Climate change is like an erratic storm, sweeping across the globe, but it doesn’t strike with equal force everywhere. Instead, it tends to target the vulnerable, punishing those with fewer resources and less economic development. Latin America and the Caribbean stand as a vivid illustration of this climate injustice, where the struggle against the impacts of global warming is a stark reminder of the need for climate justice. Here, we dive into the climate challenges faced by Latin America and the Caribbean, exploring how these regions are disproportionately affected and examining the urgent call for environmental equity.
What is climate justice? Climate justice is a concept rooted in ethics and morality, emphasising the fair distribution of both the burdens and benefits of addressing climate change. It insists on a just division of effort in lessening and adapting to climate change, considering past and present contributions to greenhouse gas emissions and the ability to withstand its blows. At the heart of climate justice lies the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ (CBDR), an idea established by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This principle acknowledges that we all share the duty of confronting climate change, but it doesn’t overlook the historical emissions and development disparities. Data from the World Resources Institute (WRI) reveals that industrialised nations, particularly in Europe and North America, shoulder a greater responsibility in reducing emissions and aiding adaptation efforts in less developed regions, such as Latin America and the Caribbean.
Latin America’s climate battle: An unjust burden
Latin America has become a poignant example of climate injustice. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) data paints a distressing picture: South America is warming faster than the global average. According to the World Bank, by mid-century, temperature increases in the region are projected to range from 1.5°C to 4.5°C. Heatwaves, increasingly common and blistering, now threaten agriculture, water sources and public health. Hurricanes and droughts, once rare guests, are now unwelcome regulars, causing widespread destruction. The Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) also predicts that temperatures will continue to increase, with Latin America veering towards +2°C to +4°C by 2100 and rainfall surging by +20% to +30%. Currently, extreme weather events linked to climate change, leading to power outages and transportation disruptions, are already causing economic losses exceeding 1% of GDP on average throughout the region. Looking ahead, natural disasters might incur an annual expense of USD 100 billion over the next three decades.
Latin America and the Caribbean are among the regions most challenged by extreme hydro-meteorological events. This was highlighted in 2020 by the death and devastation from Hurricane Eta and Iota in Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica and the intense drought and unusual fire season in the Pantanal region of Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina. According to The World Health Organization (WHO) Secretary-General Prof. Petteri Taalas, “Notable impacts included water and energy-related shortages, agricultural losses, displacement and compromised health and safety, all compounding challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic.” The WHO warns of rising temperatures aiding the spread of diseases like dengue and Zika, diseases that were once confined to the tropics. Increased heat stress and air pollution further undermine public health, with the most vulnerable, those with limited healthcare access, bearing the brunt. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) claims that 2.5 million jobs could be lost in the region by 2030 due to heat stress.
Glaciers in the Andes, South America’s icy crown, are vanishing at an alarming rate having lost over 25% of their ice mass in the last 30 years. The World Glacier Monitoring Service (WGMS) warns that these glaciers are shrinking, primarily due to rising temperatures. As the glaciers melt, they contribute to rising sea levels, a fact confirmed by the IPCC. Coastal regions, like those in Peru and Ecuador, are under siege, with vulnerable communities facing displacement and the loss of their livelihoods. From 2008 to 2019, approximately 656,000 out of Peru’s 33 million residents were compelled to relocate due to natural disasters, as reported by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC). Predictions suggest that by the year 2100, these population displacements could surge to unprecedented levels, given the anticipated increase in both the frequency and severity of environmental hazards. “Climate shocks could add up to 5.8 million to the number of people in the Latin American region in extreme poverty by 2030,” according to the World Bank.
Between 1993 and 2020, the Caribbean experienced a sea-level rise averaging 3.6 mm annually, slightly exceeding the global average of 3.3 mm/year.[i] Given the persistent income inequality and poverty in even the most developed Latin American economies, with a third of the population living in poverty as of 2022[ii], adaptation measures must be integrated into national sustainable development strategies. The issue is compounded by the fact that many Latin American and Caribbean nations grapple with limited adaptive capacity due to economic constraints. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) stresses that these countries often lack the financial resources and infrastructure required to respond effectively to climate change. “A city that functions well under ‘normal’ conditions will respond better to the potential impacts of climate change than a city that has deficits in infrastructure and equipment, low economic development, weak state institutions etc,” as reported in the Special Report on Global Warming 1.5C.
This all underscores the urgent need for comprehensive strategies that address climate change’s multifaceted consequences, emphasising the importance of robust infrastructure and economic development to mitigate its impact effectively. The disproportionate burden placed on vulnerable populations, both in terms of health and economic well-being are not being truly acknowledged, let alone effectively managed.
Urgency and adaptation
As the Green Climate Fund’s regional report on Latin America attests, climate change looms as a substantial economic threat in the region, potentially siphoning off between 1.5% to 5% of the region’s gross domestic product (GDP) each year. Already, as reported by the World Bank, climate-induced extreme weather events and the resulting disruptions to power and transportation networks cost over 1% of GDP across the region on average and up to 2% annually in multiple Central American nations. Agriculture, a cornerstone of the regional economy, faces an array of challenges including increased erosion, shifting growing zones and the proliferation of pests.
Latin America also stands at the precipice of experiencing one of the steepest increases in energy consumption rates globally due to anticipated economic growth, underscoring the urgency of adopting a low-carbon development trajectory. Energy, agriculture and land-use practices, including deforestation, stand as the three largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions in the region. Several Latin American nations have taken proactive steps by committing to ambitious climate targets. In 2019 Costa Rica pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 and unveiled a comprehensive decarbonisation plan, focusing on electrifying public transport, enhancing energy efficiency and promoting sustainable farming practices. Chile, one of the early adopters, updated its nationally determined contribution (NDC) in April 2020 to a target of 95 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent by 2030 and could potentially exceed this goal by 2% to 11%.[iii] This notable progress has resulted in an upgraded CAT rating for Chile’s current policies and actions and moreover, if Chile follows through with planned policies, including an early coal phase-out by 2030, it could potentially align itself with the 1.5C target. Fernando Aragón-Durand, senior consultant, researcher and advisor on climate change risks, resilience and disasters for Latin America and the Caribbean explained that “the challenges will be for the countries’ NDCs to reflect progress towards decarbonising the economy, increasing the mitigation of problematic sectors such as energy and combating inequalities and poverty to reduce vulnerability.”
In addition, numerous countries in the region are placing significant emphasis on forest conservation regimes as part of their climate ambitions. Nations like Brazil, Peru and Ecuador are committed to enhancing the ambition of their NDCs by prioritising the protection, restoration and sustainable management of forests, grasslands and wetlands, along with improved agricultural and land-use practices and the preservation of coastal ecosystems.[iv] The Amazon Sustainable Landscapes Program (ASL) was created to unite Brazil, Colombia and Peru, aiming to safeguard globally significant biodiversity and implement policies for sustainable land usage and native vegetation restoration. It has received over USD 113 million in funding from the Global Environment Facility (GEF), with an additional estimated co-financing of USD 683 million from various sources, including national governments, international organisations, NGOs and the private sector. The programme is executed by three GEF Implementing Agencies: World Bank Group (WBG), World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
The Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), led by environmentalist Marina Silva, have shifted towards environmental protection by rejecting Petrobras’ request to drill a well in the Foz do Amazonas basin. The director of a major Brazilian NGO emphasised that “this is not only a success from an environmental point of view but also a success of the rule of law in Brazil. Bear in mind that Petrobras, with all its money and the power and the support of the government, has a tradition of imposing its projects and twisting the arm on regulatory bodies when needed. This time, IBAMA was clear about the environmental perils that this project could cause, and the ministry of energy stood firm with the ruling which was based on a technical assessment.” The potential environmental harm and threats to indigenous lands that would have arisen from the approval of this environmental license highlight the delicate balance between economic interests and environmental preservation.
The plight of vulnerable communities, particularly subsistence farmers and indigenous groups are disproportionately affected by climate change. Their struggles with food shortages and poverty underline the urgent need for equitable and inclusive climate action. This serves as a sobering wake-up call, emphasising the magnitude of the climate crisis in Latin America and the Caribbean. It showcases both the challenges and the opportunities for addressing climate change in the regions, illustrating the importance of international cooperation, sustainable development and social equity in tackling this global issue.
In 2015, the United Nations introduced the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to shape global development, a journey now in its final stretch. The SDG Summit during the 78th UN General Assembly in 2023 emphasised urgent action, with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres calling for USD 500 billion to be deployed annually to “redirect our trajectory toward these goals.” Despite the region’s natural wealth, Latin America and the Caribbean progress has stalled on several SDGs, with only a third on track as of 2023.
“Notable progress in poverty reduction can be seen in Brazil, El Salvador, Guyana, Paraguay, the Dominican Republic and Uruguay. Conversely, Argentina, Belize, Ecuador and Venezuela have experienced significant setbacks in this regard,” according to an assembly of specialists, spearheaded by American economist Jeffrey Sachs. To ensure the relevance of the 2030 Agenda, “a strategic approach should focus on both well-performing and struggling Sustainable Development Goals to create success stories and drive significant change.” Addressing the environmental dimension is paramount, with a mere 20% of countries highlighting biodiversity in their SDG progress reports, threatening overall achievement and climate change efforts. Accelerating the collective efforts is imperative, especially for Latin America in energy, food, digital and educational transitions, as well as robust social protection. Without significant investment in these areas, the SDGs might remain unmet by the deadline of 2030.
A call to global responsibility and equitable action
Efforts like the Paris Agreement and the Green Climate Fund (GCF) offer a glimmer of hope for a fairer response to climate change. Their success hinges on the commitment and action of industrialised nations to honour their responsibilities. In the face of this unfolding climate catastrophe, it becomes unequivocally clear that climate justice is not a mere slogan but an urgent necessity. Latin America’s struggle serves as a poignant reminder that climate change’s harshest impacts are often felt by those who bear the least responsibility for its creation. The principles of fairness, equity and shared responsibility enshrined in climate justice are not optional; they are the linchpin upon which a sustainable and equitable future for our planet hinges. As the world unites under the banners of the Paris Agreement and the GCF, the responsibility falls on all of us, especially the most affluent nations, to act decisively. Climate justice is not just an ethical imperative; it is the path forward to ensure that no region, no community, nor individual is left to suffer the disproportionate burdens of our shared climate crisis.
[i] World Meteorological Organization https://public.wmo.int/en/media/press-release/new-report-shows-impacts-of-climate-change-and-extreme-weather-latin-america-and#:~:text=Sea%20level%20rise,-In%20Latin%20America&text=The%20number%20of%20people%20living,(3.3mm%2Fyear).
[ii] OECD Data, Poverty rate https://data.oecd.org/inequality/poverty-rate.htm
[iii] Climate Action Tracker, Countries, Chile https://climateactiontracker.org/countries/chile/#:~:text=Under%20this%20pathway%2C%20Chile’s%20emissions,global%20frontrunner%20in%20climate%20action.
[iv] UNFCCC|RCC Panama in collaboration with UN Environment and the NDC-P, Survey on NDCs, Latin America, 2020 https://unfccc.int/sites/default/files/resource/RCCPanamaSurveyOnNDC_13Octubre2020.pdf