Peruvian Demands Payment for Climate Change

Lake Palcacocha, 2002. As the lake absorbs glacier melt, it threatens to flood Huaraz. "Lago Palcacocha 2002". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Lake Palcacocha, 2002. As the lake grows from glacier melt, it threatens to flood Huaraz. “Lago Palcacocha 2002“. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Peruvian farmer and mountaineering guide Saul Luciano Lliuya, and the town of Huaraz where he lives, long known as the “Switzerland of Peru,” may go down in climate-change history.

The hundreds of tropical glaciers that blanket the mountains above Huaraz are melting, and Lliuya lays partial blame on German energy company RWE, Europe’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Last Friday, Lliuya sent a letter of complaint to RWE, demanding that it pay $21,000 in compensation for its role in climate change, pocket change for a company that earned $1.38 billion in 2014. According to Lliuya’s claim, all the carbon RWE emits into the atmosphere contributes to glacial melt that threatens to flood his town, destroy his home and displace his family.

Saul Lliuya, a small farmer and tour guide from Huaraz, Peru, who is seeking compensation from a German company for increased flood risk due to greenhouse has emissions.
Saul Lliuya, author of the letter of complaint. source: Germanwatch

It is the first such claim in Europe and is backed by a German environmental NGO called Germanwatch, a representative of which met with Lliuya during the Lima Climate Change Conference, COP20, last December. Lliuya sent the letter to RWE through his lawyer Roda Verheyen, a Hamburg-based environmental attorney. If RWE is not willing to pay or does not answer his request by April 15, Lliuya will evaluate the possibility of suing the company.

“This move is unparalleled in Europe,” said Christoph Bals, Germanwatch’s policy director, in a statement. “It is unprecedented both in legal and political terms.  It empowers potential climate change victims. It implements the ‘polluters pay’ principle, a step which is long overdue. A company which creates risks to others has two obligations: stopping to hurt them and limiting the damage.”

Michael Murphy, a spokesman for RWE, told GlacierHub via email that the company could not comment on the letter because it had not yet received it. There is no chance a lawsuit would turn into a class action, because Germany does not have a legal framework for such cases, Verheyen said, also via email. “I do not know whether this will spur similar cases,” she wrote. “My client takes a very courageous step.”

Cordillera Blanca, © Diego Giannoni
Cordillera Blanca, © Diego Giannoni

Given the timing, the case could have an impact on negotiations at the climate treaty meeting in Paris this December. According to the most recent assessment report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, retreat and melting in the tropical glaciers of the Andes are caused by climate change. In fact, there are few environmental risks in which climate change can as clearly be faulted as Andean glacier melt, says Germanwatch.

“We do think that both the present claim and a potential lawsuit could lend new momentum to a climate agreement and in the international climate debate,” wrote Stefan Küper, Germanwatch press officer, in an email.

Huaraz is the capital of the region of Ancash, which is a site of great social unrest in Peru, in part due to the environmental impacts of mining mega-projects, which have long been charged with contaminating local water resources. Ancash registered the highest number of social conflicts of any region in Peru during February, with 24 cases, according to the Peruvian government’s Public Defender’s Office (Defensoría del Pueblo).

Flood Risk

The mountain range that towers over Huaraz is known as the Cordillera Blanca, or white mountain range, the highest tropical mountain chain in the world. These dramatic white peaks are covered in 722 glaciers and 296 lakes, according to some estimates. But as the glaciers melt, they threaten not only to deplete a critical water source for the region, but to overwhelm the lakes below, causing torrential and devastating flooding in what are known as a glacial lake outburst floods. One of these lakes, called Lake Palcacocha, sits directly above Huaraz and is thought to pose major flood risk to the town. Over the past 40 years, the lake has grown in size by eight times and in volume by 30 times, according to Lliuya’s claim against RWE.

Plazuela Belen, city of Huaraz, Peru, at night. ©Dtarazona Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Plazuela Belen, city of Huaraz, Peru, at night. ©Dtarazona
Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

“Two glaciers could collapse into the lake, that would cause a big flood wave which would destroy the house of my family and many other houses in Huaraz. This is an unacceptable risk,” Lliuya told the Guardian. About 40,000 people live in the high-risk zone for flooding from Lake Palcacocha, according to the Center for Research in Water Resources at the University of Texas, Austin. In 1941, the lake banks were breached by flooding, and within a matter of minutes Huaraz was inundated.

Lliuya says RWE owes Huaraz $21,000 because that sum is equivalent to 0.47% of the estimated cost of protecting the town against flooding and other risks associated with glacier melt. According to the Institute of Climate Responsibility in Colorado, RWE is responsible for 0.47% of all global warming emissions produced between 1751 and 2010. The cost of protecting Huaraz would include drainage of Lake Palcacocha until safety works can be completed, including the building of new dams and the repairing of old ones.

A mutual friend of Lliuya and Germanwatch first introduced them, prior to the meeting at COP20. A small Germanwatch team including Christoph Bals subsequently visited Lliuya and his family in Huaraz, and made a joint visit to Lake Palcacocha. Lliuya could not be reached for comment.

To read more about glacial lake flooding, check out these stories.

Satellite Images Offer Clues to Glacial Lake Flooding

Glacier Hazards Linked to Prolonged PTSD in Kids

Bhutan’s Fortresses Yet Another Victim of Glacial Floods

For more about Peru’s glaciers, read these stories

As Peru’s Glaciers Vanish, Villagers Appeal to the Gods

Photo Friday: COP20 Voices for Climate

Artists Stage Glacier Worship to Fight Climate Change


Glaciers Play Starring Role in COP20 Climate Conference

Glaciers play at least three different roles at COP20, the global climate conference taking place in Lima, Peru. The COP20 is the largest meeting this year of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), an international environmental treaty aimed at stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. The 192 member countries of the UNFCCC meet annually in Conferences of the Parties (COP) to assess progress in dealing with climate change. COP20 is a lead-up to 2015 COP21 in France, whose objective is the signing of a legally binding agreement that would guarantee significant reductions in greenhouse gasses.

Most simply, glaciers are cited in newspaper articles, NGO statements, briefings by research institutes and reports by intergovernmental organizations as incontrovertible proof that climate change is producing dramatic impacts on ecosystems and societies around the world. They are featured in displays that seek to convey the urgency of addressing climate change, particularly in the Mountains and Water Pavilion within “Voces por el Clima,” (Voices Speaking for Climate) an exhibition that calls for greater attention to climate change.

Model glacier at Mountains and Water Pavilion, COP20.
Model glacier at Mountains and Water Pavilion, COP20.

Glaciers also play a critical role in specific countries with major roles at COP20. Host country Peru contains about 70% of the world’s tropical glaciers. The glaciers are crucial to Peru, because they supply drinking water and water for agriculture, hydroelectricity and industry, such as agro-exports and mining.

Glaciers are also important in China and the United States, the countries whose agreement on climate change, announced on November 11, provided significant impetus to COP20. These countries are the world’s No.1 and No.2 carbon polluters. Presidents Xi and Obama staked out ambitious plans to reduce carbon emissions as a way to galvanize other countries to make their own cuts. Mr. Obama announced that the United States plans to emit 26 percent to 28 percent less carbon in 2025 than it did in 2005. That is double the pace of reduction it targeted for the period from 2005 to 2020. At the same time, Mr. Xi announced vowed that clean energy sources like solar power and wind mills would account for 20 percent of China’s total energy production by 2030.

COP20, source  Wikimedia Commons .
COP20, source Wikimedia Commons.

Both China and the United States have numerous glaciers. China’s glaciers, concentrated in the western and northern parts of the country, cover nearly 60,000 square kilometers. In the United States, glaciers, primarily located in Alaska, cover over 75,000 square kilometers). They are rapidly shrinking in both countries, and also in France, the host of COP21 next year, where Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Europe, has seen significant glacier loss in recent decades.

Finally, glaciers are specifically featured in two events at COP20, both on December 11th. A presentation by a Pakistani organization, the Moutain and Glacier Protection Organization (MGPO), and its partners, “Integrated Climate Risk Management for a Resilient World reports on adaptation projects near Baltoro Glacier in Pakistan. The event also includes lectures by the Ministers of Environment of the Netherlands and Tuvalu, concentrating on climate change and disasters in mountains, and their impacts on highland, lowland and coastal areas.

The other event is “Climate Change in the Andes and Global Cryosphere,” organized by two NGOs, ICCI (International Cryosphere Climate Initiative) and CPC (Climate Policy Center). They focus on the irreversibility of changes in glaciers and other ice- and snow-covered regions. Their discussions will center on tracing the implications of these changes for science-based commitment levels in the Paris 2015 COP.

Taken as a whole, these different documents and activities show the power of glaciers to demonstrate the significance of climate change and to stir people to action. GlacierHub is tracking COP20 closely. You can find photos from the conference here. If you are interested in keeping up with events at COP20, follow us on twitter @Glacierhub.


Photo Friday: COP20 – Voices for Climate

The Twentieth Conference of the Parties (COP 20) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is happening in Lima, Peru since December 1st, 2014, which will end on December 12, 2014. It gathered about 15,000 people, who represent 195 countries and stakeholders, to negotiate and shape the contribution they will give to vastly reduce their carbon emission. It is a crucial step before reaching a climate change agreement in Paris in 2015. “Voices for Climate“, a platform that provides exhibition and interaction spaces for worldwide visitors, is designed to facilitate communication between different stakeholders and raise awareness about climate change surrounding the five emblematic themes: Forest, Mountains and Water, Oceans, Energy, and Sustainable Cities.
Here are some photos taken during “Voices for Climate” (Source: Flickr/Mountain Forum). Visit for more information on COP20.
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Photo Friday highlights photo essays and collections from areas with glaciers. If you have photos you’d like to share, let us know in the comments, by Twitter @glacierhub or email us at