Bolivia in a 4-degree warmer world, by Dirk Hoffman

Bolilvian in Four Degrees Warmer World by D. Hoffman

The following is the English-language executive summary to a new book by HiMAP-member Dirk Hoffman, of the Bolivia Mountain Institute. The Spanish-language book can be downloaded in PDF format from Hoffman's blog, Cambio Climático Bolivia.

Bolivia in a 4-degree warmer world. Socio-political scenarios in the face of climate change for the years 2030 and 2060 in the Northern Altiplano.

Bolivia in 4 degree warmer worldBy Dirk Hoffmann & Cecilia Requena

Following the United Nations Climate Change Conference held in Durban in December 2011 (COP 17), the delegates decided to negotiate an international commitment to reduce emissions by 2015. However, this would not become legally binding until 2020, with the likelihood that the world’s emissions will continue to grow for at least another 8 years.

If emissions keep rising at the current rate, the planet will be heading dangerously toward a temperature rise of between 4 and 6° C by the end of this century; this is far higher than the maximum temperature rise of just 2° C that the planet could withstand, according to the international negotiations on climate change.

The first chapter of this study is dedicated to the science of climate change, the possible trends in global emissions and the potential impact these would have.

However, we trust that there will be a worldwide effort to prevent such a situation, therefore our key assumption is based on a temperature increase of 4° C, which is perhaps a conservative decision, since we do not want to appear too pessimistic.

The prospect of a possible rise of global mean temperature by 4° C, which as far as our study region is concerned translates to a local temperature rise of between 7 and 10° C by 2100, forced us to envisage a future that until very recently would have seemed absolutely improbable, but seems to becoming a harsh reality. It also brings home the need to tackle the problem using innovative strategies and adaptation measures, since those considered good enough today will be of no use tomorrow.

The second chapter takes a closer look at the impact that climate change already has or will have in the Andean region,  specifically Bolivia.

The region comprising the Northern Altiplano, Cordillera Real, Lake Titicaca and the metropolitan area of La Paz/El Alto has been chosen as the area where we set out to investigate the possible impact of a 4-degree Celsius warmer world. This particular region was chosen because not only is it of national importance (in political, social, economic and cultural terms) but it is also exposed to high risks unless adequate adaptation actions are undertaken promptly by public policy makers as well as individuals.

Our main concern is the huge inertia of the climate system. On the one hand, there is a time lag of about 20 to 30 years between the release of CO2 emissions and the moment the effects show, because CO2 lingers in the atmosphere over a long period of time—for a couple of decades and even centuries. This means that the full consequences of our current emissions will only be felt in about two or three decades. On the other hand, temperatures will go on increasing for a century or more, even after emissions have ceased.

Furthermore, the elements of the climate system often influence each other in so-called positive feedback. For example, droughts increase the possibility and magnitude of forest fires, causing CO2 to be released into the atmosphere and thus destroying vegetation. The result is a negative impact on rainfall, and consequently an increasing risk of droughts, and so on.

It is within the framework of global concern regarding the impact of climate change that for the purpose of our present study “Bolivia in a 4 degree warmer world” we have adopted the methodology of socio-political scenarios, which are a set of plausible hypotheses about the influence of climate change in the coming decades. These scenarios enable us to imagine possible situations in the future based predominantly on qualitative, approximate, panoramic and regional factors.

The scenarios developed in chapter 3 belong fundamentally to the socio-political area, but are based on environmental considerations. They are structured along the following critical variables: population dynamics, economic dynamic and equality, democratic governance and public policy and social resilience.

The phenomenon of climate change is evaluated according to the following criteria: temperature rise, changes in the precipitation regime and an increase of extreme events. These are the ones we are using for the purpose of our investigation, developing a model of connections between these criteria and the socio-political context.

We have developed scenarios for two different time horizons: 2030 (our time) and 2060 (the time of our children and grandchildren). For each time horizon we have devised three distinct scenarios: business-as-usual, which attempts to imagine a situation not unlike the present, with no significant changes; a worst case scenario, which attempts to illustrate a situation where the decisions taken, as well as the global and regional context, come to nothing; and an optimistic scenario, where presumably the future is characterised by excellent decisions and a favorable context.

With a view to representing two foreseeable and distinct situations regarding the consequences of climate change, the present study has opted to distinguish two types of effects, or impacts: on the one hand, those that are gradual, or incremental, and on the other hand, those that imply the passing of tipping points.

With the help of these scenarios, the study shows that the consequences of climate change in the region under investigation as a result of a 4° C increase in global mean temperature will be harmful and disruptive in 2030 and devastating in 2060 unless there are significant changes in the predominant environmental, social, economic and political trends in the region, in the country as a whole, as well as worldwide.

Unless specific, timely and appropriate decisions are taken, or if the wrong decisions are made, by 2030 the region will be facing a deterioration of the environmental and social situation. However, if the appropriate measures are taken to cope with the challenge, within a framework of a solid social consensus and a favorable international context, the effects of climate change could be managed so as to avoid and/or minimize its more damaging effects on the region.

The prospects for 2060 present a region undergoing transformation from an ecoregion of semi-humid puna to one that could be classified as semi-arid or arid puna. With a temperature rise where qualitative environmental tipping points—and consequently, social and political ruptures—might be reached, the conditions for an optimal scenario would do little more than “tone down” the disaster.

Among the main general challenges facing us if we are to avoid the negative scenario and head toward a path of sustainable development and a resilient society, we have identified the following:

  • The construction of legitimate state institutions, both efficient and oriented by a shared vision of social, economic, political and environmental sustainability.
  • A society characterized by cohesion, resilience, innovation, solidarity and capable of reaching convenient consensus, however limited, and of working on a medium and long-term basis.
  • A process of global environmental governance that will enable us to advance in the right direction, and which will significantly contribute to the reduction of global GHG emissions, as well as to climate change adaptation, particularly in the most vulnerable regions.

Within this framework, the region of the Northern Altiplano, Cordillera Real, Lake Titicaca and the metropolitan area of La Paz/El Alto would have to tackle problems that are almost inevitable within the foreseeable context of climate change. The severity of its future impact on society depends to a large extent on the political and social capacities to manage both present and future challenges

In the last part of the book (chapter 4) we present the conclusions and some recommendations for climate change adaptation in Bolivia.

In conclusion, the findings of our study that attempts to imagine socio-political scenarios in the region, in a context of climate change with a global average temperature rise of 4° C, points clearly to the present day responsibility of the different actors of the region to set about raising awareness and adopting decisions to face the challenges (despite some unanswered questions) with special emphasis on prevention, adaptation and resilience.

The purpose of this study is to orient and motivate the process of discussion and social awareness, particularly among those whose task it is to make decisions and adopt actions in order to address the issue of climate change. Other key actors of the region will also have a crucial role to play.

To download the book Bolivia en un mundo 4 grados más caliente. Escenarios sociopolíticos ante el cambio climático para los años 2030 y 2060 en el altiplano norte” (in Spanish language) follow this link: (the link to the book is at the bottom of the blog entry).