Beyond the hurricanes: Cooperation on climate change in the Americas

Greater cooperation between countries, states, cities, the private sector and civil society in the U.S. and Latin America can play a vital role in making the hemisphere more secure by improving resilience to climate change.


  • Guy Edwards

    Guy Edwards is an independent consultant focusing on climate change, geopolitics and Latin America. He was previously a senior consultant in the Climate Change Division at the Inter-American Development Bank. Prior to that, he was a research fellow at the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society and co-director of the Climate and Development Laboratory at Brown University. He is the co-author of the book, A Fragmented Continent: Latin America and Global Climate Change Policies (MIT Press 2015). His work has been published by Climate Policy, Brookings Institution, The New York Times, Washington Post, Project Syndicate, Americas Quarterly, Chatham House and The Guardian. From 2009-2010, he was the resident manager of the award winning Huaorani Ecolodge in the Ecuadorian Amazon. He has a Master’s Degree in Latin American Studies from the University of London.

June 1st marked two important dates: the anniversary of President Trump’s announcement that he is pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement and the start of the 2018 Atlantic hurricane season. Unlike the U.S. position, the rest of Western Hemisphere (and every other country on Earth) backs the Paris accord. Aside from this major policy difference, two things unite the hemisphere: its significant vulnerability to extreme climatic events and the impressive advances of renewable energy.

In 2017, citizens around the Americas—California to Colombia, Puerto Rico to Peru—were hit by floods, forest fires and an unprecedented hurricane season. In the U.S. alone the damages surpassed $300 billion, setting a new annual record. A new Harvard study estimates that 4,645 people died as a result of Hurricane Maria hitting Puerto Rico, a 70-fold increase from the initial government estimate of 64.

These extreme climatic events are likely becoming more frequent and intense due to climate change. Citizens across the hemisphere are concerned about climate change. A recent report by Yale University found that, in the United States, 88% of liberal Democrats and 58% of liberal/moderate Republicans are worried about global warming (only 30% of conservative Republicans are worried about global warming). A 2017 survey by Latinobarómetro showed that 69% of the 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.

U.S. voters strongly support a range of policies that promote renewable energy: 94% of Democrats and 79% of Republicans support increased funding for research into solar and wind power. Given the impressive advances of renewable energy, these numbers are unsurprising.

The world is in the midst of a global energy transition. Driven by innovation, increased competition, and policy support, renewable energy and energy efficiency measures are enjoying continued success. The Western Hemisphere, including the United States, is very much part of this transition.

In 2017, the U.S. Department of Energy reported that there are 374,000 American jobs in solar, 102,000 in wind and more than 2.2 million related to energy efficiency, compared to only 160,000 Americans working in coal. Wind and solar power employs more than 30,000 in Texas, 9,000 in Colorado, and 5,000 in Pennsylvania. The Department of Labor projects that the two fastest growing jobs through 2026 will be solar installer and wind turbine service technician.

In 2017, wind power generated a record 6.3% share of total U.S. electricity, with four states—Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, and South Dakota—generating more than 30% of their electricity from wind power. Of the total current installed capacity, Texas leads with 22,799 MW, followed by Oklahoma and Iowa.

The deployment of renewable energy is also progressing quickly in Latin America as the cost of technologies falls and the regulatory environment improves. The average price in power auctions for supplying solar energy in the region fell by 87% from 2009 to 2017 while the price for wind energy dropped by 37% from 2008 to 2016. In 2017, Mexico secured a record $6 billion of renewable energy investment, up 810% on the previous year.

During the Obama administration, cooperation on clean energy was a key element of the U.S.’s engagement with Latin America. In June 2016, the U.S., Canada and Mexico established the goal to achieve 50% clean power generation by 2025. One of President Obama’s flagship initiatives, the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas (ECPA) focused on technical cooperation initiatives to advance clean energy. While the results of the ECPA have been modest, the partnership has continued under the Trump administration.

In addition to leaving the Paris deal, the Trump administration is pushing to roll back President Obama’s legacy on climate change. The U.S. will not deliver an additional $2 billion to the Green Climate Fund to support developing countries tackle climate change as promised by the previous administration. At home, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is attempting to weaken the Clean Power Plan—designed to restrict emissions from power plants—and requirements to boost fuel efficiency and cut emissions from cars and trucks.

Despite these setbacks, ten states—including California, New York and North Carolina—1,886 business and investors, 260 cities and counties and 345 colleges and universities have signed the We Are Still In declaration to demonstrate the U.S.’s commitment to tackling climate change.

Last week, New York and California separately announced plans to spend a combined $1 billion to boost electric mobility. Republican mayors, including Kevin Faulconer of San Diego, are also advocating locally for policies that help advance climate goals. Major companies, including Apple, Google, Walmart and General Motors are voluntarily investing billions of dollars in new wind and solar projects to power their operations or offset their conventional energy use.

Beyond climate change plans to reduce emissions and build resilience to a changing climate at the national level in Latin America, cities are also pitching in. The mayors of 25 cities, including Buenos Aires, Caracas, Mexico City, Quito, Rio de Janeiro, and Santiago, have pledged to reach net zero emissions by 2050. In a powerful signal to the private sector, various Latin American countries have also either adopted or pledged to adopt carbon pricing measures, including establishing carbon taxes and cap and trade systems. These measures nudge the electricity and transport sectors to shift away from fossil fuels towards low-carbon alternatives.

Collaboration between countries and states in the hemisphere is also increasing. In December 2017, the governments of Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Chile and Mexico, alongside the governors of California and Washington and the premiers of Alberta, British Columbia, Nova Scotia, Ontario and Quebec signed the Paris Declaration on Carbon Pricing in the Americas to implement carbon pricing policies.

This September, the Global Climate Action Summit, hosted by California Governor Jerry Brown, will provide an ideal space for sub-national actors from around the world to showcase the actions on climate change underway and find new ways to do even more. Greater cooperation between the U.S. and Latin American countries, states, cities, the private sector and civil society can play a vital role in making the hemisphere more secure by improving resilience to climate impacts. Cooperation will also boost competiveness by embracing the advances in renewable energy, electric vehicles and batteries storage.

While Mr. Trump’s decision to abandon the Paris Agreement is highly unfortunate, the growing efforts across the Western Hemisphere to build a more resilient and sustainable future, including in the United States, are moving forward without the administration’s leadership.

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