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While U.S. Politicians Play Dumb About Climate Change, One Country Is Being Pushed Past the Tipping Point

Many Americans hardly feel the impact of the climate crisis. To see the impact of the climate crisis on a daily basis, head south to Bolivia.

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Thompson worries about the Andean people who live among these melting glaciers (some of whom required the team of scientists to participate in a ceremonial sacrifice of a white alpaca to ask the gods' forgiveness for conducting their research on the sacred mountain). "These people are living on the edge of survival anyway, and of course they're the first to be influenced by changes in water resources," says Thompson.

This summer, a lake near the base of Mt. Sajama, a mountain near Bolivia's Chilean border, dried up. A local woman said in October that the lake had been gone for two months already. She added that a large block of ice recently fell off the mountain. Where she lives, too far south of Lake Titicaca to receive any of its moisture, local farmers raise llamas and alpacas but the climate does not allow them to grow crops. As new bodies of water form or disappear with the melting glaciers and the changing climate, local herders move their llamas and alpacas to wherever grazing is still possible. Thompson calls the newly formed lakes "new geologic hazards," noting an incident when an avalanche on the mountain Quelccaya in Peru fell into a lake formed by glacial melt, causing a mini-tsunami that killed some of the llamas grazing nearby. As a result of the avalanche, the area next to the lake that was lush grazing area in 2005 was barren and covered with sediment in 2006.

With the melting glaciers come increased temperatures (and vice versa). The white glaciers reflect the sun's radiation, providing a cooling effect. Once the mountains underneath are exposed, the sun's radiation is no longer reflected. Thompson says that average temperatures in high altitude areas in the tropics will increase twice as fast as average temperatures on the planet as a whole. Rising temperatures in conjunction with changes in water resources will mean that crops that used to grow well in some areas no longer will and agricultural pests and diseases will move into new areas. This has already started to happen, as Andean highlanders suddenly find their staple crop, potatoes, subject to destruction by weevil larvae or late blight. (Human diseases, like malaria and dengue fever, have been observed in new areas as the climate changes too.) And, if temperatures increase too much, scientists predict Andeans will reach a tipping point after which many parts of the highlands will turn into a desert, spelling disaster for Bolivia's capital city of La Paz.

No doubt it was problems such as these that Bolivian President Evo Morales had in mind nearly a year ago when he called for nations to limit average global temperature increases to one degree Celsius. The rich nations at the Copenhagen climate summit spoke about limiting average temperature increases to two degrees Celsius, which a group of poor countries, called the G77, criticized as insufficient. The G77 wanted "1.5 to stay alive." Only Morales called for limiting average temperature increase to one degree, and for this he was called a radical in American newspapers.

The world approaches the next round of climate negotiations in Cancun, this December. In between Copenhagen and Cancun, Americans have experienced the "snowpocalypse" snowstorm in Washington, D.C. last winter and intense heat waves in much of the country this summer, but the American way of life has not substantially changed. While families struggle with high heating or cooling bills during a time of high unemployment, Americans in general do not worry that their food supply will soon be in jeopardy as a Bolivian might. When climate scientists predict the tipping point above which Andean highlands will turn to desert is around 1.5 to two degrees Celsius, is it radical for Bolivia's president to ask the world to limit the damage?

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