By Heather Somerville
Medill National Security Reporting Project
HUARAZ, Peru — Glacier melt hasn’t caused a national crisis in Peru, yet. But high in the Andes, rising temperatures and changes in water supply have decimated crops, killed fish stocks and forced entire villages to question how they will survive for another generation.
U.S. officials are watching closely because without quick intervention, they say, the South American nation could become an unfortunate case study in how climate change can destabilize a strategically important region and, in turn, create conditions that pose a national security threat to Americans thousands of miles away.
“Think what it would be like if the Andes glaciers were gone and we had millions and millions of hungry and thirsty Southern neighbors,” said former CIA Director R. James Woolsey. “It would not be an easy thing to deal with.”
Glaciers in the South American Andes are melting faster than many scientists predicted, causing a dramatic change in the region’s availability of water for drinking, irrigation and electricity. Some climate change experts estimate entire glaciers will disappear in 10 years due to rising global temperatures, threatening to create instability across the globe long before their ultimate demise.
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That’s particularly the case in Peru, where glacier melt has begun to deplete crops, displace communities, cause widespread drinking water shortages, destabilize hydroelectric power, diminish trade and affect transportation and tourism. The trend is expected to cause regional conflict, economic crises, increased crime, broken infrastructure and food insecurity.
Without substantial foreign assistance within the next five years, the disappearance of Peru’s glaciers could lead to a social and economic disaster, said Alberto Hart, climate change adviser at Peru’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It’s also become a policy and funding challenge for the Obama administration, which must decide whether to send money, development assistance and possibly even military help south to an important democratic ally on a continent where Chinese and Iranian influence is growing, and anti-U.S. sentiment permeates certain regimes.
Other U.S. allies vulnerable to the impacts of climate change will be paying close attention to how the U.S. responds. Peru’s crisis could set a precedent for how the U.S. uses diplomacy, foreign aid and the military to address the climate change threats around the world.
“We may think that current wait-and-see policies are adequate to the task,” said Chad Briggs, Minerva Chair for Energy and Environmental Security with the U.S. Air Force. “Peru may be a looming example of how that is not the case.”
Senior U.S. diplomatic and military officials acknowledge the importance of helping Peru and other nations respond. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, State Department Climate Change Envoy Todd Stern and Western Hemisphere Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Arturo Valenzuela have made repeated trips to the region since early 2010 to discuss climate change and energy security.
Climate change is “a significant threat” to the region, and the U.S. must “really come to terms” with the security challenges it poses, Valenzuela said at a recent discussion with college students in Washington.
So far, Washington has responded with some assistance to Peru, primarily through development and anti-deforestation programs. Peruvian officials, though, have voiced frustration with what they contend is poor coordination among U.S. agencies, U.S. disregard for the importance of global cooperation and an agenda that fails to address the urgent need in Peru.
In a recent interview in Lima, one senior Peruvian official working on climate change issues said the U.S. has made it clear that climate change is not a priority in its negotiations with Peru.
It’s certainly a priority for Peru, which is the third most vulnerable country in the world to climate change risks, according to the U.K. Tyndall Centre on Climate Change, and will suffer the most immediate impacts of glacier melt. It also is struggling with rampant poverty, ethnic tensions, insurgency and continuing border disputes with Chile and Ecuador.