Climate Change Effects in Latin America and the Caribbean | World Series Part 1
Updated: Nov 3, 2022
By now, we would have realized that climate change impacts the earth as a whole. But this article series will be discussing the more specific impacts climate change has on each continent, starting with Latin America and the Caribbean.
Latin America (from Mexico to Chile) and the Caribbean islands are home to more than 660 million people; and is the place of some of the most important natural phenomena, such as the Angel falls waterfall as the highest uninterrupted waterfall and the Amazon rainforest as the biggest rainforest in the world. It is geographically located mostly in the southern hemisphere and has a generally wet and humid climate.
Latin America and the Caribbean contributes only a tiny fraction to the global GHG emissions; however, it is one of the places that are heavily disadvantaged by the impacts. Latin America is established to have “persistent regional climate change hotspots” throughout the 21st century.
Climate change can cause an increase in hydro-meteorological occurrences such as typhoons and hurricanes, thunderstorms, hailstorms, tornadoes, blizzards, heavy snowfall, avalanches, coastal storms surges, floods, including flash floods, drought, heatwaves, and cold spells. People have been displaced, injured, and even died, and there have been enormous economic losses due to this.
More than 99% of the planet's tropical glaciers are in South America, which provides water for its surroundings, such as water for drinking, agriculture, hydroelectricity, etc.
About 71% of the glaciers are found in Peru, and due to global warming, a third of the glacier surface area has been lost. One of the major impacts from the melting of the glacier is severely reduced water availability and contaminated water, which affects people to have difficult access to safe drinking water.
Studies have found that out of 33 million Peru’s population, around 5 million face water scarcity. Additionally, between 2 and 5 million people, who are mostly children, die each year as a result of diseases caused by contaminated water.
Microorganisms such as E. coli, salmonella, etc., increases as the temperature gets warmer. Therefore, global warming causes an increase in these microorganisms that contaminates water. An increased temperature also triggers the spread of other diseases such as Malaria and Dengue fever.
Other than water scarcity from contaminated water and melting glaciers, Latin America is also faced with drought as they are placed geographically in a warm area. Droughts are quite inevitable as one of the extreme weather outcomes of climate change, such as increased El Nino events and extremely dry summer.
Besides Peru, other Latin American countries that also face risks of water scarcity and droughts are Bolivia, Colombia, north-eastern Brazil, the Caribbean, and some parts of Mexico, where lakes have seen to disappear or dried out due to the extreme heat. Moreover, displacement of people is seen in Guyana, where some indigenous communities have to abandon their savannah homes due to droughts.
Besides drying out water sources, droughts are also harmful to the livestock and agriculture sector. For example, in Uruguay, droughts from 2017-2018 have caused crop-livestock losses, which cost around 0.8 percent of GDP in 2018 alone. Furthermore, a decrease in fresh-water availability for irrigation and hydropower could also result in a major economic loss, estimated to reach $1.2 billion of mean annual losses by 2050.
As mentioned above, the melting of the glaciers could result in two extremes - droughts and rising sea levels. So, while the climate issue will cause some people to suffer from devastating droughts and water shortages, it may also cause deadly flooding in others. The recent flooding in China and Europe is an example of how things can go bad.
Rising sea levels can cause the two great oceans that flank the continent (Pacific and Atlantic) to become more acidic and cause flooding in the Caribbean and coastal areas of Latin America. However, floods may also be caused by increased precipitation and unpredictable storms due to climate change.
Research has found that increased temperatures due to global warming are associated with an increase in rainfall. This was the case for Paraguay, Uruguay, and Southeast Brazil, specifically in Rio de Janeiro, which suffered from floods that caused landslides through populated areas.
Another evidence of floods from increased precipitation was in Bogota (capital city of Colombia) in 2011, where rainfall increased by three times, triggering massive floods and forced evacuations of hundreds of buildings.
Floods are especially harmful to people who live in densely populated areas and poor communities. There are around 1.5 million people who live in Rio's famed densely populated favelas, who are in danger of climate fuelled flooding.
The Amazon rainforest is the biggest rainforest in the world which has a crucial role in global carbon sink by soaking up 5% of the global emissions. It is also the natural habitat of numerous wildlife, plant species, and some indigenous people.
Climate change and global warming have caused massive wildfires to the forest, added by deforestation, which caused a total of more than 11,000 sq km of the forest to be lost. This means that there is not only a significant decrease in the number of carbon-adsorbing trees in the world, but the fires also accelerate climate change by releasing the carbon in the trees as they burn.
Additionally, natural habitats are destroyed, and other complications such as respiratory diseases and fatalities are due to the fires. Research has predicted that the Amazon wildfires could become more common and damaging as the climate becomes warmer and droughts become more frequent.
Even though Latin America and the Caribbean contributes only little to global emissions, it has to experience devastating climate such as extreme droughts causing water scarcity, disappearing lakes, melting glaciers, landslides, and even massive fires in one of the most vital carbon sinks for the earth.
Impacts in many sectors such as economic loss, agriculture, and crop loss, even deaths are dangerously increasing. It is not too late to act and help those who are most disadvantaged by the climate crisis.
Learn more about the serious health effects we face because of climate change here.
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Olivia Eugenia is an Environmental Science student at the University of Western Australia. She is also an activist and a content writer at the International Youth Organization for Peace and Sustainability.
Inputs and Edits by Aswin Raghav R.