Bailing Out the Environment

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By Marcela Sanchez
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, October 17, 2008; 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- One of my fondest memories from high school is a two-day trek up the majestic slopes of Nevado del Ruiz in Colombia's Andean range. It was my first contact with snow.

Today, climate change is happening faster in the Andes than anywhere else in the world and the tropical glaciers could be gone in 25 years, according to a new BBC documentary, "Slippery Slopes, Pricing the Andes Meltdown." Beyond recreation, Andean glaciers provide millions of people with drinking water, agricultural irrigation and electricity. Without water from the glaciers, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru face economic decimation.

Sadly, the Wall Street economic meltdown and its effects are distracting us from the more severe climate-change-induced economic collapse that we can expect should global warming fears prove justified. Both our attention and money now are focused on the immediate financial crisis and it seems likely that governments and corporations will reconsider their commitments for going green as cash flow slows and oil prices drop.

This bad news has advocates of the green economy more determined than ever to reshape our thinking about energy and the environment. Cathy Zoi, chief executive officer of the Alliance for Climate Protection, which is chaired by former Vice President Al Gore, says now is the perfect time to "organize ourselves around a green energy revolution."

For all their differences, both John McCain and Barack Obama have framed their response to the current economic crisis in terms of energy. McCain emphasizes energy independence as a way to "fix this problem." But it is Obama who has gone a step further and tied energy independence to a green economy, pledging to create millions of "green jobs" in the production of renewable energy.

In its forecast released last week, the International Monetary Fund said that global growth will slow by less than one percentage point from an expected 3.9 percent this year to 3 percent in 2009. For Latin America and the Caribbean, growth will slow by 1.4 percent; in the United States by 1.5 percent.

In contrast, if no action is taken to alter the effects of climate change, by 2025 Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru will be spending $30 billion -- or 4.5 percent of their gross domestic product -- every year to address its impact, according to a report commissioned by the Andean Community. In the Caribbean, the economic effects of climate change would reduce Antigua and Barbuda's GDP by 12 percent and Grenada's by 21 percent, according to the Caribbean Community Climate Change Center. The World Bank has recently estimated that the loss of productivity in Latin America's agriculture, which accounts for 12 percent of global agricultural exports, could be as high as $111 billion, or 1 percent of GDP, for the region by 2050.

Those effects cannot be reversed with bailouts like the ones that have accompanied the financial crisis. A new environmentally driven economic agenda, inspired by the potential devastation as well as the search for ways to mitigate it, is essential today. The U.S.-touted Free Trade Area of the Americas failed because too many people thought they had too much to lose. If enough people agree that the economy, the water we drink and the air we breathe are at risk, uniting around environmental protection and renewable energy production could flourish into a green agreement for the Americas.

Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., has introduced legislation in Congress to turn energy cooperation into the cornerstone of U.S.-Latin American relations in the form of "The Western Hemisphere Energy Compact." Lugar wants the U.S. to "build a new framework of political and economic discourse free from outmoded unilateral doctrines of the past," and encourage unprecedented levels of information and technology-sharing, integration of energy infrastructure and much more.

Cooperation, of course, wouldn't be free of contention. According to Gary Hufbauer of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, Brazil's ethanol interests would continue to clash with those of the United States, and developing countries' insistence on free access to green technologies would also become a major hurdle. But as the free trade agreements signed between the United States and 11 countries in the region prove, consensus can be hammered out.

With the next U.S. president scheduled to attend the fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago in April, the new administration has an opportunity to propose that new direction. It can't afford not to. This is not a crisis the world can react to after the meltdown has occurred.

Marcela Sanchez's e-mail address is desdewash@washpost.com.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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