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.

"According to a report released this week," theOnion reported on November 10, 2010, "... climate change, the popular mid-2000s issue that raised awareness of the fact that the earth's continuous rise in temperature will have catastrophic ecological effects, has apparently not been resolved, and may still be a problem."

America's Finest News Source, indeed. Yet many Americans hardly feel the impact of the climate crisis on a daily basis. While rising average global temperatures might cross one's mind during a triple-digit summer day, the climate crisis is hardly a present, daily crisis for most. You can flip on the A/C when it's hot, crank up the heat when it's cold, and buy any type of produce at the grocery store year-round. No wonder it takes record high heat waves or catastrophic storms to put climate into the headlines.

To truly see the impact of the climate crisis, head south to Bolivia. With nearly as many known mammal species and more known bird species than India in a country with one-third the land, Bolivia is among the world's most biodiverse countries. Tourists traveling in Bolivia might find themselves in temperatures ranging from tropical to below freezing all on the same day. And, for Bolivians, the climate crisis is a very present crisis. (It was the first country I've visited, out of 20 countries on five continents I've been to, where I was confronted about the climate crisis because I was American.) Bolivia is not so much the proverbial "canary in the coal mine" -- the canaries of climate crisis were dead over a decade ago -- but it is giving us a preview of how the climate crisis can impact humans.

This October, the talk of Bolivia was the rain. Or rather, the lack of it. The country is divided into the Andean highlands in the west and lowlands in the east, and the rains were late all over. In the west, you'll find the Altiplano, a high plain that stretches between two ranges of Andes. At an altitude of more than 12,000 feet, the areas around Lake Titicaca are relatively hospitable to life, with warmth and humidity provided by the lake. Here, Bolivians raise sheep and dairy cattle and grow potatoes, oca (an Andean tuber), fava beans, quinoa, oats, and barley. An Aymara indigenous community on the north side of Lake Titicaca reports that last January they had a flood that devastated their crops. Then winter came late, with fewer frost days than usual. By mid-October, the rainy season usually begins, but this year it hadn't. As a result, the community had not been able to plant their crops at the usual time of year.

In the eastern Amazonian region, the weather has behaved strangely as well. Usually it rains from October until March or April, but this year the rain in Rurrenabaque did not stop until June. Then the rain stopped completely until October. These changes in the usual seasons had some bitter consequences, as many who live in the Amazon practice shifting cultivation (also known as slash-and-burn agriculture). Despite its destructive-sounding name, slash-and-burn agriculture, practiced properly, can be an ecologically sound farming practice. A farmer slashes and burns a patch of the jungle, plants crops like rice or cassava, harvests them, and walks away. The forest quickly takes over, and the farmer moves on, traditionally leaving this area fallow for 10 or even 20 or 25 years. This process forces ecological succession, where the first pioneer species into a newly burned area make the environment right for the next species, and so on. Thus, traditional shifting cultivation can be a boon for biodiversity.

Every year most burning is in deforested cattle pastures and not traditional slash and burn. This year, however, even less of the burning was environmentally responsible than usual. With continual rains earlier in the year, more dense vegetation built up than usual. Then farmers slashed and burned their land during the same part of the year they always do -- August through October. Ideally, farmers in the Amazon would wait until a few days after the first rain to burn, but this year, many did not. With the large amount of biomass that grew during the rainy season and then dried out in the months since, many fires raged out of control.

Agroecologist Daniel Robison, who lives and farms in this part of Bolivia, estimates that this year most of the burnt area occurred from such accidental fires. He lost several hectares of forest on his property because the fire of a neighbor two properties over spread to a cattle pasture next door and then into his property. That fire also spread over a nearby mountain and into the Pilon Lajas Biosphere Reserve, one of Bolivia's many protected areas that is adjacent to Robison and his neighbors' land.

One or two years of strange rainfall patterns could be just that, and may not be an indication of a larger, catastrophic pattern. But Bolivians, especially the elderly, are reminded daily of their changing climate by the dwindling glaciers on the mountains around them. Perhaps not surprisingly, the snow-capped Andes are sacred in pre-Columbian Andean religions. The Aymara empire extended across Bolivia's highlands for several hundred years before they were conquered by the Inca, and then the Spanish shortly thereafter. Both Aymara and Quechua (Inca) traditions live on today, with many Bolivians speaking indigenous languages first and Spanish as a second language or not at all. In the last half-century, these ancient peoples have seen many of their glaciers shrink or even disappear.

Perhaps the starkest example is the glacier on Chacaltaya, a mountain near the capitol city of La Paz. Chacaltaya was once home to the world's highest (and Bolivia's only) ski resort, which was built in 1938. Between then and 2009, the glacier melted and entirely disappeared. As of 2009, the ski resort's operations became limited to a small area that sometimes receives snow. A travel Web site now boasts that, "it is still fun to visit this mountain whether or not you plan on skiing," suggesting that visitors go hiking and take in the beautiful views of La Paz and Lake Titicaca.

Of course, the loss of a ski resort is nothing compared to what else is at stake. Nor is Chacaltaya the only mountain with a glacier in jeopardy. The majority of Bolivia's population lives in the highlands, and they depend on the glaciers for drinking water, irrigation, and hydroelectric power. Climate scientist Lonnie Thompson has been studying Andean glaciers in Bolivia and Peru since the 1970s and during that time, he's witnessed the formation and disappearance of rivers and lakes as glaciers melt and water evaporates.

"It doesn't matter which tropical glacier you look at," he says, noting that 90 percent of the earth's tropical glaciers are found in Bolivia and Peru, "100 percent of them are retreating in today's world." In the first 15 years Thompson researched the Oori Kalis glacier, Quelccaya's largest outlet glacier has been retreating about 10 times faster (approximately 60 meters per year) than during the initial measurement period from 1963 to 1978 when it was about six meters per year. The accelerating rate of retreat of the Qori Kalis terminus is consistent with the observations of glaciers throughout the Andes.

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?

Jill Richardson is the founder of the blog La Vida Locavore and a member of the Organic Consumers Association policy advisory board. She is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It..
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