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Central America in dire need of inclusive climate resilient development with support from the international community

The latest IPCC report [1] identified global hotspots of human vulnerability to climate change which include Central and South America. Central America stands out as a region with most countries experiencing high risk of been impacted by climate change [2]. This narrow strip of land connecting North and South America is highly exposed to extreme weather events, often in the path of tropical cyclones from both the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans, but also strongly hit by recent droughts [3]. This extreme weather exacerbates socioeconomic vulnerability derived from a history of ethnic and gender inequality, high rates of child mortality and malnutrition, and inadequate access to food and drinking water [4]. Inequality in Central America is the highest in Latin America, which is the most unequal region in the world, and poverty rates for most Central American countries (around 50%) remain the highest in the region [5].

The negative effects from climate change in Central America are amplified by problems of deforestation which result in the loss of biodiversity [6] and soil degradation and by the fact that the economy in the region, particularly in rural areas, relies heavily on exploitation of natural resources with a high number of climate-sensitive livelihoods; for example, with many subsistence farmers relying on rainfed agriculture [7].

Following this description of high risk and vulnerability to climate change for Central America, it is surprising to find that the dedicated chapter from the latest IPCC report [8] indicates that for the various sectors analyzed, the observed impacts from climate change in Central America can only be reported with low confidence; this is a result in great part of the sparse scientific literature produced by the region and on the region. As noted by Siestma et al. [9], vulnerability does not always translate into more research for specific regions of the world. As the IPCC reports rely on published literature, this results in a negative cycle in which more vulnerable countries with low income populations and weak governance, the countries in need of more attention in climate change negotiations and funding initiatives, are not properly portrayed in the reports because these countries usually have a very low scientific production resulting from the same economic and political factors that produce the high vulnerability.

There is a growing gap between adaptation needs and the corresponding local action particularly in developing countries, and Central America is no exception to this. Most Central American countries have worked their National Adaptation Plans through the National Communications to the UNFCCC or their updated Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC), but implementation is still very limited. Significant barriers arise from weak institutions and limited funding: local and national governments have limited technical capacity to wade through the intricate process to access international climate funds. Here we find another negative cycle: the more vulnerable the country, the less capacity of its government to prepare proposals to access international funding. Costa Rica, the country with the lowest vulnerability in the region, for example, is the country that has the highest amount of climate funding approved (see Table 1) most likely the result of the higher technical and negotiating capacity of its government.

Table 1. Approved climate funding for Central American countries as of April 2022.

The analysis of the approved climate funding for the region (Table 1) also shows that for most countries, with the notable exceptions of Guatemala and Belize, the funds are mainly granted for mitigation actions, even though the amount of greenhouse gas emissions from the region is negligible (0.17% of the world fossil CO2 emissions in 2020) [10]. A stronger focus on international financing to help adaptation activities is needed together with a concerted effort to strengthen the implementation capacities of governments, reducing the high levels of corruption widely present in the region. Financing and increased focus on adaptation are key topics for developing countries to push for in upcoming international negotiations. Ironically, financing is a key limiting factor for small developing countries that need to send stronger delegations to negotiate in these forums.

But in the long term, the best adaptation option for the region, and the world, is mitigation. As the temperature rises, adaptation options become less available or effective [1]. The aridity levels in some regions, for example in the so-called Dry Corridor of Central America, could become so severe [11] as to limit the growing of some traditional crops and staple foods for local populations, increasing the already high levels of food insecurity and malnutrition. Identified risks will become very severe as the temperature rises and the extreme weather becomes more extreme [12], further stressing key sectors that include food production, water, public health and infrastructure, and pushing more people to consider international migration as an adaptation option.

Issues of climate injustice are most evident in Central America, a region that has contributed very little to the global warming problem and that experiences a highly disproportionate level of impact derived from the resulting changing climate. And the local resources available to confront those situations are very limited because of the same poverty that drives the vulnerability of the region. The international community must step up to the urgent need of Central America to search for a more inclusive development pathway, the best way to reduce the very high vulnerability affecting a very large portion of the population in the region. As the WGIII IPCC report concluded [13], actions can and must be taken now to shift development pathways.


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