“As An Oil Producing Country, We Have An Obligation to Address Climate Change”

Alejandro Álvarez Iragorry, general coordinator of the NGO Clima 21, explains how climate change can be affecting Venezuela, and how little we know about it.

Photo: Carlos M. Blanco.

Climate change doesn’t seem to be among the most concerning worries for Venezuelans, since there are so many issues fogging any outlook for the future. Neither chavismo nor the opposition discusses it, yet it’s there, affecting us just the same.

Biologist Alejandro Álvarez Iragorry, general coordinator of NGO Clima 21, has a point when he says that the story that local media puts out, headlined by polar bears floating on sheets of ice and Greta Thunberg protests at industrialized countries, “prioritizes an apocalyptic view” that alienates Venezuelans.

It’s like an end of the world that happens somewhere else.

Álvarez Iragorry, a biologist with a PhD in Science by the Universidad Central de Venezuela, works as a consultant, teacher and environmental activist with a human rights perspective. This conversation delves in a problem that goes beyond the conservation outlook, or a concern for endangered species, or pollution.

What’s your perception on the degree of knowledge in Venezuela about the nature of climate change?

There doesn’t seem to be a lot of actual knowledge among the leaders, or awareness on the real magnitude of the problem and its effects on Venezuela.

In Venezuela, for a very long time, there haven’t been surveys about the knowledge, concern, or motivation towards actions on climate change. I’ve met with many people, from very diverse groups, and it concerns me how the youngest folks have only a very basic knowledge on the subject, often inaccurate and sometimes twisted. This ignorance is even greater when it comes to the meaning for Venezuela, and about the necessary actions both in personal and social arenas, to adapt to upcoming changes. Such poor information spreads to engineers, social issues specialists, journalists and politicians, among others. 

In a country like Canada,  the less uninformed population (about climate change) are precisely young people in high school and universities. But in Venezuela, do they at least talk about it in school, is it brought up in universities?

The education crisis is a threat against the generation of a conscious and active population. Official education programs barely mention the topics and their impact is very low, in the face of a deficient preparation on the teaching staff. The government also eliminated or minimized all bodies that created environmental policies and took action to educate, and it makes no further efforts to instruct and relay messages about the effects of climate change, including strategies so that communities and economic areas can protect themselves. In contrast, it has promoted a politicized narrative, manipulative, confusing, and even nonsensical; some universities and organizations are making efforts to improve this, but the general crisis eclipses their impact.

We know how chavismo has been talking about the environment in the last two decades, and how it has been more hostile in practice than previous administrations, but what’s the level of knowledge among those wishing to replace the current regime? What’s being discussed inside the opposition, or in the Guaido administration’s reconstruction plan (Plan País), knowing full well that isn’t among the people’s priorities?

There’s no simple answer to that. In general, the opposition representatives that I’ve heard on the subject are concerned about climate change and they claim that, after democracy is restored, they’ll see to their international commitments. But at the same time, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of actual knowledge among the leaders, or awareness on the real magnitude of the problem and its effects on Venezuela. Professionals in environmental issues have been working on including the topic in the Plan País with proposals based on international obligations and the Sustainable Development Goals by the United Nations. These include orientation and strategies for the development of public policies and climate change that would allow us to overcome the current government marasmus. In other areas of the Plan País you have ideas for mining and forest management that, unconnected with the environment, would harm the goal of climatic justice.

The complex humanitarian emergency affects all aspects of Venezuelan daily life, depending on each individual’s vulnerability. Which of those aspects has an environmental origin?

It’s also tough to establish which situations come from climate change and which ones are the result of towering factors that include climate change.

Climate change is a global process, that is progressive, long term, and it acts upon a complicated environmental and socio-economic system, so it’s very hard to predict its effects. There’s a serious worldwide environmental crisis going on, independent, at least by origin, from climate change, and it adds to and is boosted by it. It’s also tough to establish which situations come from climate change and which ones are the result of towering factors that include climate change; in Venezuela’s case, it’s likely that the progressive disappearance of glaciers in the Andes, the advancement of the saltwater intrusion in the coastal regions and the recurring draughts and floods in the south of the country can be traced to climate change. But to know for sure, there needs to be a long term scientific follow up. The prevention principle of sustainable development forces governments to establish control and safety measures for the population, even if it’s unable to assess the impact of climate change.

Which are the territories where climate change is becoming more dramatically apparent in Venezuela?

Scientists in Venezuela have warned about the decrease of rain and therefore the available amount of water, especially in the northern coastline. There are severe risks of flooding in places like the eastern shore of the Maracaibo Lake, the coast of La Vela de Coro, the flooding flatland in Chichiriviche, the Barlovento coast, and the Orinoco delta, because of the rising sea levels. Also, scientists expect more disasters in mountains and a lower flow of water in higher regions because of the glaciers disappearing.

What do we know of the impact of climate change in the rain and drought seasons, and how it affects the ecosystems and agricultural production?

Models predict a decrease in the amount of rain all over the country and an increase of the average temperature. In agricultural ecosystems, hydric and thermal stress will lower productivity, particularly in desert areas. In natural ecosystems, some forests may turn into grasslands and important water ecosystems may disappear. Even in the sea, coral reefs may disappear because of the rise of oceanic water temperature and the pH levels in the ocean.

Maybe the only environmental issue that is being talked about is deforestation, hunting and pollution by the southern mining activities. But, as a society, where are we in terms of contributing to climate change? 

In Venezuela the main source for greenhouse effect gases that generate climate change comes from the oil industry.

In Venezuela the main source for greenhouse effect gases that generate climate change comes from the oil industry, and the burning of gas that escapes from oil production sites. Another source comes from the very inefficient transportation companies, deforestation and the mismanagement of domestic residue disposal. We can’t overlook how, as an oil producing country, if we still are one, we have an ethical obligation to address climate change, through the consumption of fossil fuel that we have exported.

Do we have any reliable numbers on climate change impact in Venezuela, carbon dioxide emissions, average temperatures…?

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change states that every country has to hand in regular reports on their GHG emissions, at least every four years, with updates every two years. In the case of developing countries, these periods can be more flexible since these measurements can be complicated and expensive. Up until now, Venezuela has released two National Communications, one in 2005 based on the emissions inventory from 1999, and another in 2017 with data from 2010. In spite of the delays, the data from the first report is considered representative of the situation at the time it was submitted, by the experts that participated in its making. But for the second one, the government excluded anyone that didn’t sympathize with official policies, so its reliability is much lower. As for temperature reports, along with other atmospheric information, specialists have complained about the loss of many meteorological stations and their data, so it’s extraordinarily difficult to keep up with the weather changes caused by climate change. 

With a miniaturized economy and with the oil industry in its current state, is the country emitting fewer greenhouse effect gases? Is our economic collapse good news, at least in that respect?

The thought of Venezuela decreasing its GHG emissions is present in Venezuelan scientists, but that perception hasn’t been proven yet. However, our economic collapse is in no regard good news; even if the country is emitting less GHG, that collapse is making it much more vulnerable to the negative effects of climate change, particularly for those Venezuelans affected by the complex humanitarian emergency.

Rafael Osío Cabrices

Journalist and author. His most recent book is Apuntes bajo el aguacero: cien crónicas empantanadas (La Hoja del Norte).