commodity prices around the world.

Deforestation is not confined solely to Brazil, but rather endemic throughout the region. And while the effects on the global climate are significant, the local and regional impacts can also be large. For example

  • In Colombia, deforestation is behaving synergistically with an unusual rainy season, exacerbating flooding along with avalanches and landslides -- 50 people have been killed, 85 injured, nine are missing and 735,000 have been left homeless. A local meteorologist notes “Human beings are the problem...Cutting down trees in the river basins means that the rains are not contained, but sweep down rapidly into streams and rivers, which rise and overflow.”

  • In Paraguay, one of the last uncontacted indigenous tribes is being threatened as their forest homeland is reduced to cattle pasture. More tragically, the lands are protected under some native title legislation; the national government isn't (can't or won't?) enforcing the law.

Like the rest of the world,a common theme in SA appears to be the inability of many of the continent's governments to affect meaningful measures to halt the slide of environmental degradation, opting instead for the illusory panacea of short term economic growth. That said, many nations on the continent are experimenting with new forms of governance. Ecuador's new constitution states: "Nature or Pachamama, where life is reproduced and exists, has the right to exist, persist, maintain and regenerate its vital cycles, structure, functions and its processes in evolution." That is, it grants explicit rights to Nature. Early next year, Bolivia is likely to enact a new constitution that empowers the long-suffering indigenous people of that nation.

There is no guarantee of success, though -- significant hurdles remain to be overcome. More trials of this sort are needed to develop a new zeitgeist, a different way of living for the 21st century. The current paradigm of the global North has run its course; an apparent dead end of financial insolvency, endless warfare and destruction of the natural world. The world should learn from and improve upon these experiments. We may well be witnessing the beginnings of a 'New American Century', but this time led from the South and based on the principles of social justice and environmental sustainability.

Image: Wikipedia