Leadership and Democracy LabWestern Social Science

Climate Change and Health

Analysts: Ryan McCabe and Haliz Doskee

Team Leader: Haliz Doskee


Countries at the greatest risk of climactic variance due to climate change and anthropogenic activities are described as countries with the lowest emissions output worldwide. Many countries responsible for less than 0.1% of total global GHG emissions are at the greatest risk of the most severe impacts of climate change. Guatemala is no stranger to this unfortunate reality. As of 2015 Guatemala has been classified as a high-risk country, and is at direct risk of extreme weather activity, sea level rising, increased volcanic activity, and agricultural productivity loss.

The greatest risk facing Guatemala is the increased intensity of storms and hurricanes along the country’s coastal region. There have been several instances where intensified storms have caused cataclysmic damage to the country, perhaps the largest incident occurring with Hurricane Stan in 2005. Hurricane Stan caused the death of nearly 1,500 citizens, with more than 200,000 nationals forcibly displaced as a result of widespread flooding, sink holes, and frequent landslides. The storm raged through the country, damaging 720,000 hectares of agricultural land and nearly all of the crops in it. Hurricane Stan was particularly distressing for the food production industry, which provides more than 39% of all employment, in addition to being a major export. The damage to the invaluable agricultural sector in Guatemala was so severe that it totaled a GDP decrease of 3.1% in 2005. Storms have had the highest social and economic impact on the nation in recent years, with damages between 2001 and 2007 reaching US$1 billion in cost. In addition to the increased intensity of storms, food insecurity, water scarcity, increased frequency of floods and landslides, and the rise in water-borne diseases such as cholera or malaria, also increase with climate change. With a high risk and exposure to natural disasters Guatemala becomes an unsuitable country for long term investing.  Severe weather activity over the last several decades has made health and disaster relief a more urgent priority, which effectively redirected a substantial amount of funds away from green energy projects. Despite increased funding, severe and turbulent effects of climate change make health and disaster relief efforts nearly to impossible to manage and implement.           

In the late 1980s to mid-1990s Guatemala’s tumultuous experience with climate change not only forced the government to recognize the existence of climate change, but also saw the country reluctantly become a signatory of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. Guatemala has since established various departments, such as the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources, to create legal and institutional frameworks to address the effects of climate change. This entity has subsequently created other programs, such as the National Climate Change Programme, aimed at national, regional, and local development of policies intended to reduce the effects of climate change, while simultaneously measuring and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Guatemala’s primary goal is to reduce the country’s dependency on fossil fuels, which currently comprises of about 50% of the country’s energy consumption. Since 2005 Guatemala has been more eager to further decrease its dependency on nonrenewable energy sources, with key targets to be met by 2027 include: 95% electrification of the country, up from 80% currently; 80% of energy to be renewable, up from roughly 50%; and the exportation of at least 300MW of electricity into nearby markets, specifically in Mexico.

Despite the fact that decreased carbon emissions in Guatemala would do nearly nothing to impact the global output, the expansion of the renewable energy sector and the preservation of Guatemalan land has some major benefits. Namely, out of the 15 million citizens in Guatemala, 2.5 million lack access to electricity and rely on the use of wood fires to cook and heat homes. Further developing the renewable energy sector would decrease the price of electricity, as well as making it accessible to a greater number of people who live in rural communities and isolated mountain regions, which could substantially improve the standard of living in the nation. Additionally, increased investment in the sector would eventually reduce the rate of environmental degradation, which would preserve Guatemala’s 15 distinct ecosystems. Maintaining the rich biodiversity throughout the country could potentially increase the ecotourism sector, which could grow the economy and provide jobs.

Although Guatemala is severely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, bolstering the renewable energy sector through increased investment has the opportunity to substantially improve the lives of millions of citizens, in the present and future generations.