Latin America’s presidents speak out on climate change at UN

Latin American presidents address international leaders at UN summit, calling for united and equal global action to combat climate change impacts while highlighting their own respective countries’ trials and tribulations.

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President Ollanta Humala of Peru (L) meets with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon (R) at the UN General Assembly in New York. Photo courtesy of Efe.

International leaders have gathered at the United Nations in New York this week, ahead of the General Assembly on Wednesday September 24th. The day before, a climate change leaders’ summit called by Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon saw over 120 heads of state and parliament assemble at the UN headquarters, with leaders addressing their counterparts on the topic of global climate change and the need for concerted action to bring down carbon emissions and avoid dangerous global temperature rises.

The summit came after massive ‘People’s Climate Marches’ on Sunday September 21st saw over 600,000 people march in support of greater global efforts to tackle rising carbon emissions, and ahead of this year’s UN COP20 conference in the Peruvian capital, Lima, a summit seen as crucial as a prelude to next year’s COP21 conference in Paris, where a new global deal on climate change is due to be agreed on.

Among the interventions at the UN climate summit, there were notable speeches from some Latin American presidents, including the Presidents of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, Peru, Ollanta Humala, and Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro. In keeping with recent affirmations on the issue coming out of Latin America, each speech had more or less the same central point running through it: that a global alliance between climate and development was needed, to ensure a balance between effective action against climate change and the encouragement of sustainable and low-carbon economic growth.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff speaking at the UN leaders’ climate summit in New York. Photo courtesy of Efe.

Brazil’s Rousseff based her speech on a simple but vital message: that economic development and the fight against climate change are compatible. She held her own country up as proof of this, claiming that Brazil had been able to continue its economic development, bringing down rates of poverty and socioeconomic inequality along the way, while still ensuring greater protection of the environment and stricter limits on carbon emissions and deforestation. “A model that is both socially equitable and that includes respect for the environment is possible”, Rousseff stated, adding that “Brazil doesn’t announce promises, it shows results”.

Peru’s Humala, meanwhile, reiterated the warning that climate change is a phenomenon that is “[affecting] our planet like no other [phenomenon] in the history of mankind”. He expressed optimism, however, that the upcoming COP20 summit in Lima, to be held during the first fortnight of December, will produce a “clear and coherent” document to deal with climate change that will feed in to efforts to draw up a definitive deal on carbon emissions in Paris next year. Humala also repeated the claim that richer and industrialised countries, who have made far greater historic contributions to global carbon emissions, should carry a heavier burden in global efforts in order to ensure that these are fairer, especially on those countries who have polluted very little but who are among the most vulnerable in the world to the negative impacts of climate change.

This was a tone that was repeated, albeit far more strongly, by the presidents of Bolivia, Evo Morales, and Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro. Morales called on the world’s more developed countries to assume leadership in the fight against climate change, and to take more responsibility for the levels of their carbon emissions, both now and historically. He also insisted that these countries had a duty to provide financial help to poorer and more vulnerable nations, so that they can take effective action to protect themselves against the worst effects of climate change. These countries, Morales reminded the assembly, tend to suffer the most despite having hardly contributed at all to historic carbon emissions.

Maduro, on the other hand, was even more belligerent in his rhetoric, blasting the “lack of political will” among richer countries, who he said only want to propose “capitalist” solutions which only make things worse. The outspoken Venezuelan president argued that capitalism is the root of many of the climate problems in the first place, stating that “capitalist logic in economic growth is incompatible with the survival of the planet” and that “capitalist models are incompatible with sustainability”. He also reminded his fellow leaders that the top 20% of the world’s countries in terms of wealth consume 84% of the world’s energy, emphasising the overwhelming share of climate change-causing greenhouse gas emissions that these countries are responsible for.

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro gave a speech typically strong in rhetoric, in which he blamed capitalism for the roots of the global climate crisis. Photo courtesy of Efe.

Several other Latin American leaders spoke, including Chile’s Michelle Bachelet, Costa Rica’s Luis Guillermo Solís, and Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos. Bachelet underlined her country’s contributions to global climate efforts, including a voluntary agreement to reduce Chile’s carbon emissions by 20% by 2020. Solís reaffirmed Costa Rica’s commitment to achieve carbon neutrality by 2021, with plans to meet 100% of its energy needs through renewables and hydroelectricity, and a move towards electric trains and biofuel-powered buses. Santos, meanwhile, emphasised Colombia’s position as one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to the impacts of climate change, citing the devastating floods of the winter of 2010-11 and the ongoing drought that is gripping the north of the country. He also called on the international community to join in concerted efforts to protect the Amazon rainforest which, as Santos reiterated, act as the “lungs of the planet” in providing around a fifth of the world’s oxygen.

The talks also come the day after a statement from Alicia Bárcena, the Executive Secretary of the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL), revealed that preliminary estimates by the organisation suggest that the annual economic costs of climate change in Latin America could reach around 2.5% of the region’s total GDP. These severe economic costs would be in spite of the fact that the region contributes just 9% of the world’s overall carbon emissions, with a significant portion of this coming from changes in land use, such as replacing forested areas with cattle pasture and giant monoculture plantations.

The statement said that “the region must urgently design and implement adaptation strategies that include a long-term vision and take into account collateral impacts”. It also reiterated the region’s unique and especially high vulnerability to climate change, stating that “the vulnerability of Latin American and Caribbean countries is exacerbated by its geography, the way its population and infrastructure are distributed, its dependence on natural resources, the importance of agricultural activity, and the length of its coastal areas-both along the Pacific and the Atlantic”.

Latin America is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, with the recent drought in Colombia being one example. Photo courtesy of Getty Images via the BBC.