Latin Americans are up for a fight with global climate change

Citizens of Latin American nations are united in their belief that measures to fight global climate change should be given priority over any economic impacts of doing so, according to a new survey.

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The results of the Latinobarómetro survey 2017 show that 69% of Latin Americans think that climate change is an urgent problem that needs to be tackled immediately, with only 4% stating that it isn’t a problem and will never be something worth worrying about. Furthermore, 71% of those surveyed say that the fight against the causes and impacts of climate change must be given high priority, whatever the economic cost.

“The people of Latin America overwhelmingly favour protection of the environment”, the head of Latinobarómetro, Marta Lagos, said at a launch event for this year’s report in Buenos Aires. Lagos stated that the high levels of support for such action stem from the fact that Latin Americans “have experienced the pillaging of their environment, and natural disasters which are becoming more frequent and more violent”.

Colombia (85%), Ecuador (80%), and Chile (78%) top the list of countries whose citizens most strongly believe that climate action should take precedence over short-term economic concerns, while the lowest rate of response to this question was found among the population of Guatemala and the Dominican Republic (both 60%). Just 20% of people across the region as a whole think that economic performance should still be given priority over action against climate change.

Latinobarómetro is not the only polling company to uncover such findings: the Global Attitudes Survey from Pew Research Center found that Latin Americans see climate change as the top threat, above such issues as the condition of the global economy, war and terrorism.

According to the report accompanying the results of the survey, climate change is a subject that has grown in importance for many Latin Americans in recent years. This is largely due to a growing trend where the issue continues to occupy a greater space in public discourse, while the rise in natural disasters affecting the region – driven, to some degree, by accelerating climate change – is beginning to bring home the realities of continued inaction on climate change.

Latin America is one of the world regions most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Recent climatic impacts include widespread drought in Central America, Brazil, parts of the Andes and the Amazon; severe floods in Colombia, the La Plata river basin and Central America; melting glaciers affecting water availability in the Andean nations of Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru; and intense storms and hurricanes, particularly in Central America and the Caribbean.

As temperatures creep up, with highland regions the most sensitive to these rises and their impacts on local weather patterns and ecosystems, coastal regions will also be at risk of increasing sea levels. Biodiversity is also at risk across the region, both as a result of human activity and deforestation, and as the climate warms and affects the ability of plant and animal species to adapt to changing climatic conditions. Farming communities increasingly will also struggle to meet local and regional food needs as crops fail due to more extreme weather events.

The UN predicts that by the middle of this century, the impacts of climate change could impose up to US$100 billion of damage on Latin America each year. While it makes much more economic sense in the long run to take action now rather than later, Latin American nations need huge levels of investment to switch over to renewable energy, green other areas of the economy, and build up defences against negative impacts of climate change. With these up-front costs, though, come significant opportunities for developing more resilient economies.

latinobarometro climate change
Breakdown of the responses from each country to the statement: “Priority should be given to the fight against climate change, no matter the negative consequences to economic growth”, Latinobarómetro 2017.

Environment over economy: a real choice for some

The Latinobarómetro report adds as a caveat that, given many Latin Americans feel they are not receiving the full benefits of economic growth (as detailed elsewhere in the report), the notion of sacrificing short-term economic growth in the name of fighting climate change remains hypothetical, and doesn’t carry quite the same weight in terms of the consequences for their own financial situation.

However, the report points out that one area where this issue has garnered significant attention is the Andean region, especially when it comes to disputes over mining companies and their environmental impacts. Here, the choice between environmental concerns and short-term economic gains is very real, and one that is made relatively often on a case-by-case basis, as mining projects located near communities go through their planning stages.

That said, in those countries where this scenario is most relevant, the survey suggests that populations still put a premium on the environment and fighting climate change, over the economy. In Peru, which has borne witness to some of the most notable flashpoints between mining opportunities and their social and environmental impacts, 67% of those surveyed said the fight against climate change should take precedence over any economic concerns.

The report also comments that action on climate change may be one of the most obvious examples yet of public opinion across a whole swathe of Latin American society being so far out of step with US government policy, in light of Donald Trump’s scepticism of the reality of climate change and his pledge to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement. “We’re talking not about national policies, but about a consensus among citizens on the ways to solve global problems”, the report states.

Furthermore, the results of the survey suggest that defending the environment doesn’t have to depend on the income level of a country; citizens of Latin American nations appear to care about the environment to a much greater level than might be expected given average income levels across the region. Latinobarómetro’s Lagos stated that “Latin America has a comparatively low GDP, but in spite of that it has very high levels of concern for the environment”.

Other findings from this year’s survey include the warning that democracy in the region is on the decline, with support for democracy having fallen for the fifth year in a row to now stand at 54%, compared with 61% in 2010. Analysts state that economic growth, which has left fewer Latin American households struggling to make ends meet than ever recorded in the survey’s history (going back to 1995), has failed to compensate for the lack of confidence in political systems across the region. Lagos compared the invisible but steady decline of Latin American democracy to the onset of diabetes, saying “You can’t see the damage being done, there are no obvious symptoms, but if you fail to treat it you end up killing yourself”.

Latinobarómetro is one of the most comprehensive surveys of its kind in the region, with the largest database of any Spanish-language opinion polling organisation. The 2017 survey involved 20,000 interviews across 18 countries, with the results weighted to represent all sectors of society. The survey and full report can be found here, in Spanish only.

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