The climate decade: fire, water and the age of extremes
After the euphoria and good wishes of New Year's Eve, the first months of 2020 came as a trailer of what awaits us in the coming years. The fires in Australia shocked the international community in January: more than 11.7 million hectares of land were burned, killing 33 people and about 1 billion animals since they started. Unlike the Amazon, located in the wettest area of the planet, Australia is in an area where long periods of drought are normal. At this time, forest fires are expected due to heat and drought, an important phenomenon for the renewal of biomass in Australian vegetation. After the dry period, rains usually close the burning process naturally and life follows its cycle.
This year, however, the drought and intense heat extended beyond normal, resulting in an atypical burning season that left behind unprecedented devastation: an area almost the size of England was destroyed by fire, with flames reaching 12m in height, 6 times greater than the flames of the fires in the Amazon last year. Although the fires in Australia were not caused directly by humans, as was the case with the fires in the Amazon, the magnitude of the impact is a consequence of a phenomenon caused by human activity: climate change.
If climate change intensifies existing natural processes, such as the fires in Australia, in February Brazil saw the other side of that coin. In the case of the storms that hit São Paulo and Belo Horizonte recently, a combination of factors reinforced the impact of these phenomena, which will be increasingly common and more extreme. In addition to the impact of global climate change, human intervention in the Brazilian metropolises, through the intensive use of concrete and the verticalization of buildings, results in the formation of heat islands. The heat absorbed by the concrete is transported into the air and remains close to the surface, since the verticalization hinders air circulation and heat dissipation. As a result, damp winds that once passed over cities now precipitate - sometimes with violence - over these urban areas due to the concentration of heat.
In addition to storms such as those of recent days becoming more common and intense, their effects tend to become increasingly devastating. The historical channeling of water courses, both surface and underground, as well as soil sealing and the occupation of water source areas, are among the critical factors that make large urban agglomerations such as São Paulo and Belo Horizonte so vulnerable to these events.
Another aggravating factor is the fact that storms impact rich and poor populations in these cities in different ways, as was brilliantly and poetically exemplified by the film Parasita, the big Oscar winner this year. Although noble neighborhoods have also been severely hit, causing millionaire losses, it is the peripheral areas and populations that have suffered the most. While for the wealthier classes the torrential rains are a setback, the periphery suffers from loss of life and uninsured property. As for the occupation of the spring areas, the issue is even more delicate because, in addition to being floodplain areas, vulnerable to flooding, their occupation hinders the penetration of rainwater, further potentiating the floods.
It is expected that events like these will be more common and more intense because of the climate crisis. What can we do in this scenario? The first step is to stop denying the problem, as the presidents of Australia and Brazil still do and implement mitigation measures to prevent these events from becoming even more common. At the same time, adaptation plans must be drawn up to make cities more resilient and, consequently, the damage of these smaller phenomena.
The mitigation of heat islands must combine a change in land use and adaptation of buildings. The implementation of vertical gardens and green roofs, for example, are simple solutions that can minimize urban impacts. Verticalization, however, is a more complex problem that cannot be mitigated so easily. We can, however, include limitations on the construction of very tall buildings in urban zoning policies and master plans as a measure to slow the intensification of the problem. The occupation of fountain areas is also complex, largely irregular, and a reflection of real estate speculation. Mitigation of this problem includes enforcement to prevent new irregular occupations, but also the development of effective policies for access to housing.
Soil sealing, in turn, can be mitigated by replacing asphalt on certain roads with the old paving or interlocked floor. In other words, alternatives that often already exist and are cheap, allowing water to penetrate the soil, supplying the groundwater and avoiding disorderly runoff, responsible for floods and diseases. Finally, a neglected component of adaptation to climate change is the professional training of young people in order to prepare them with the necessary skills in the transition to more sustainable and resilient societies. Thus, our goal through Youth Climate Leaders is to train young people and connect them with professional opportunities in the area, facing two of the main challenges highlighted by the World Economic Forum for the 1920s: the climate crisis and unemployment.
Like the series Game of Thrones, the movie Parasita and other blockbusters, the climate crisis is a narrative based on extreme, opposite and extraordinary events. Many waters will roll over, and phenomena like Australia's forest fires can also occur in Brazilian territory, as hard as it is to conceive these scenarios while.
We are still recovering from the rains. Although fires of this type are more likely in the Cerrado, a biome with characteristics and climate dynamics similar to those in Australia, criminal fires in the Amazon intensify the risks by reducing the amount of humidity transported to other regions of the country. In the game of climate, cause and consequence are mixed and bluffing is no longer an option.
*Cassia Moraes holds a Masters Degree in Public Administration and Development from Columbia University, CEO of Youth Climate Leaders (YCL) and Network and Fundraising Coordinator at Centro Brasil no Clima.
*André de Castro dos Santos is a researcher, PhD in Climate Change and Sustainable Development Policy from the University of Lisbon and Environmental Law from the University of São Paulo.