Multifaceted climate change has to be attacked on several fronts

March 17, 2015


Measuring glacier retreat in Ecuador. SENAMHI

World Bank / SENAMHI

Interview with Daniel Mira-Salama, senior environmental specialist at the World Bank.

The die is cast. If we do not act now, rising temperatures will endanger crops, freshwater reserves, energy security and even our health. We talked to World Bank environmental specialist Daniel Mira-Salama about the challenges we are facing and the measures we can take to mitigate global warming.

Question: What is the purpose of the Turn Down the Heat report series?

Response: This innovative report series has been well received because it seats the scientific community and the development community at the same table.  It brings together the latest knowledge on climate science and impacts with consequences for development. The first report warned us that if we do not act immediately, the future impact of climate change could minimize all progress made in human development in recent years. The other two reports closely examine climate change impacts and their development implications by region.

Q: What is the added value of the third report?

R: This third report uses the latest scientific knowledge – including the 5th Assessment Report of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – as well as articles and results that were published after the Intergovernmental Panel’s cut-off date. This knowledge is applied to the analysis of the main climate change challenges for the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, the Mideast and North Africa and parts of Europe and Central Asia.

Q: What are the main challenges for Latin America and the Caribbean, particularly for the Andean countries? What are the risks?

R: The report divides the continent into five regions. Central America and the Caribbean, where the main challenges are related to the increased frequency of natural disasters, especially hurricanes, storms, tidal waves and landslides. Arid areas of Mexico and northeastern Brazil, where the drought is advancing, with major heat waves and challenges for the population. The Southern Cone, the great breadbasket of Latin America, where climate change threatens agriculture and may lead to reduced food production, which could affect the entire region. The Amazon region, where there is a major risk for degradation of ecosystems and tree cover loss, with the consequent loss of ecosystem services, which may also potentially destabilize the entire region given the Amazon jungle’s key role in climate regulation. In the Andean countries, climate change will exert more pressure on local water resources, with changes in the seasonality of rainy periods, extreme precipitation and flooding, droughts and the potential intensification of El Niño phenomenon. Glacier retreat is a major issue in that region, which will create challenges for water management.

Q: What do rising sea levels mean for cities and important coastal areas such as Lima, Guayaquil and Manta?

R: The impact is clearly worrying. Current predictions point to the increased intensity of storms. Rising sea levels combined with increased storm activity, intense precipitation and tidal waves can produce major flooding, threatening the sustainability of coastal cities, their services and critical infrastructure located along the coast.

Q: What is happening with the glaciers?

R: In the case of tropical Andean glaciers, the evidence is quite solid and the trend is clear: glaciers are retreating at an accelerated rate, which has even given many of them an expiration date. Evidence indicates that all glaciers below 5,000 meters above sea level will be drastically reduced or disappear by  2030 or 2040, depending on local factors. A general, unequivocal retreat of the tropical glaciers has been observed for decades. The impact of the retreat and possible disappearance of tropical glaciers could be obvious at distinct levels, with the loss of water regulation capacity of the basins and threats to hydroelectric power generation, agricultural and livestock production, clean water supplies and degradation of ecosystems, tourism and others.

Q: What about the paramos?

R: Paramos are critical highland ecosystems capable of absorbing and releasing water at different times during the rainy and dry seasons, for which reason they serve as regulators of the water basin. Many paramo ecosystems are associated with glaciers, and therefore will be affected by glacier retreat. Changes in precipitation and temperature parameters, as well as the expansion of human activity, can also affect these ecosystems. Cities such as Quito or Bogota depend on nearby paramos for part of their potable water.

Q: How can we prepare ourselves? Is mitigation possible?

R: Climate change is a complex phenomenon with a variety of implications at all levels, which is why it must be attacked from several fronts. From a mitigation perspective, the focus should be on improving fuel efficiency and reducing the intensity of emissions of the energy, transport, manufacturing and household sectors, to name only a few. In Latin America and the Caribbean, we have some good models, such as that of Ecuador, which has made great strides in using energy from hydroelectric sources. In terms of adaptation, the expected impacts are well known. Latin America and the Caribbean is possibly the most advanced region in terms of specific initiatives using an integrated management approach, improved regulatory and policy frameworks, institutional strengthening and direct investments in infrastructure, programs and projects.

Q: What is the result of the work done so far with respect to the retreat of Andean glaciers? What are the next steps?

R: The project Adaptation to the Impacts of the Rapid Retreat of Tropical Andean Glaciers, which was successfully completed last year, focused on generating knowledge on glacier dynamics, improved monitoring and specific adaptation activities. In Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, highland monitoring stations were established to provide information for decision-making of the environmental ministries of the countries and other key institutions. Additionally, the program successfully implemented pilot adaptation initiatives to learn about the costs, results and benefits of adaptation in order to design larger-scale projects. The initiatives were related to water distribution efficiency, protection and sustainable management of key ecosystems, improved irrigation, adaptive management of agriculture and others. Currently, another Andean adaptation project is being designed, which focuses on a critical sector by country. Each country will select a sector or sub-sector to evaluate the impact of climate change on that sector, to design policy guidelines for adapting to those impacts, and to make specific investments in selected areas. For example, Ecuador will focus on the management of basins critical for uses such as hydroelectric power. Bolivia will implement activities to improve drainage and reduce flooding. Peru will work in small- and medium-scale agriculture whereas Colombia will concentrate on highland agriculture. This project of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) is in the final preparation phase.

" Climate change is a complex phenomenon with a variety of implications at all levels, which is why it must be attacked from several fronts. "
Daniel Mira-Salama

Daniel Mira-Salama

Senior environmental specialist at the World Bank