Speeches & Transcripts

“Climate Change Impacts in Latin America and the Caribbean: Confronting the New Climate Normal”

December 2, 2014

Jorge Familiar Washington, D.C., United States


Climate change is a clear and dire threat to Latin America and the Caribbean. A threat in which the region has had little or no role in the making, but in which it is already an important part of the solution.

Dear friends, I appreciate this opportunity to address you on this important and timely topic. The report we are launching today is the third in the Turn Down the Heat series and, for the first time, covers our region.

This report is based on the findings of a global research series commissioned by the World Bank to the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics.

We thought a stand-alone report for Latin America and the Caribbean would add value to the solutions-focused discussion already taking place in the region.

In this regard, I would like to thank Cindy Arnson and the Latin America Program at the Wilson Center for partnering with us to further the discussion on the development implications of climate change for Latin America and the Caribbean.

The challenges climate change poses to development are significant: the economic, social, and political costs of unchecked climate change make it one of the most important areas of action for decision-makers today.

This report makes it clear in a scientifically rigorous way why tackling climate change is so important for Latin America and the Caribbean.

Being aware of these challenges is a necessary first step to prepare and implement policy responses, both in a catastrophic four degree scenario or in the two degree world we are already moving towards.

I would like to highlight some of my takeaways, based on the report’s findings:

The first is that a four degree world can and must be avoided.

The projections for our region in a four degree warming scenario are daunting:

  • Almost all land area in the region – 90% – will likely be subject to heat events that are currently experienced only every 700 years.
  • The Amazon basin and many highly inhabited areas are expected to experience extreme droughts.
  • The Andean glaciers will be gone by the end of the century. Glacial melt will at first raise the risks of floods and then result in drought for the communities that depend on them.
  • Category 4 or 5 hurricanes may occur more frequently and more powerfully. This, together with a one meter sea-level rise will have devastating impacts, especially on the Caribbean.
  • A 4 degree world would mean that Rio de Janeiro and Barranquilla would have to cope with a massive 1.4 meter rise in sea level.

We are already living in a world that is close to one degree above what it would be if not for human activity, on the path to reach two degrees. The report finds that a 1.5 degree global temperature increase is already locked in, and some of the impacts associated with a two degree warming are already being felt.

Events such as the massive 2005 and 2010 Amazon droughts, the increase in frequency in Atlantic hurricanes, and the 90% loss of tropical glaciers are clear evidence of this.

Even a two degree world would be highly damaging to Latin America and the Caribbean, jeopardizing decades of development achievements.

  • The number of severe hurricanes will increase by 40%, with double the energy of the current average.
  • Ecological changes would endanger up to 70% of Brazil’s soya bean and 45% of Mexico’s corn.
  • Bleaching of coral reefs would increase and the Caribbean fish catch volume would decrease by up to 50%.

Now, the good news is that we can avoid the worst impacts of a 4-degree world, while continuing to prepare for a world that is 1.5 to 2 degrees warmer. So, my second key takeaway is that we need to move faster.

As a Latin American, I am greatly encouraged that the region is showing that there is no room for complacency regarding mitigation.

  • It has preserved its forests more than any other region,
  • It is the most bio-diverse region in the world,
  • It has the largest freshwater reserves and is home to the Amazon, the world’s largest carbon sink,
  • It also historically has had the cleanest energy matrix of any region.

Latin America has a special responsibility to the world in this respect. We must continue to avoid deforestation, avoid the current trend towards dirtier energy, work to reduce air pollution in the cities, and emphasize climate friendly solutions, such as in agriculture.

It is clear that the world’s greatest emitters of greenhouse gases need to demonstrate decisive leadership to solve the climate change crisis. But Latin America and the Caribbean has not been waiting, and should not wait, for what others can do.

Climate change even at today’s level of close to 1 degree already requires adaptation.  The region is doing much to prepare for a 2-degree world while avoiding a 4-degree one.

Chile plans to drive a renewable energy boom, with a law to generate 20 per cent of its energy from renewable sources by 2025.

Mexico – which could see its GDP decrease between 3.5 to 4 percent due to climate impacts – has set the target of reaching 35 per cent of renewable energy use by 2024.

Moreover, Latin America and the Caribbean has become a hotbed of innovation, focusing investment on green transportation systems, clean energy, as well as payments for environmental services and forest conservation programs, that combine advanced technology with the knowledge of local communities.

Innovations such as climate-smart agricultural practices offer promise to Latin America and the Caribbean to manage the climate risks to agricultural productivity, ensure food security, and advance the region’s potential as a global ‘bread-basket’.

On the governance agenda, Latin America is leading in legislation to prevent or mitigate the effects of atmospheric change. We find examples in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Costa Rica. Brazil has also shown leadership by enacting one of the world’s most effective conservation regimes in the Amazon, greatly containing deforestation.

In summary, many countries in the region have shown that they are willing to take action today. The fact that the COP negotiations are taking place in Lima shows not only the leadership Peru has taken, but also that the entire region seeks to find, incubate, pilot, and apply solutions to climate change that are globally replicable. 

Latin American and Caribbean countries are not alone in advancing the agenda. My third key message is that there are partnership structures in place to support countries’ action agendas.

Multilateral development banks like the IDB and the WBG, national development banks, and international funds like the Global Environmental Facility, and the Adaptation Fund have been crucial partners in providing financial and technical support for country-led action. An example would be an innovative weather insurance mechanism for Uruguay that we presented to our Board this morning. This new hedging instrument protects the country’s energy sector against climate and oil price vulnerabilities.

  • The Climate Investment Fund, a joint fund by the World Bank Group and other multilateral development banks for country-led investments in clean technology, renewable energy, and climate resilience, co-finances investments in 13 countries of the region.
  • The Green Climate Fund, once operational, is envisaged as a mechanism for scaled-up financial support to enable countries meet the additional costs that climate change places on economic growth.

The region has made incredible advances on the socio-economic front in the last decade. It has achieved steady and dramatic declines in poverty, cutting extreme poverty by half since 2003.

Since 2011 and for the first time in recorded history, there are more people in the middle class than in poverty in Latin America.

The rise of the Latin American middle class represents a historic achievement for a region long associated with wealth inequality, especially at a time when other regions have become more unequal.

All these gains, however, may be jeopardized by the hazardous effects of climate change. 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.

To quote World Bank Group President Jim Kim: “We will never end poverty if we don’t tackle climate change.”

To conclude I would like to reiterate that there are options at our disposal to avoid the most disastrous impacts of climate change. We also know that the window for action is rapidly closing.

Emission reductions are urgent, especially in the world’s largest economies and the recent agreement between the US and China is a first promising step in this direction.

The report launched today is a reminder for everyone that the benefits of strong, timely action on climate change, to promote clean, low-carbon pathways and avoid locking in unsustainable growth strategies, far outweigh the costs.

Seeing the track record of Latin American and Caribbean countries, I am confident we can scale up successes achieved to date to guarantee a climate-resilient region for future generations.

I am also confident that the region will continue to set a high bar for international action to minimize future climate risks and maximize future climate resilience.

Thank you.

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