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Climate negligence is destroying entire cities in Brazil

May was a month of sadness and dismay in Brazil. The extreme rains left two-thirds of the state of Rio Grande do Sul, which has a territory larger than that of the United Kingdom, under water.

To date, 161 people have died and 81 are missing due to floods caused by the unprecedented flooding of rivers and lakes in this state in southern Brazil, bordering Argentina and Uruguay. Almost 600,000 people lost their homes and more than 80,000 had to be rescued from rooftops, on boats or in security force helicopters.

In addition, more than 12,000 pets had to be saved from death by rescue teams, including a horse that became stranded on a roof and became a symbol of the surreal impact of a tragedy like this.

The images and testimonies of those affected are heartbreaking. At 350.org, we also had employees and partners personally affected by disasters. An indigenous leader who two years ago played a fundamental role in the fight to end a coal mine project in the region and thus helped prevent the environmental degradation of a huge area, she lost her house and saw the neighborhood of it destroyed. An independent colleague from the Communications area had to hastily leave her apartment, on the first floor of a building in the state capital, because the level of water accumulated in the street rose so quickly that it reached the height of her doors and windows. Fortunately, our two friends are safe, but the scare and damage caused to them (and the hundreds of thousands of people affected) will last a long time.

The individual effects of the tragedy are also reflected on a collective scale, and the economic impacts will be felt not only at the state level but at the national level. One of the country’s leading financial analysis companies, MB Associados, estimates that the disaster will reduce Brazilian GDP growth by up to 0.5 percentage points in 2024, due to the massive destruction of infrastructure and the loss of goods and services in Rio Grande. do Sul. The company’s analysts say that a climate event has never caused so much economic damage in Brazil.

And it’s worth remembering that, as is often the case in times of great collective loss, poor Black and Indigenous communities and families were disproportionately harmed. Environmental racism and climate injustice have once again become clear.

What caused such a disaster?

Such a destructive event was only possible due to a combination of several factors, including the relaxation of environmental protection legislation in the state and the lack of maintenance on river water containment structures. Not to mention long-term structural causes, such as the waterproofing of soil in cities and the lack of a housing policy that provides housing in safe areas for everyone.

Additionally, a consensus among climate experts who analyzed this case is that rainfall over the state was strangely concentrated. The cities of the region recorded a volume of rainfall up to ten times greater than the historical average for the period.

A ClimaMeter “rapid attribution study” – research by scientists to identify what caused such heavy rains – showed that the climate crisis made the rainfall that caused the deadly floods 15% worse. The researchers responsible for the evaluation, led by the University of Paris-Saclay, even pointed out that El Niño, a natural climate phenomenon that usually worsens precipitation in this region of Brazil, is not enough to explain the amount of rain that was formed. What they say is that the climate crisis played a prominent role in this catastrophe.

Given that the main cause of the global climate crisis is the burning of oil, gas and coal, it is evident that the current destruction of Rio Grande do Sul bears the imprint of fossil fuels, like so many other recent disasters around the world.

Can we avoid new traumas?

The trauma, lives lost and suffering caused will never be fully repaired, and what can be rebuilt (buildings, bridges, hospitals) will take months or years to function as before. Infrastructure experts predict that recovery could take ten years or more.

To get an idea of ​​the magnitude of the task, the state government predicts that entire cities will need to be moved from their existing locations to rebuild them in safer areas.

Woman works at a donation triage center for families affected by floods in Rio Grande do Suyl, Brazil.  Credit: Rafa Neddermeyer/Agência Brasil

Woman at a donation center for families affected by floods in Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil. Credit: Rafa Neddermeyer/Agência Brasil

The costs of this reconstruction are staggering. The Brazilian government has already allocated $11 billion to help the state, but economic consulting firm BRCG predicts that the spending need could easily reach $21 billion.

And since much of the state will unfortunately need to be rebuilt, what can we do better this time? What lessons can we learn and put into practice? From the point of view of 350.org, at least three aspects stand out:

  1. Rio Grande do Sul – At the local level, governments urgently need to put in place mechanisms to build public policies in conjunction with communities affected and potentially affected by climate events. In short, municipal and state governments must listen to people and respect their needs when rebuilding what has been destroyed. Furthermore, it will be necessary to consider that the climate crisis has established a new “normal” for the climate, full of extreme events, which requires serious investment in climate adaptation.
  2. Brazil – At the national level, the tragedy on its own territory makes it even more evident that Brazil needs to take advantage of its temporary leadership role in the G20 (group of the 20 largest countries and economies in the world), in 2024, and host of COP30 (the conference of the UN climate committee), in 2025, to promote a more ambitious agenda for the global climate. We need much stronger national emissions reduction targets (NDCs), as well as a concrete global commitment to finance the energy transition, with resources flowing from richer to poorer countries. Brazil demands it and has the opportunity to sign effective commitments in this regard. Furthermore, it needs to show leadership, declaring the Amazon an area free of fossil fuel exploration and taking real energy transition measures in the country seriously.
  3. Other countries – All governments must accelerate their just energy transition policies and reduction of deforestation, especially those in rich countries, since they are mainly responsible for the climate crisis. For this to happen, the world needs to allocate large volumes of resources and implement effective ways for the richest to finance the transition in the poorest communities. If we direct the subsidies that currently support the fossil fuel sector towards renewable energy and tax the wealthy to finance adaptation and mitigation measures for the climate crisis, this change is possible.

Ultimately, this Brazilian tragedy shows us that in times of climate crisis, extreme events are taking on a previously unknown strength. It also confirms that acting to prevent the large-scale disasters brought about by the climate crisis is much easier and cheaper than remedying the situation when these tragedies occur. Most importantly, we can save lives and avoid enormous suffering if we act now.

The trailer for this dystopian film was already difficult to watch. The entire movie won’t be edible, but we still have a chance to move on to a better shoot.

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