Unveiling the Climate Crisis in Brazil’s Rio Grande do Sul

22 May 2024 - // Interviews
Marcio Astrini
Executive secretary of the Observatório do Clima [Climate Observatory]
Raphael Tsavkko Garcia
Managing Editor at REVOLVE

Urgent policy changes are needed to prevent future climate disasters in vulnerable regions

The Southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul has faced an unprecedented situation of catastrophe after heavy rains flooded practically every city in the state, either totally or partially. Entire cities have been destroyed, the capital, Porto Alegre, has been severely hit and, in addition to the obvious consequences of the destruction caused by the water, the cold is approaching, diseases are multiplying and problems are being caused by the difficulty of finding homes and temporary housing for thousands of people, of transporting goods and even to find clean water to drink.

Raphael Tsavkko Garcia, from REVOLVE, spoke with Márcio Astrini, executive secretary of the Observatório do Clima [Climate Observatory] on the intricate interplay between climate change, human actions, and the devastating impact on the region, emphasizing the urgent need for proactive measures to address the escalating climate risks faced not only by Rio Grande do Sul but by vulnerable regions worldwide.

What are the main factors you believe have contributed to the unprecedented floods and emergency in most municipalities in Rio Grande do Sul? To what extent are these factors related to climate change and human actions?

Well, we have meteorological and geographical factors in Rio Grande do Sul, all exacerbated by climate change. The geography of Rio Grande do Sul is characterized by an extensive area of plains and wetlands, making it very susceptible to this type of event. Although similar events have occurred in the past, such as the historic flood in the 1940s and the floods of September 2023, this year’s event is undoubtedly the worst of all. 

A meteorological phenomenon such as the heat bubble significantly contributed by preventing the dispersion of a cold front over the state, resulting in record rainfall and concentration of precipitation in a specific area. 

Graphic: REVOLVE

So, we have the presence of climate change in several of these factors. First in this mass of dry air enhancing it and second, in this mass of cold air carrying a larger volume of water vapor– turbocharged, let’s say. This is exactly what climate change does – it enhances events that would be extreme to be much more extreme, and that’s what we’re seeing not only in Rio Grande do Sul, but in various parts of the world.

Can you describe the political context surrounding this tragedy? How have government policies and changes in legislation in recent years impacted the region’s resilience and its ability to prepare for, and respond to, extreme weather events?

The political context is marked by omission and a lack of recognition of the danger of climate change. Brazilian authorities are tired of participating in climate conferences and having access to alerts, information, and research. It’s not lack of information, it’s a lack of acceptance for these authorities to take seriously what is being said. Authorities read and see in front of their eyes the seriousness of what is happening in the rest of the world, but they seem to think “It will never happen to me” or in the area they administer.

Well, reality has now come. Unfortunately, this ‘education’ that was passed on to the authorities– that climate is something serious – was given at the cost of lives. It didn’t have to be this way.

I really hope that everything happening in Rio Grande do Sul will definitively change the minds of those who lead Brazil and these states in the situation of serious climate risk, as in the case of Rio Grande do Sul. In addition, the National Congress has contributed to the dismantling of environmental legislation, facilitating the destruction of protected areas and reducing the effectiveness of environmental laws. This weakens the response capacity to extreme events and increases the region’s vulnerability.

Authorities read and see in front of their eyes the seriousness of what is happening in the rest of the world, but they seem to think “It will never happen to me” or in the area they administer.

The Brazilian National Congress is almost a reproduction of the [extreme-right former President Jair] Bolsonaro government, only in another power location. And there you have all the anti-environmental action of the Bolsonaro government now in changing laws.

This is terrible because the change in environmental regulations in Brazil allows for greater aggression to the environment, whether in forests, fields (as is the case of the biome that makes up much of Rio Grande do Sul), invasion of protected areas, reduction of conservation units, facilitation, or destruction of environmental licensing rules in Brazil. This dismantling of environmental legislation is leading to modification of the landscape more and more, making these places increasingly weak to combat an extreme climate event like the one we are seeing.

In your opinion, what are the most important steps that the government and local authorities should take to effectively lead the process of reconstruction and recovery in the affected areas?

Well, now it is much more likely, unfortunately, that such an event will happen again. We don’t know in what proportion, larger or smaller, but situations of flooding and extreme rainfall will happen again, it is more likely than ever that it will happen again. So Brazil needs to prepare for this.

A man walks in a flooded street in São Leopoldo, Rio Grande do Sul. Photo: Thales Renato / Midia NINJA

We can talk about several other regions of Brazil that are also vulnerable to climatic extremes, whether they be landslides, drought, flooding, or extreme rainfall. In the case of Rio Grande do Sul, a state that has been extensively modified in its natural landscape, sensitive areas were simply torn, leveled, and finally filled that we need to return to these areas and restore them, because they are the ones that guarantee some kind of balance in facing this type of extreme climate.

The population needs to receive training on what to do in such a situation. We can’t find out where the population will be allocated, how it will be allocated, what are its food distribution centers, medication, and water, how to get to the city and leave the city– you can’t plan and execute all of this in the middle of a tragedy. You must have a previous plan which must be studied and mapped so that people know where to go and the public authorities know what to do in advance. And it is necessary to create an alert system, much more suitable for the situation in Rio Grande do Sul, faster.

What specific policy changes do you believe are necessary to improve the long-term resilience and adaptability of the region to the impacts of climate change? How can legislation be strengthened to prevent similar disasters in the future?

It’s crucial to stop the rollback of environmental legislation and adopt a more proactive approach to addressing climate change. First, we need to stop the rollback. Second is that the country needs to focus on a public policy that addresses the climate issue at the three levels it requires. The first level is mitigation. Brazil needs to stop contributing to the problem, stop polluting, stop emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Brazil needs to stop contributing to the problem, stop polluting, stop emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

How does Brazil do this? By tackling its main emitter, which is deforestation. So, zeroing out deforestation in Brazil is the first measure the country needs to take to positively contribute to the climate agenda. We also have a lot to advance in agriculture and the energy sector, but deforestation is undoubtedly the main highlight because it’s almost half of Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The second step is adaptation. Adaptation in vulnerable areas of Brazil will be done according to the region and what is needed in each of these areas. These areas are already mapped, with around a thousand locations in Brazil under some climate risk. These areas are monitored through the National Center for Natural Disaster Monitoring and Alerts (CEMADEN), which is a natural disaster monitoring service in Brazil, linked to the Ministry of Science and Technology.

So, we already know where these areas are. What needs to be done now is a plan for these areas, what will be done in each one, how much needs to be invested, what type of work, what type of intervention, and how long it will take. This adaptation part still needs to be developed. We don’t have that in Brazil.

Debris carried by the flood that almost covered houses in São Leopoldo, Rio Grande do Sul. Photo: Thales Renato / Midia NINJA

The third step is to have a plan for a situation we don’t want to reach, for disaster or collapse cases. It’s about training the population to know they are in these areas and what to do, exactly what I commented on earlier.

Many experts have pointed out deforestation, urbanization, and inadequate land-use planning as exacerbating factors in this disaster. What concrete actions should be taken to address these underlying environmental and development challenges?

It’s fundamental to rebuild natural areas and implement soil and water conservation measures, such as restoring riparian forests and permanent preservation areas. This not only helps prevent disasters but also promotes long-term resilience and sustainability. If you don’t have vegetation in the area contiguous to the river, the soil becomes compacted, water falls there and runs all at once much faster to the river, so the possibility of the river overflowing is much greater.

The second function of an area like this is that it also doesn’t allow for erosion, which would make the riverbed shallower and, with that, overflow more easily.

It’s fundamental to rebuild natural areas and implement soil and water conservation measures, such as restoring riparian forests and permanent preservation areas.

Moreover, urban and rural planning policies must be revised to ensure adequate land use and avoid disordered growth that increases vulnerability to extreme climate events. We have aggressed nature, but we have aggressed nature that helped us prevent these events. We need to put it back there.

Based on your experience, what are the main lessons that can be learned from this tragedy to improve Brazil’s overall preparation and disaster risk reduction strategies, especially in vulnerable regions like Rio Grande do Sul?

The first fundamental lesson to understand is that solutions for the climate agenda are state solutions. It’s the Brazilian state and its rulers who will provide relief when this type of situation occurs and who will organize an adaptation agenda in Brazil. It’s the Brazilian state who will also organize regulation through investment laws, what will be done where, and what will regulate Brazil’s contribution to cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s very important for governments to move and understand the gravity of the situation. It’s also clear that all this environmental massacre, which has historically been done in the country, increased a lot during the Bolsonaro presidency, but also the National Congress has historically attacked environmental legislation to deregulate, remove rules, and weaken legislation – and so much attack on legislation reaches a point of consequence. This leads to discouraging people from following environmental legislation.

The aftermath of the flooding, Residents throw away what the flood destroyed in São Leopoldo, Rio Grande do Sul. Photo: Thales Renato / Midia NINJA

Moreover, you encourage those who want to do wrong because they don’t believe in the law and know they will be forgiven or won’t be punished while discouraging those who want to do it correctly. This consistent destruction of legislation and passing the wrong message will increase deforestation and occupation of areas more intensely.

It’s a really difficult situation. We won’t be able to count on everyone, but we need to count on the majority. It’s not possible for an event of this magnitude, which killed so many people, not to change the behavior of politicians. If it doesn’t change their behavior, we’ll have to change the current politicians so that they take seriously what is a serious agenda. We know that not everyone will have this transformation; some who deny climate change today denied the pandemic just over a year ago, so they are deniers. But denialism kills, and that’s the big lesson.

The big difference between the climate and a pandemic is that a pandemic will eventually end because we can control the virus. Climate change, unfortunately, is a reality we’ll have to live with for many generations. So, denying the problem means more deaths that we could avoid by taking responsible actions.

Devastating Floods Ravage Rio Grande do Sul: How You Can Help

In the wake of the catastrophic floods that have swept through Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake, the Observatório do Clima has taken action to provide aid and support to the affected communities.

The organization has compiled a list of trusted institutions that are currently accepting donations to assist the flood victims. For those residing in Europe or the United States, the opportunity to contribute to this vital cause has been made available through the following banking channels:

Euro Zone
Bank: Standard Chartered
IBAN: BR5392702067001000645423206C1
Account Number: 007358304

US Dollar Zone
Bank: Standard Chartered
New York
Swift Code: SCBLUS33
IBAN: BR5392702067001000645423206C1
Account Number: 3544032986001

When making your donation, please be sure to include the following information:
Beneficiary Name: Associação dos Bancos no Estado do Rio Grande do Sul
CNPJ (Tax ID): 92.958.800/0001-38

Marcio Astrini
Executive secretary of the Observatório do Clima [Climate Observatory]
Raphael Tsavkko Garcia
Managing Editor at REVOLVE

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