Millions affected by climate change, extreme weather in the Caribbean: New UN report

Fifteen-year-old Benson Etienne and his family escaped before their house collapsed in the hurricane-hit Marsh Harbour, in Abaco Island, Bahamas.
UNICEF/Moreno Gonza

A new report by the United Nations’ World Meteorological Organization (WMO) finds that climate-related and geophysical events resulted in the loss of 312,000 lives and directly affected more than 277 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The WMO study, “State of the Climate in Latin America and the Caribbean 2020,” released on Tuesday, says that extreme weather and climate change are threatening the entire region, “from the heights of Andean peaks to low-lying islands and mighty river basins.”

It says that increasing temperatures, changing rainfall patterns, storms and retreating glaciers have all had a profound impact on human health and safety, food, water, energy security and the environment.

“Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) is among the regions most challenged by extreme hydro-meteorological events,” said WMO Secretary-General Professor Petteri Taalas said in a statement to mark the release of the document.

Taalas noted the impacts include “water and energy-related shortages, agricultural losses, displacement and compromised health and safety, all compounding challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Concerns about fires and the loss of forests are also raised in the document.

WMO said almost half of the area of the LAC region is covered by forests, representing about 57 per cent of the world’s remaining primary forests and storing an estimated 104 gigatons of carbon.

“Fires and deforestation are now threatening one of the world’s largest carbon sinks, with far-reaching and long-lasting repercussions,” the WMO Secretary-General said.

The report says 2020 was among the three warmest years in Central America and the Caribbean, and the second warmest year in South America.

Maximum temperatures at some stations showed record-breaking values with temperatures up to 10 °C above normal, the report says.

It says widespread drought across Latin America and the Caribbean had significant impacts, including lowering rivers level, which have hampered inland shipping routes, reduced crop yields and food production, leading to worsening food insecurity in many areas.

The study warns that forest loss is an important contributor to climate change due to carbon dioxide release, stating that between 2000 and 2016, nearly 55 million hectares of forest were lost, constituting more than 91 percent of forest losses worldwide.

The increased rate of wildfires in 2020 caused irreversible damages to ecosystems, including adverse impacts to vital ecosystem services and livelihoods dependent on them, the report finds.

While it is still a net carbon sink, the Amazon teeters on the edge of becoming a net source if forest loss continues at current rates, the report says.

It says that, in 2020, the Caribbean Sea surface temperature hit a record high, showing how marine life, coastal ecosystems and the human communities that depend on them are facing increasing threats from ocean acidification, and heat and rising sea levels.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, the study says more than 27 percent of the population live in coastal areas, with an estimated 6–8 percent living in areas that are at high or very high risk of being affected by coastal hazards.

Greater political commitment and more financial support to strengthen early warning systems and operational weather, climate and hydrological services, are identified in the report, as ways to support risk management and adaptation.

The report says while early warning systems can reduce disaster risk and disaster impacts, it warns that they are underdeveloped in the LAC region, particularly in Central and South America.

The report singles out mangroves as an exceptional resource for adaptation and mitigation, with the capacity to store three to four times more carbon than most of the forests on the planet.

But the report says the mangrove area in the region declined 20 percent between 2001-2018.

The conservation and restoration of existing “blue carbon” ecosystems such as mangroves, seagrass beds and salt marshes are identified in the report as “important opportunity to mitigate and adapt to global warming.”

The UN said the multi-agency report is a collaboration between WMO, the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), and the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR).

It comes on the heels of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis, released earlier this month, which stated that temperatures in the region have increased more than the global average and are likely to continue to do so.

The UN said the WMO report aims to provide science-based information to support countries and communities in their efforts to adapt to a changing climate and build more resilience to extreme weather.

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