San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Adapting to climate change in Costa Rica

Outside of the U.S. Tea Party, conspiracy enthusiasts and a few experts and legislators bankrolled by coal and oil companies, there are few who still doubt that the phenomenon of global climate change is real. And even among some of these skeptics, searing summer temperatures, killer storms, disappearing glaciers and melting ice caps must be causing second thoughts.

Nevertheless, there is quite a bit of uncertainty as to what the extent of the effect of global warming on the earth, and on human societies, will be. But wishful thinking aside, there is a growing consensus among climate scientists that these could be quite serious. Among the impacts expected are rising sea levels, higher temperatures, more and longer droughts, greater incidence and severity of storms and the widespread extinction of species.

Steve Mack

Steve Mack

The seriousness of these impacts depends in large part on whether the global community is capable of taking effective steps to curtail the emissions of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, which are principal contributors to the phenomenon of climate change. Nevertheless, the composition of the earth’s atmosphere has already been sufficiently altered that even if the release of these gases was immediately and significantly reduced, the impact of climate change would continue to be felt for decades to come.

Under this scenario – where a warming and changing climate is not just a future possibility, but an unavoidable and immediate reality – more thought is now being given not only to alleviating the causes of climate change, but also to adapting to its inevitable and serious impacts.

Hot and Dry

 For Costa Rica, predictions made for the National Climate Strategy foresee that climate change will bring less rain and higher temperatures for most of the country, especially the northern plains and the country’s Pacific Northwest, but also including the Central Valley. According to these predictions, average annual temperatures in the next 90 years could rise as much as 4.7 degrees centigrade (8.5 degrees Fahrenheit) in the Pacific Northwest, while rainfall could decrease by as much as 30 percent (some parts of the country, such as the southern Pacific, would see much less of an impact on rainfall). The impacts of these changes will be felt in many ways, but especially the following:

Energy. Higher temperatures and reduced rainfall would affect the production and use of energy in Costa Rica in at least two ways. First, because Costa Rica generates up to 90 percent of its electricity from hydropower, reduced average annual rainfall and the possibility of more and longer droughts could have a strong impact on the generation of electricity. Second, higher temperatures would greatly increase the use of energy, mainly through increased demand for air conditioning. Several years ago, an unusually dry year and the consequent lack of generating capacity led the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) to institute rolling blackouts, which caused serious economic losses. Meanwhile, the increasing dependence of the Costa Rican economy on energy-intensive high-tech industries will increase the economic impact of future shortages. 

Agriculture. Changing temperatures and rainfall could have a significant influence on agriculture. Crops and livestock, which are presently adapted to different parts of the country, may no longer be viable in these areas, while other types of products may be produced in areas where they could not be raised before. Less water will require new farming and ranching techniques, and could lessen yields. And changing climate could lead to hitherto unknown outbreaks of pests.

Tourism. Higher temperatures and less water could have a strong impact on the tourism industry, especially in the relatively hot and dry Pacific Northwest, where much of the nation’s tourism industry is concentrated. The lack of water in the region has already significantly affected the industry, which recently became embroiled in a conflict over water rights with local communities. Higher temperatures could make certain parts of the country much less attractive (and others more so), while energy costs for air conditioning would balloon.


Stormy Weather

Warmer temperatures over land and in the oceans will result in more numerous and intense storms, even while the overall amount of precipitation might be dropping. In Costa Rica this will cause an increase in flash floods and landslides, with a resulting loss of life and greater damage to property and infrastructure. Damage to roads, bridges, aqueducts and dams caused by floods and landslides will be a major expense and could increase the pressure on water and energy supplies. At the very least, an increase in the amount and intensity of flooding will require an end to the widespread practice of official winking at building in floodplains. Hopefully, it would also lead to better construction and maintenance of roads and other public infrastructure.


Rising Tides

Rising sea levels are another projected result of climate change, caused by the expansion of seawater due to higher temperatures and the melting of ice sheets and glaciers on land. Estimates for sea-level rise for the 21st century range between 30 and 50 centimeters, depending on rates of temperature change worldwide, while more extreme projections predict a rise of up to one meter. In Costa Rica, rising sea levels will flood low-lying areas (such as parts of Puntarenas), increase storm and flood damage, and harm marine and coastal ecosystems such as coral reefs and mangrove forests.


How Will We Adapt?

Affected by climate change, what will Costa Rica look like after taking effective measures to deal with its impacts?

More trees. Costa Rica will see more trees because it will plant them as part of its attempt to mitigate its carbon emissions, and because forests will reappear as a result of the existing trend of population migration to urban areas, but at the same time the planting of trees and allowing the natural regeneration of forests will be one of the most effective ways that the country can adapt to the negative effects of climate change. More trees will reduce surface temperatures, protect water sources and supplies, protect soils, provide earth-friendly building material and other additional habitats for wildlife.

Biological corridors. Many of these additional trees will be planted or allowed to grow in forested biological corridors that link existing forests, and join lowlands with highlands. These corridors will provide additional habitat for wildlife, and allow species of plants and animals a pathway to migrate from warmer to cooler temperatures. If these corridors are established along rivers, they will provide the additional benefit of helping protect and conserve water. Unfortunately, if the impacts of climate change occur as quickly as forecast, many species will not be able to adapt quickly enough to a changing climate even with the aid of forested corridors, while those that now live at higher altitudes and which require cool and moist conditions to survive will have no place to go.

Conservation of water and energy. Costa Ricans, who have become accustomed to abundant and inexpensive water and energy, will learn to ration and conserve both. Given that societies around the globe have been able to do this successfully under much more difficult conditions, that technologies to save water and energy are blossoming and that Costa Ricans are very adept at adopting new ideas and putting them into practice, the conservation of water and energy should be a successful and in some ways positive reaction to climate change. 

Diversification of energy sources. With less water available to generate electricity, but demand constantly rising (even in spite of conservation), Costa Rica will have to significantly diversify its sources of energy. While ideally this should take the form of greater reliance on renewable sources such as wind, solar and geothermal energy, Costa Rica may feel itself forced to abandon its principled opposition to the exploitation of fossil fuels in its national territory and rely on what many believe could be rich deposits of natural gas and petroleum. Thus, if forced to play this wildcard, Costa Rica would be reacting to climate change by contributing to its cause.

Steve Mack is an environmental consultant who has lived and worked in Costa Rica for over 20 years, and is a partner in the firm Responsabilidad Ambiental Corporativo. He can be reached at

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