The disastrous hurricane that wiped Acapulco by surprise last October shows that climate change is here, and Latin America and the Caribbean are taking a toll. As global temperatures continue to rise, the region is experiencing more extreme weather events like droughts, floods, and storms, while the consequences of glacier retreat, sea level rise, and species migration continue to build up. These climate impacts threaten lives, destroy infrastructure, and disrupt economic activity.
What can we do? We need to adapt and build resilience against current and future climate impacts. The good news is that adaptation is possible, and it is much cheaper than passively taking the heat.
Our new book provides an accessible overview of climate risks and solutions countries can implement across sectors like food, water, energy, transport, cities, health, social cohesion, and finance. Though each location faces unique challenges, 9 common themes emerge.
- Know Your Enemy: Assessing Hazard, Exposure, and Vulnerability. The first step is to identify hazards and vulnerable areas. Climate models can help anticipate potential threats, and anticipating allows preparation. However, uncertainty is inherent, and deliberations with local stakeholders are important too. Governments should evaluate exposure —how many people are located in threatened zones— and vulnerability—how severely impacts will affect exposed elements. Because of climate change, exposure is changing fast. And natural disasters are not the only issue! For example, the climate suitability for dengue transmission in South America increased by 35% between 1951 and 2021.
- Strategic Retreat…Or Defense in Depth. Withdrawing from high-risk coastal, floodplain, or mountainside areas can avoid impacts. Yet migration is complex; cultural attachment, urbanization pressures, and informal settlements often prevent withdrawal. When retreating is impossible, protection is paramount. Investments in infrastructure like dikes and seawalls avoid damage. Nature-based solutions, like wetland restoration and urban forests, can also reduce risks while providing shelter for biodiversity and amenities for people. In Paraguay, restored wetlands and drainage infrastructure protect 1,500 households from flooding.
- Build Back Better: Reinforced, Efficient Infrastructure. Even with protection, some residual risk will always remain. Much adaptation can be thought of as asking engineers for solutions. Robust design standards and materials can prevent weather damage. Efficiency upgrades like building insulation or drip irrigation reduce resource requirements and moderate climate stresses.
- Failsafe Systems: Diversify, Decentralize, Redundancy. System-level thinking is key. In the Dominican Republic, network disruptions from floods and other disasters cost travelers three times more than the infrastructure damage itself. To avoid this, infrastructure and supply chains should feature alternatives, decentralization, and redundancies. For instance, water utilities can maintain diverse water sources, including reservoirs, restored watersheds, and recycled water. Decentralized solar and wind generation avoids single points of failure. Redundant roads, ports, and communication links provide backups when disasters hit.
- Forewarned is Forearmed: Early Warning Systems and Preparedness. Preparing for inevitable shocks enables coping and rapid recovery. Warning systems enable early action, like evacuating people, moving valuables, or stockpiling critical medicine and reconstruction materials. Contingency plans are key to identify alternative supply routes and priorities to maintain critical services. Building the resilience of households and businesses also requires giving them access to insurance, savings, social protection, and access to finance to rebuild.
- Carrots, Sticks, and Capacity: Policy for Private Sector Adaptation. Governments can implement many of the required adaptations themselves, but they also need to enable adaptation of the private sector using different interventions. For instance, zoning reduces exposure by preventing construction in vulnerable areas. Standards make critical adaptations mandatory, like climate-resilient building codes. Economic instruments like subsidies, taxes, and tariffs create incentives, for instance, for water conservation or clean energy. Information provision, training programs, and tools to manage deep uncertainty are important ways of building capacity to adapt.
- Financing Adaptation. Fiscal policy should also be adapted. Public funds are needed to acquire expensive adaptation options, such as upgrading school rooms with air conditioning. Ministries of finance should also account for climate vulnerability in budgets – the government is often expected to bail out disastrously affected communities. The private banking sector should be adapted too, for instance, by mandating that large financial institutions assess, reduce, and communicate how their assets could be affected by climate change. Brazil, for instance, already does this.
- Strength in Numbers: Multi-Sectoral, Multi-Stakeholder Collaboration. Adaptation requires coordinated action across ministries, levels of government, and private/public actors. National adaptation plans should assign responsibility for risk assessments and priority actions. Empowering local governments is essential, as adaptation plans should be tailored to community needs and local climate patterns. Chile’s climate change law provides a great example: it tasks each ministry and municipal government to develop its own adaptation plan.
- Stay focused on improving lives. Adaptation must account for social equity. After Hurricane Mitch in 1998, the poorest Honduran households lost 18% of their assets, compared to just 3% among the wealthiest. Government policy should prioritize those most in need. Social protection is essential to shield the most vulnerable; it should be able to react quickly to reach affected households after extreme weather events.
When designing climate policy, public consultations are critical to ensure vulnerable groups are heard, and solutions are adapted to their needs. For instance, mandating building codes does nothing for those who live in informal settlements. Adaption will be most effective if governments can demonstrate it improves the lives of their constituents. We hope book “Heat and High Water” can help ensure they do so.