An astronomer from Mars would probably conclude the capital of Venezuela is Punta de Mata. 

Punta de Where?! It’s a spot an hour’s drive west of Maturín, out in Monagas State — and as NASA images show, at night it’s much brighter than any other place in the country.

Far from a thriving metropolis, though, Punta de Mata is home to the world’s largest gas flare, that iconic, wild flame burning intensely atop a pipe commonly seen in oil fields.

Gas flaring is a practice so wasteful you’d think something like that can’t imaginably still be happening in 2017. It’s what you do to get rid of associated gas – that is, Natural Gas that also happens to come out in the process of extracting oil from a well – when you don’t have the infrastructure in place to harness this valuable energy source. It is, in other words, like burning off the $5 bills you get in the process of drilling for $100 bills because you don’t have a place to put them all.

Gas flaring also happens to be an important source of carbon dioxide emissions, a greenhouse gas. According to the World Bank, Venezuela was the tenth top gas flaring country in 2011.

It is now the fifth.

Human rights watchdog PROVEA, has pointed out that the environmental impact of this practice, widely used in Venezuela’s oil industry, has not been properly analyzed, adding that there are no plans to control emissions produced by mechurrios or to demand they comply with environmental norms and standards.

I was reminded of the megaflare in Punta de Mata as I read about Nicolás Maduro’s violent condemnation of the United States following Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. Flaring is just one example of Venezuela’s shockingly negligent attitude towards environmental problems of every sort.

As the world still recovers from the shock of seeing Donald Trump turn his back to the Paris Agreement, I couldn’t avoid thinking how much of Venezuela’s inaction in the field of climate change could just well be under the radar, and how much are we affected by it.

Reasons to act

Growing up in Caracas, I remember walking the streets of San Bernardino, a neighborhood sitting right at the foot of our beloved Cerro El Ávila, to go to school. As my sisters and I made our way uphill, the Avenida Vollmer used to be filled with a thin layer of fog in the cool, early morning hours. This is no longer the case. In fact, during the 20th Century the average temperature in Venezuela rose between 1 and 3°C.

Extreme climate events like torrential rains, massive flooding and mudslides, droughts and hurricanes…  it has already started to displace people from their homes.

Professor Juan Carlos Sánchez explained to me that Venezuela is extremely vulnerable to climate change, mainly because of its population distribution along coastal lines and unstable terrains. Sánchez’s name always comes up when you talk to environmental activists about climate change: he’s a co-recipient of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for his work within the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – that’s right, he’s Venezuela’s sole Nobel laureate. As Professor Sánchez stresses, 75% of all Venezuelans live in the 20% of the territory in states facing the country’s coast, primarily Zulia, Miranda, Carabobo and Aragua states.

He explained climate change is producing two kinds of effects: the visible, more immediate type, and then other effects that are slower and longer term. Among the first are extreme climate events like torrential rains, massive flooding and mudslides, droughts and hurricanes. He cites the increasing frequency of these events in recent years and the way it has already started to displace people from their homes.

The haunting images of loads of mud, trees and rocks rolling downhill sweeping along cars, houses and debris during the 1999 Vargas state flash floods have begun to fade from memory. Numbers are hard to pin down, but the human toll was staggering: perhaps 25,000 people died and 20,000 houses were destroyed. While no single extreme weather event can be directly attributed to climate change, what you can say for sure is that such events are becoming more frequent. Like the 2005 vaguada in Santa Cruz de Mora, in Mérida State, which came to be known as the Mocoties tragedy: it left dozens dead and hundreds of homes devastated. Compounding the vulnerability, more and more urban slums (barrios) such as Petare are built on unstable terrain that is prone to mudslides, and disaster preparedness lags.

According to Sanchez’ own estimates, events like these are becoming more frequent, as well as other rare events like semi-tornados recorded in places like Caracas, Barcelona, and Maracaibo.

Source: Juan Carlos Sanchez 2009. Estudio CAV Aseguremos Nuestro Clima

The second category of climate change consequences in the country has to do with medium to long term processes, including raising air temperatures which in turn impact the water cycle, hurting food production and potentially bringing a wave of climate refugees as people move out of no-longer inhabitable areas.

Big parts of already-dry Falcon, Sucre, Lara and Zulia states, including the north of the Guajira peninsula, can expect desertification: the permanent degradation of the land and its capacity to carry crops, as a result of insufficient water. The pabellón criollo and even the iconic arepa are at risk: land degradation and decreased rainfall could make it difficult to impossible to grow corn, black beans and plantains in much of the country.

In general, water will become scarce in the coming decades as it will rain less over the country – in some regions up to 25% less than what they see today. Match this with out-of-date water management infrastructure and the result will be less running water. So the stories you hear from friends and family in Caracas or Valencia getting piped water just once or twice a week could just be the new normal: the way things will stay indefinitely into the future.

Less rain also means less electricity. By mid-century, Sánchez says that climate models estimate an 18% decrease in rainfall in the Caroní River basin that leads to the Guri dam, which generates 75% of the electricity Venezuelans use. Last year we had a taste of what it would be like to have less water poured into the hydroelectric complex, when its level decreased to alarming 249 meters, 22 below its desired level, prompting severe cuts in energy consumption. It also made electricity minister, Luis Motta Dominguez, don all his scuba diving gear to jump into the dam’s waters in a little understood quest that ended (as expected) with the now worn-out claims of sabotage: the government spends more energy making up excuses for not being ready for El Niño than in getting ready for El Niño.

Rising air temperatures bring an array of different effects, including glacier melting, a process that in the Andes has been occurring at an increasing rate since the 1970s. This means that the beautifully crisp white snows covering the Pico Espejo station, Merida’s cable car final stop at 4,765 meters above sea level, may not stay snowy much longer. In 2008, a local environmental group called Tatuy estimated that, under current conditions, the glaciers of Mérida’s Sierra Nevada, part of the Andes range, had a life expectancy of 12-13 years. Later in 2013 another study blamed climate change for what it called the unprecedented retreat of Andean glaciers.

Raising air temperatures also means more vector borne diseases such as dengue, chikungunya, zika and malaria. As temperatures rise, the bugs carrying them are able to survive in places where they couldn’t thrive before. Such is the case of the highland malaria now hitting the western state of Trujillo due in part to changing climate.

Low lying areas like Higuerote, Rio Chico, Puerto La Cruz and Tucacas may – should I say will? – disappear under the water as the sea level rises, another long term effect Sanchez points out is expected to happen sometime in the second half of the 21st century. Chances are much of Porlamar, on Margarita Island, will no longer exist when my young kids reach middle age.

The Venezuela climate change will bequeath us is nothing like the one we know today. And while it gets some constituent lip service, Venezuela has made virtually no moves to meet its Paris commitments.

Tweets are nice. They’re more convincing, of course, when accompanied with substantive action, and a lot less convincing when they come from a government still running the world’s biggest gas flare. That’s a light that shines much, much brighter than a tweet.

39 COMMENTS

  1. For decades Pdvsa was strictly forbidden to engage in gas flaring , if conditions made it necessary steps were taken to make it as restricted and temporary as possible , this was in house corporate policy , if some gas flaring happened explanations had to be given and there would be strict monitoring of the incident which was treated as demanding inmmediate attention, people’s careers were affected for not preventing it from happening………difficult to understand how the huge flares shown in the picture are bein allowed….something extremely serious must be happening for it to be allowed or now they dont care for such things

  2. This is an excellent post. Thank you. Just excellent. A couple of observations to add. In The Sixth Extinction, a book length discussion of trends along the lines of what you have done here for Venezuela, Elizabeth Colbert talks about the speed at which biodiversity is disappearing (species are becoming extinct) and I would think that Venezuela, being one of the most biodiverse regions on the planet, would show the effects of that trend disproportionately. This is not some abstract concern about rare frogs and so forth because the history of the earth indicates we too will be on that endangered species list in a not so distant future with these trends continuing at their present pace.

    Reading this post, I am wondering which is worse on this subject: the dangerous know nothingism of Trump, or the corrosive hypocrisy of Maduro. I suppose Maduro, because at least Trump’s indifference to the danger facing the planet is out in the open where it can be held to account. The leaders who say one thing and do another, they are dangerous because these things cannot easily be tracked, as your hypothetical viewer from outer space illustrates.

    Finally, to add to your observation about the fog in Caracas during your childhood. I’m told that mornings in Barinas used to be chilly on occasion. Well, not any more, that’s for damn sure. And with all the burning of waste, a morning run can leave the lungs feeling a little like having smoked a pack of cigarettes the night before.

    • Kudos to Trump for walking away from a program whose sole purpose is to redistribute the world’s wealth…..not unlike Maduro’s goal for Venezuela which has now been mostly completed.

      • What the post above vividly illustrates are some of the external costs of human activity leading to CO2 production. Economic policy that does not account for those costs is itself a form of massive wealth redistribution. For example, we pay a heavy price for Maduro’s gas flares. His stupidity and inefficiency is destroying the world I live in as well. Carbon inefficient industries that are not regulated shift costs onto the public. It is really just a version of the age old example of living downstream from the factory that is permitted to dump toxic waste into the water, rather than being required to deal with it in a way that does not mean I involuntarily bear the cost.

        In many ways, Venezuela is an exaggerated version of a folly that we all have participated in. Take the cost of gas. It is heavily subsidized in Venezuela, leading to huge inefficiency and economic distortion, which among other things, undermines the economy and destroys the environment.

        In the world of Trump, the true cost of coal, or oil, is also not reflected in the price, and that in turn leads to economic inefficiency and deleterious effects on the environment. Do we really want to subsidize coal mining in Appalachia? Do we really want to subsidize the gigantic wrecks of cars that populate the streets of Venezuela? Is paying thousands of PDVSA employees to pump gas at a massive loss really good social policy? Do we really want to turn America into a nation of people engaged in obsolete economic activity? Could we not better spend the money we save with economically efficient policy educating people and preparing them for a modern economy?

        More generally, leave it to a group of billionaires to compellingly persuade a population that economic policy overwhelmingly serving their narrow set of interests is wealth redistribution-neutral, and anything else is socialism. It’s not unlike a group of thieves convincing a population that their theft is 21st Century Socialism.

        And on Trump’s brand of know-nothing theatre on Paris, two words: Nicaragua, Syria.

          • CO2 emissions in the USA have gone down chiefly because under the previous administration coal burning was going down. Now Trump wants to send the boys back into the coal mines to MAGA!

            Canada is one of the coldest places on earth and produces a lot of oil. It’s per capita CO2 production is on par with Russia, and comparable to Norway, from what I can see. Two other freezing cold places that produce oil. Maybe with the drop in the price of oil and the demodernization of the major economy to our south, we will start to do better.

          • Excuses, excuses.

            You want cold? Try Fairbanks. Or Fargo. But then there is Huston and Atlanta that need lots of power for air-conditioning.

            And the US is also a major oil producer, maybe now the largest in the world. And we are also a big-time coal producer.

            So cut the whining and get your own act together before you wag your finger at Donald Trump.

        • Sorry, Kepler, but when Ms Kislinger writes opinionated “Trump stuff” in her article, then it is fair game in the comments section.

    • Thank you for reading Canucklehead. The point you make about Trump is in part what inspired this text: the hypocrisy around the US’ decision that prompted many to say that only three countries are not part to the Paris Agreement. That is factually true, but that doesn’t mean they are alone and Venezuela could be counted among those who are doing nothing to deal with climate change.

  3. What we need are fewer humans. Perhaps we could start by convincing Venezuelan women that it’s not very wise to have 8 kids in a span of 10 years with 8 different fathers.

    I don’t know the numbers but I’d bet today that the majority of the world’s pollution is generated by third world populations. If throwing first world money at the problem is the solution, then we’re in deep shit IMHO.

    • Jonathan Swift suggested something like that in the 1700’s, with his “Modest Proposal”, in relation the Irish potato famine. . It takes of (kills) two bids (kids) with one stone. You only need a reliable fuel source (like recover some of the gas that flared near Maturín. And viola the situation is solved.

    • Mr. MRubio I can’t disagree with your assertion that we need fewer humans, although I wouldn’t personally use those words. Environmental issues, I think, are not divorced from social issues like population growth and human rights. So yes, we need sound policies that take these dimensions into account.

      And these issues need also to take into account questions of women’s empowerment where women have the right (not only in paper) to decide freely about the size of their families. Your suggestion that we could start “convincing Venezuelan women” that it’s not wise to have 8 kids is a lot more complex than merely telling them no to do so. For once, having kids or not is not always entirely their decision as they could be raped, abused, economically controlled, or simply denied the means to take decisions about their lives, especially their reproductive health. In today’s Venezuela, women – me included – have no access to contraceptives as there is an 85-90% shortage. Therefore this whole question about population and enviromental degradation needs to be looked at from a wider perspective.

      I have to take issue with your comment about “8 different fathers”. I wonder if a man having children with 8 different women would receive such not-so-subtle criticism.

      • Just for the record, Venezuelan men are equally culpable in that few of them bother to care for or even acknowledge their offspring. My omission of that fact has nothing to do with picking on one gender over the other and everything to do with trying to type on a telephone.

  4. Thanks for this post, Lissa. I hope we discuss other environmental topics. Venezuelans still think they have enormous resources but they are depleting them incredibly fast.

    Take forests. We destroy them everywhere. We will end up like Afghans, who destroyed 90% of the forests they had in just a few decades.

    While Germans and Swiss keep their lakes and rivers clean, we pollute them as if that were the thing to do.
    Alexander von Humboldt compared the Valencia lake to a couple of lakes in the Alps…now those lakes, of similar extension, are used for swimming, sailing, sustainable tourism…people drink the water and lots of agriculture is produced around them. The Valencia lake, on the other hand, is just poison and the fields that used to yield so much are used for more concrete.

    Chavez’s regime had the incredibly stupid idea of pouring even more sewage waters into the already polluted Valencia lake and then connecting it to the water reservoirs people in greater Valencia use, represa Pao Cachinche. Nobody seems to have any awareness we are destroying the few agricultural areas we have in the Valencia Victoria Tuy valleys…we do not realise we cannot grow what we used to grow there in the Llanos or almost anywhere else.
    We use landsfills like in the XIX century but with materials that persist and will poison our lands and waters for centuries.

    • Thank you for reading Kepler. This is certainly a main issue and I’m glad you found interesting. I share your views that we run the risk of depleting our resources if no action is taken soon.

      • I used work / live in Venezuela for a engineering contractor for PDVSA (from 1995 to 2001). I worked at Amuay and Puerto La Cruz refinery and at Maturín, oil field in gas handling and cleanup (sulfur recovery). Most of Venezuelan oil fieldsy too “heavy” and don’t produce a lot natural gas. But the Maturín, field is “light” . The original plan was to install infrastructure do distribute Natural Gas to the cities. When most PDVSA leadership had to leave in 2002-2003, I the plan perished and all that left is Venezuela is the flares to pumps a lot gas.

  5. I just don’t see the human race coming together on this one. Sure I believe in technology but not sure tech will save the world. The lesser developed countries will probably offset the gains in the developed world. Maybe in 20-50 years from now when the poles and Greenland melt, people will pay more attention. As for Venezuela, fat chance…not in this lifetime.

  6. The new Gerald Ford nuclear-powered aircraft carrier is designed to cruise the world’s oceans for one hundred years. During that 100 years, it will need to be refueled three (3) times. Oh! Yeah! And it’s co2 emissions during that 100 years will be a big, fat, goose-egg.

    You would think this might suggest something to the climate-concerned, “progressives,” but, no, they like to believe you can sustain a modern civilization with windmills and solar panels (along with massive government subsidies and controls). Meanwhile, some of those big, bad, private-sector billionaires, who actually have the intelligence to be able to crunch numbers, are working hard on real solutions.

    http://www.businessinsider.com/bill-gates-talks-private-nuclear-fission-plant-terrapower-2016-4

  7. Re-arranging the deck chairs on tne Titanic was the phrase that came to mind when I read this post. C’mon for stable countries climate change is an issue but when your people are oppressed and starving, a homilie on the environment is elitist and so irrelevant….

  8. Good article; one thing though: “that’s right, he’s Venezuela’s sole Nobel laureate.” Google “Baruj Benacerraf,” Venezuelan-American doctor who won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1980.

    • Without any disrespect to Dr Sanchez, he is not a Nobel laureate of any description, Venezuelan or otherwise. The present author is mis-stating his qualifications. If he himself were to do this, it would constitute fraudulent misrepresentation, as several other contributors to the 2007 IPCC report have found to their embarrassment. Dr Sanchez should have received a certificate from the Nobel committee acknowledging that he was one of the contributors to the 2007 report, for which the IPCC received the Nobel PEACE prize. A number of non-scientists received the same certificate.

      Baruj Benacerraf was a genuine Nobel prize-winner and could describe himself as a Nobel laureate.

    • Point taken on Baruj Benacerraf. He appeared to be American when I looked it up. But he was indeed Venezuelan. Apologies for the misrepresentation. Regarding Professor Sanchez, I understand the point made. Still, we presented him as a co-recepient. Thanks for reading and for the observations.

  9. And maybe because Dr. Jacinto Convit was only Venezuelan, the Nobel was not awarded to him. Then again, maybe a vaccine for leprosy is not as relevant to the world in the eyes of the Committee. In the end it does not matter, what counts is that he did a lot of good.

  10. Luisa,

    I was a long-term contributor to Greenpeace till a few years ago, when I stopped my contribution. The main reason was that, as an organisation, it had ceased to invest any time on dealing with real and immediate environmental problems and concentrated all of its resources on bringing about global political change founded on climate change.

    Venezuela is facing its worse political crisis since Perez Jimenez, the government is a criminal mafia, the economy is ratshit, people cannot find food and medicines, and kids are dying in the street every day trying to win back some form of future. There is a massive accumulation of real environmental problems associated with lack of investment in waste management, drainage and flood protection, water preservation, environmental controls on the extractive industries (not just oil and gas), and electricity generation. And when the inevitable environmental disasters do happen, there are no emergency contingency plans in place. These environmental problems are exacerbated by the uncontrolled proliferation of improvised houses in the worst possible locations in terms of human exposure to extreme events.

    Venezuela is in a swamp with crocodiles biting its ass, and you want us to take time to read your catalogue on new and untested pumps for swamp-drainage. CO2 production ranks alongside flower-arranging at the present time. I’m sad to see this article here.

    • She lost me when she dragged Trump into the picture but I read on regardless.

      I’m in no way downplaying the detrimental effects of damaging our environment, but that anyone thinks they can accurately predict air temps and rainfall patterns 25 years out is laughable.

    • Kribaez, your post reminded me of that massive oil spill a number of years ago at the Jusepin oil processing plant in Monagas. Do you recall the event? Crude oil flowed for a number of hours into the nearby river and then on downstream to the city of Maturin which uses the river’s water for a majority of its needs.

      And where were the plant’s first responders when the pipeline ruptured? They were at a mandatory chavista march in Caracas.

      Revolution! LOL

    • I think there is a good argument that thinking about issues relating to environmental protection is not a luxury but an essential component of rebuilding a strong, modern and sustainable economy in Venezuela. There have been many good posts on Caracas Chronicles about what the future should look like after chavismo, what policies should be adopted, and in my humble opinion this is perhaps the most important, from a practical, real life perspective.

      Take three areas: public transport and infrastructure, household energy consumption, housing. These are all areas of essential concern to Venezuelans where chavismo has anchored them firmly in the 1970s, to their long term detriment. Subsidies on gas have been ruinous to the Venezuelan economy and at the same time stopped the development of safe and efficient public transportation and diverted much needed funds from important areas like health care and education. With electricity, it seems to me that a realistic vision of the future does not include reliance on the Guri dam. Dare I say it, but with the money saved on illegal electrical hookups and subsidized households blowing their air conditioners out open doors and windows, there could probably be a solar panel on every rancho (along with a satellite dish). And what kind of urban planning is going to lead to safe neighborhoods? Well, probably the same kind that will prevent people from being washed out to sea with increasing regularity as the weather becomes subject to more extreme events.

      Tourism? Well, it would be great if tourism could return to the country, and part of that might involve building awareness around removing all ones personal garbage from the beach at the end of the day. Building awareness around enjoying a place with the notion in mind that one is not going to be the last person ever there. Simple practices of waste management and recycling could vastly improve the daily lives of people in unexpected ways. Chavismo has done nothing to reform this mentality of the throw away society that is dinosaur thinking in efficient, modern economies.

      And finally, how do you build an economy that is not entirely reliant on oil? What can be done to promote diverse economic activity? These are just some of the obvious areas of overlap between concerns relating to climate change and the daily life of Venezuelans. At some point, they are going to embark on a massive project to rebuild their economy from the ground up. Those decisions would be better informed with the environment and climate change as central concerns.

      Venezuelans need a vision of the future. The regimes has failed. That consensus is broken. They need a vision of a modern economy, one that is not bound up in this death grip of big oil and big bureaucracy that comes with it. Nobody is going to rally and unite around vision of a future driven by IMF loans and more flexible deals for foreigners to extract more oil. There has to be a vision. The green movement is a source of great ideas of practical value that gets talented people excited and engaged and would make Venezuela a leader, instead of a disaster dressed up with band aid fixes.

      • Canucklehead,
        Please read the article with care. It is not about the need to be in a position to tackle urgent environmental problems – which I would support. It is about forecast climate change arising from forecast increases in atmospheric CO2 concentration arising from forecast human emissions.

        • “Reasons to act”?

          You said CO2 production ranks along with flower arranging at this time in terms of Venezuelans’ priorities. I’m suggesting to you, taking the post as a good primer on the subject, it is at the heart of their problems.

          • Ever drive down the national highways after the perennial summer fires have burned off last year’s growth? After burning off all the plastic and paper waste, what’s left are millions upon millions upon millions of beer bottles for as long as one wishes to drive.

            My point being that this population is about 50 years behind the civilized world. While trying to convince them that their CO2 footprint is an important issue in their lives and certainly a noble endeavor, I believe there are more elementary concepts they need to master.

  11. People don’t need to master any concepts if the right economic incentives are in place. Beer bottles being a classic example.

    • Which economic incentives would you suggest to encourage them not to steal their neighbor’s harvest? Or not to provide aid and shelter to the local sicario because he only murders people from other pueblos?

      Do you see where I’m going with this? As others have stated here (and using a term Quico has used against me), this society appears to be morally bankrupt. Suggesting they can be encouraged to alter their CO2 output seems like pissing on the ashes to me.

  12. Never mind that vented methane is twenty five times as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide.
    Never mind that the climate change establishment refuses to reduce their own enormous carbon footprint.
    Never mind that the climate change establishment refuses to show their raw data, the science is settled, right?
    Never mind that the climate change establishment makes enormous convenient profits from public policy produced without debate.
    Just shut up and obey! (or else…)

    • Thank you, CP.

      The number one task is to shame the US into pouring hundreds of billions of dollars per year into a European bureaucracy that will then decide how to redistribute it to the “victims” of global warming.

      • “…bureaucracy that will then decide how to redistribute it to the ‘victims’…” or just give it to the elitist establishment.

  13. Great article. I enjoy reading things like this one. Nevertheless, I think you should correct this: “people move out of no-longer inhabitable areas”, to “people move out of no-longer habitable areas”. Second, the policy of gas flaring, it’s been an old one in Venezuelan Oil industry. I was in Cabimas in early 90’s and I saw that gas flaring in almost every corner of the city. The air smelt like metane 24/7. And the people in Cabimas told me that they have been living with it for life. So, this policy maybe is older than any of us. But, this is no excuse. Even PDVSA can´t change this. We all know its lack of human and material resources to solve any problem inside the oil company. I bet that the flare’s size is the result of overexploitation in El Furrial oil field.

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