US presidency: A climate challenge for Latin America

Donald Trump-by Gage Skidmore-Flickr.jpg
Copyright: Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Speed read

  • The new US presidency raises nerves and expectations on climate change policy
  • Donald Trump promised, among other measures, to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement
  • Latin America, which depends on external economic support, is in a difficult position

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On the 20th of this month, Donald Trump assumed the presidency of the United States. It is common that the change in the highest authority of the most influential country in the world raises expectations and anxiety. After all, what happens in the United States can affect the entire planet — and literally, in this case.
After years of progress in US policy on global warming, especially during President Barack Obama's second term, there is a wave of fear about the likely and impending regressions that will come with the new presidency.
That fear is well-founded. During his campaign, Trump promised to dismantle Obama's Clean Energy Plan, an ambitious carbon reduction project and an incentive to use alternative energy sources. He also pledged to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement, considered a milestone in climate diplomacy.
Judging by the appointment of Scott Pruitt — a climate skeptic and strong ally of the oil industry — to lead the US Environmental Protection Agency, everything indicates that Trump intends to keep his promises.
If that is the case, Latin America, which is wrapped up in a political, economic and scientific crisis, will have a very challenging road ahead. The difficulties it faces in fulfilling substantial climate commitments will be even greater.

Crisis and vulnerabilities

The United States, together with China, currently accounts for about 40 per cent of global emissions. If the country abandons the goals it committed to in Paris — to, by 2025, achieve a level of emissions that is 26-28 per cent lower than 2005 — the possibility that the other 194 signatories of the agreement will reduce global warming will decrease.
That’s if a walkout on the part of the United States does not encourage others to follow suit.
Without the United States in the Paris Agreement, it is also unlikely that developing countries will be able to meet their own emission reduction targets. This is because the accord calls for substantial financial assistance — US$ 100 billion each year — from the richest countries to the poorest. Whether this budget will be met is already in doubt.

Latin America on alert

It is hardly surprising that Latin America is in a state of alert. Its future relies, to a large extent, on the success or failure of negotiations on climate action. Despite being responsible for about 10 per cent of global emissions, the region —which accounts for most of the Earth's fresh water and biodiversity — is one of the most vulnerable to climate change.
Along with rising temperatures, Latin America must expect major changes in its climate and vegetation, with significant socio-economic impacts. The ‘package’ of expected impacts includes variation in rainfall, “savannization” of tropical forests, desertification of semi-arid regions, loss of biological diversity including extinction of several species and sea level rise. Some effects can already be observed.
This scenario becomes more worrying after taking into account the dependence of Latin American economic activities on natural resources, including energy generation, and the high level of social inequality and poverty that characterizes the region. The current political and economic situation is not helping: immersed in a political and economic crisis, Latin America is experiencing a wave of budget cuts in science and technology that threaten the development of these key areas to meet the challenge of climate change.

What this boils down to is that, to meet national emission reduction targets and to put in place necessary mitigation and adaptation measures, Latin American countries need the intensely negotiated political agreements to become concrete actions. Aware of this, the countries of the region joined the Paris agreement en masse, even if they hold different positions on the subject. But, without the United States, is this good for anything?

The (minimum) required optimism

We need to believe that it is.
First, it is unclear if the United States will abandon the Paris Agreement. After all, doing so is not simple. The signed agreement only allows the resignation of a signatory country after three years. It is true that there are different ways to bend the rules of the game, but after winning the election, Trump said in an interview with The New York Times that he is carefully analyzing the agreement and is open to discussing it again.
Even if the US withdraws, or if Trump reduces federal funding for actions against climate change and invests in fossil fuel industries, this will not be enough to cancel out current US efforts (because they come from different sectors) and completely block progress towards the country’s goals.
Individual US states are developing independent policies and programmes to reduce their emissions. The US energy market is changing: use of coal is decreasing as alternative energies are increasing. There are even companies lobbying for a continuation of emission reduction plans. The country's scientific community is mobilised, to participate in these efforts by producing knowledge and applying political pressure. So is a part of society.
That is, even without a push from the federal government, climate initiatives may still continue at other levels of governance and society.
Despite the crisis and vulnerabilities outlined earlier, Latin America’s circumstances may also favour positive moves. Although the climate debate has for years been on the region’s political agenda — where Brazil stands out as a protagonist in terms of actions and participation in international negotiations — other important economies, such as Mexico, Chile and Colombia, have begun to create the conditions for effective contribution to global efforts, driven by the commitments made in Paris. The region’s scientific community is also mobilised.
The population of Latin America — which, according to a study (article in Spanish) carried out in 2015 by the Pew Center, is the world’s most worried about this issue — must participate at once in the fight against global warming, given the growing influence of climate change in their lives. It would mean that the public is concerned, but needs to take more active actions against climate change, than only ‘being worried’.
After all, the concrete and immediate threats from climate change — such as prolonged droughts, destructive floods and spread of disease — are more effective at generating a public response than remote threats such as the disappearance of polar bears and Arctic glaciers. It is becoming increasingly clear that if we do not want to join the list of extinct species, we need to act more quickly and effectively, together, with or without Trump.
But let's hope he will not keep his promises.

This piece was originally produced by our Latin America and Caribbean edition.