Chile’s climate challenges cause for concern for Andean nation

Lead author in Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says drought and low precipitation a cause for concern for Andean nation.

The world’s leading climate change research panel released its latest report recently, as desertification and drought increasingly threatens Chile’s agricultural sector and environment.

The Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) compiled by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has described the probability of global heat waves and heavy precipitation in the late 21st century as “very likely.”

The AR5 states that scientists are 95 percent certain that humans are the main cause of global warming since the 1950s.

Maisa Rojas of the Universidad de Chile — a lead author of the AR5’s “Information from Paleoclimate Archives” section — notes that droughts in Chile are cyclical, and researchers have not yet identified the level of man’s influence on their severity.

“What we know about Chile is that it has a tendency for drought,” she told The Santiago Times. “What we don’t know is if [the current] drought is part of global warming or part of something natural.”

She does, however, label a decrease in snow and rainfall as a more pressing concern than rising temperatures. Earlier this year, President Sebastián Piñera highlighted the plight facing Chile’s agriculture sector due to desertification and increasing water shortages.

“The desert is advancing roughly about 3 feet-per-year and, if it were to continue at this pace, the desert that we see in the North is going to arrive at our capital by 2040,” Piñera said to farmers on the World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought.

Drought will have its biggest impact on agriculture in Chile — threatening one of the main pillars of the Chilean economy.

“Agriculture is the most exposed sector, particularly the forestry sector, and the vines and fruits in the central region which are reliant on irrigation schemes,” Fernando Santibañez, a professor of bioclimatology at the Universidad de Chile, told the BBC.

Agriculture makes up 13.2 percent of the Chilean labour force and 3.6 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).

Heating up

The AR5 report’s figure of 95 percent probability that humans are causing global warming is up 5 percent from its last assessment, highlighting an increasing certainty.

“Warming of the climate system is unequivocal and, since the 1950s, many of the observed changes are unprecedented over decades to millennia,” the report says.

The report has made breakthroughs in understanding temperature changes in South America.

“We now know how the temperature has risen differently in South America which we did not know a few years ago,” Rojas said. “When one looks at an average over all of South America and compares it with the whole of Europe, what is generally found is that the temperature changes have been smaller.”

Rojas attributes this to the fact that the Southern Hemisphere has a much larger area of the ocean than the Northern Hemisphere, and oceans take much longer to react to changes in global temperature.

Other findings in the report showed that there has been a 40 percent rise in carbon dioxide levels since the pre-industrial era and the possibility of a 39 inch rise in sea levels by 2100. Chile is a low global emitter of carbon emissions (0.2 percent of total emissions), though its emissions levels have increased 40 percent in the last 10 years.

A global initiative

The AR5 is a study of more than 9,000 peer-reviewed scientific studies on climate change. It has been written by a total of 840 scientific authors from all over the world, including six Chilean scientists from a variety of institutions: the Chilean Meteorological Office, Universidad de Chile, Universidad Católica and the Center of Conservation and Studies of Natural Heritage.

The IPCC was established by the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organization and releases a scientific, technical and socio-economic assessment on climate change every five to six years.

The IPCC elected six Chilean scientists to be lead authors in the AR5, making Chile the fourth country in Latin America with the most nominated scientists, behind Mexico, Brazil and Argentina.

The “Physical Science Basis” portion of the report will be freely available Monday, and the next two sections — “Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability” and “Mitigation of Climate Change” — will be released in 2014.

The IPCC was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its 2007 report, AR4, along with former United States Vice President Al Gore.

A 36-page summary of the report has been released for governmental policymakers. The full report will be available Sept. 30 on the IPCC website.

By Benjamin Druttman | The Santiago Times