Published on Monday, March 1, 2004 by Inter Press Service
Melting of Glaciers Requires Urgent Action
by Gustavo Gonzalez
SANTIAGO - The melting of glaciers in the Patagonian region at the southern tip of Latin America requires urgent international action, without waiting for the United States to sign the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, Chilean environmentalists and government experts are saying.
The glacial retreat in Patagonia, a region shared by Argentina and Chile, was highlighted by a recent month-long expedition by a team of 25 scientists and activists on the Greenpeace vessel Arctic Sunrise.
The expedition, which ended in mid-February, set out from Amsterdam and toured Patagonia, observing the Perito Moreno and Upsala glaciers in Argentina, as well as six other glaciers on the Chilean side after passing through the Strait of Magellan.
Chilean experts joined the Arctic Sunrise for that part of the journey, whose mission was to document the state of the glaciers and the damages caused by climate change, a phenomenon blamed on the greenhouse effect caused by emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other gases resulting from the burning of fossil fuels.
The team observed the Grey, San Quintin, San Rafael and Pius XI glaciers, as well as glaciers number 31 and 12 in the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. Greenpeace noted that all of them, with the exception of Pius XI, are in retreat.
Prominent local environmentalist Sara Larran, president of the non-governmental organization Sustainable Chile, told IPS that the first to feel the effects of global warming are small island states and countries with extensive shorelines, due to the rise in the sea level caused by the melting of glaciers and of the ice caps at the poles.
But global warming also affects the migration of species, she added.
''It has been estimated that for every one degree rise in the average global temperature, ecosystems, or more specifically flora, shift 100 kms away from the equator, in the direction of the North or South Poles,'' she explained.
''This is an issue that directly affects biodiversity and the biological wealth of nations,'' because in these shifts or migrations of ecosystems, species that are unable to swiftly adapt to the changes will be lost, said Larran.
She also said there would be an enormous impact on agriculture and on the farming methods that are used.
Scientific studies estimate that the greenhouse effect drove up the average global temperature by 0.6 degrees Celsius in the 20th century, and researchers project that the temperature will rise between 1.4 and 5.8 degrees over the next 100 years, if the current levels of emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases are not reduced.
Larran also pointed out that for every one degree increase in the global temperature, the sea level rises around 50 cms.
Using data from the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Shuttle Topographic Radar expedition, Chilean scientists Gino Casassa and Andrs Rivera calculate that the retreat of the glaciers in Patagonia accounts for nine percent of the increase in the sea level, or 0.11 mms a year.
Gonzalo Villarino, executive director of Greenpeace-Chile, said in an interview with IPS that this Southern Cone country of 16 million produces 0.02 percent of all greenhouse gases, compared to the United States, which accounts for 25 to 30 percent of the global total.
Villarino and Larran concurred that it is essential for the United States and Russia to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. The head of the Climatology Department in Chile's Meteorological Agency, Jorge Carrasco, also told IPS that developing countries must lobby hard to get the international treaty approved and ratified.
''All countries must make progress towards that goal, acknowledge the problem, and begin to work in support of renewable energy sources, an aspect in which Chile is lagging,'' said Villarino.
Larran observed that at the 2002 Summit for the Environment and Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, the countries of Latin America pledged to move towards the goal of making renewable sources, like solar, wind and geothermal energy, account for 10 percent of their total energy production.
''Many countries made similar commitments, and there are also other routes to be taken. Governments must come up with the solutions and political instruments, instead of waiting for the United States,'' said the activist.
''The United States has not only failed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol,'' she underlined. ''It has not ratified the Biosafety Convention, or disarmament treaties, either. Although it talks about taking part in the multilateral system, in the end it doesn't sign the international conventions,'' said Larran.
Developing countries must join efforts to influence international negotiations, she added, saying Latin America should strengthen its cooperation ties, on the financial and technological levels, with the European Union, which is determined to move towards the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol even without the United States.
''Chile has a huge capacity for using solar, wind, and geothermal resources, but it is not developing them, with the exception of small isolated projects in rural areas, because there is not enough investment, and renewable energy sources generally require a large initial investment,'' said Larran.
Carrasco said Argentina and Chile should promote truly sustainable development, based on ''clean energy'', and should use the mechanisms created by the Kyoto Protocol to help countries incorporate clean technologies.
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