Climate Change in Guatemala

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By Dr. Edwin Castellanos, Co-Director, Center for Environmental Studies and Biodiversity, Universidad del Valle de Guatemala, and lead author, UN IPCC Fifth Assessment Report on Climate Change

Climate change is without a doubt one of the biggest challenges facing humanity today. We see this in the search for agreements that will limit the generation of the greenhouse gases causing the problem, as well as in our efforts to implement measures to help us adapt to the changes caused by the changing climate. Climate change is affecting and will affect all of the important sectors of national life, including food production, public health, infrastructure, and even public safety.

Despite the controversy about the veracity of climate change, much of this controversy was addressed last year with the publication of the Fifth Assessment Report on Climate Change by the IPCC. This organization, created by the UN, fielded a team of over 800 select scientists from around the world to write this report about the state of the climate in order to informs the countries that meet annually to negotiate actions to be taken to tackle the problem. This year, negotiations will take place in December in Paris. Many hope that all countries, including Guatemala, will arrive with concrete proposals for how they will reduce their emissions to the levels they promise.

The IPCC’s Fifth Assessment presented three unambiguous conclusions. First, there is virtually no doubt that the planet is warming. This is shown not only by rising temperatures around the world, but also by the melting of the polar ice caps, the Greenland ice sheet, and the glaciers in the Andes and the Alps. Further, we have observed that sea levels are rising.

Second, this warming is due primarily to human activities that emit greenhouse gases that increase the warmth trapped inside the atmosphere. Although we know that historically the planet has warmed multiple times in the past, never has the warming been so fast. This can only be explained by taking into consideration the consequences of human activities like the burning of fossil fuels, agriculture, and deforestation, among others. Third, even if we reach a global agreement to stop the generation of greenhouse gases, the warming effect will continue to impact the global climate for at least another century. This means that we are forced to adapt ourselves to a changing climate.

What concrete effects can we expect in Guatemala? Studies we’ve done at the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala in which we asked farmers what they’ve noticed with respect to the climate show that Guatemala’s weather is already more variable than before. For its geography, Guatemala has always had variable weather patterns, but this variability has increased substantially in the last decades. Farmers report, for example, that it’s now more difficult to predict the beginning and the end of the rainy season. This of course complicates their efforts to determine when they should plant to have a successful harvest. The famous “May showers” haven’t arrived in recent years as the rainy season doesn’t arrive until June. Indeed, the famous zompopos, yellow ants, of May are now the zompopos of June. This has, of course, substantially increased the problem of food security and famine, especially in the “corredor seco” (a large eastern swath of Guatemala, from the departments of Izabal and Baja Verapaz in the north to Santa Rosa and Jutiapa in the south).

We see, then, that climate change, in spite of being a problem that will develop over the long-term during the rest of the century, is already having significant effects that are adding to Guatemala’s existing problems like poverty, famine, and deficient public health, among others. And it’s this same poverty that, along with other factors, makes our country so vulnerable to the batterings of a more extreme climate. (Editorial note: Guatemala’s poverty rate remains over 50%, and the rate of malnutrition among children under five is over 40%.)

Climate change will be felt in Guatemala essentially as a problem of water management. Just as we’ve had water shortages over the last two years, in the past decade climate fluctuations have created an increase in extreme rainstorms, including not just tropical storms and hurricanes, but torrential rains that caused floods and landslides that left a high death toll and many survivors. We need, then, to prepare ourselves to alternatively confront periods of deficient rainfall, by developing our capacity for rainwater storage and management, and periods of intense rainfall, by improving our infrastructure to minimize the impacts of floods and the likelihood of deadly landslides.

The alternation between dry and wet periods will continue through the coming decades, but climate models developed by regional and global organizations show that over the long run Central America will experience a gradual decrease in rainfall. One of these analyses shows a decrease of 13% in Guatemala’s rainfall by the year 2050 and of 27% by 2100.

Though these percentages may seem small at first glance, they can result in a considerable increase in hydrological stress, which various regions, particularly the western regions of the country and the southern portions of the departments of Huehuetenango, Quiché, and the Verapaces, are already experiencing. Much of the lack of water already observed in these and other regions are due to our poor management of this vital resource, especially in terms of the contamination of surface water that occurs when we discard our waste water without any treatment whatsoever. (Editorial note: Over 90% of Guatemala’s water sources and more than 98% of its waterways are polluted with bacteria.) Climate change will therefore add pressure on Guatemala to design and pass legislation to better manage and conserve our water resources.

Climate change will also bring higher temperatures, which will increase the probability of having more arid regions with less agricultural productivity. Climate models show a global temperature increase of two to four degrees Celsius by the end of this century. The true temperature increase will depend on how much more greenhouse gas pollution the world produces.

This is why the December summit in Paris is so important for the future of our country. A binding agreement between all the countries of the world, especially those who pollute the most, including the United States, China, the European Union, and India, to reduce emissions that will permit the world to keep temperature increases in the range of or under two degrees Celsius. Guatemala must also make a proposal to reduce its emissions, and this proposal should be implemented through a participatory process led by the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (MARN).

But beyond simply tuning into the negotiations, Guatemalans must start to work together to shape our local and national plans to adapt to the climate change that we’ll be confronting for the rest of the century. The task and the duty belong to all of us, to government as much as civil society.