The climate crisis has well and truly arrived in southern Brazil. As the planet heats up, catastrophic floods have become commonplace and are occurring almost a decade earlier than scientists predicted.

Over the past month and a half, the state of Rio Grande do Sul, the size of the U.K. and home to 11 million people, has been devastated by one of the worst environmental tragedies in Brazilian history.

To date, floods have left 172 people dead and 41 missing in Brazil’s southernmost state. More than 615,000 people have been forced to flee their homes, and it remains unclear how many will ever be able to return.

Less than a year ago, the state saw historic floods that devastated cities and caused dozens of deaths. But this year’s deluge was unprecedented, affecting 476 of the state’s 497 cities. Scientists say the climate crisis made the disaster twice as likely.

In this unprecedented context, the eyes of the Global South are on Brazilian climate policy. Brazil will host the COP30 climate summit in 2025, and it is hosting the G20 meetings as well as holding the group’s rotating presidency this year.

So, how will Brazil adapt to a future of increasingly destructive climate disasters – and what lessons can it teach the rest of the world through its policies?

The devastation in Canoas, Rio Grande do Sul. Gustavo Mansur / Palácio Piratini, Flickr

How is Brazil adapting to the climate crisis?

“The way forward is adaptation: we can’t think these disasters won’t happen again,” says Marcelo Dutra da Silva, a professor of ecology at the Federal University of Rio Grande (FURG).

He believes entire cities will have to be relocated – but that process won’t happen overnight.

“But it’s essential to start making changes now,” he says, emphasizing that initial changes must be incorporated into each affected city’s Master Plan (Plano Diretor).

A Master Plan is a piece of legislation in each municipality that guides urban development. It encompasses land use and the preservation of heritage and the environment and provides appropriate guidelines on construction sites.

“The resources allocated to reconstruction need to be linked to a new strategy to rebuild  the cities that were affected,” says Dutra.

“We can’t miss the opportunity presented by this reconstruction. Cities must begin to move to safer areas. We need to allocate more budget to prevention, as it’s a minimal investment compared to the cost of recovery.”

According to a 2019 report by the National Institute of Building Sciences, every dollar invested in disaster prevention can save USD 11 in recovery costs.

But Brazil has still only invested minimally in adaptation and prevention. A report published this year by Folha de São Paulo, one of the country’s leading newspapers, revealed that only 3 percent of the federal budget for disaster management had been allocated towards prevention.

The country invested just BRL 36 million (USD 6.8 million) in disaster prevention, compared to BRL 1.05 billion (USD 200 million) spent on dealing with the consequences.

Flood rescue
A rescue crew evacuates local residents by helicopter in Greater Porto Alegre. Lauro Alves/SECOM, Flickr

Climate adaptation must be participatory

“Adaptation is a process, but it’s important for people to understand that it has to reflect a new climate reality,” explains Natalie Unterstell, president of the Instituto Talanoa.

Climate adaptation involves measures for resilience, infrastructure, new construction and urban replanning.

Unterstell says it’s crucial to ensure affected communities and individuals play an active role in climate adaptation.

This means recognizing that the effects of the climate crisis disproportionately impact vulnerable groups such as Indigenous Peoples, Quilombolas, people of color, women, children and residents of urban peripheries and rural areas.

When people are forced to leave their homes, for example, it’s even more important that those affected are protagonists in their own adaptation.

“Non-adaptation itself is also a climate injustice,” says Unterstell. “Failing to enable and provide adaptation is a problem.”

In Rio Grande do Sul, Dutra suggests designing cities that absorb water rather than obstruct drainage and water flow. This process would require cooperation among the three levels of government in Brazil – municipal, state and federal – as well as involving the private sector, which must commit to addressing environmental issues.

Porto Alegre flooding
The city center of Porto Alegre underwater. Gustavo Mansur/ Palácio Piratini, Flickr

The Federation of Industries of the State of Rio Grande do Sul estimates that nine out of 10 industries in the state were directly affected by the floods, suffering losses in machinery and infrastructure.

According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE in Portuguese), the state’s industry contributes 6.1 percent of Brazil’s GDP. It predicts that the floods will hinder the country’s economic growth this year.

For Stela Herschmann, a climate policy specialist at the Observatório do Clima, it’s crucial to implement adaptation policies that consider the holistic management of cities.

“The federal budget must be planned with climate change as a premise,” she says. “Infrastructure projects can no longer be planned for a climate that no longer exists.”

Herschmann raises the example of the Growth Acceleration Program (Programa de Aceleração de Crescimento), a Brazilian program that invested roughly BRL 1.7 trillion (USD 327 billion) in infrastructure to promote economic growth in 2023.

“A very small percentage was allocated to ensuring that cities are resilient,” she points out. “We need to think of an entire resilient program. Any infrastructure must be consistent with a climate change scenario.”

Brazilian political leaders are already working to involve civil society in their adaptation plans. Marina Silva, the country’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change, addressed the floods during an initial consultation meeting with civil society organizations for the development of a climate adaptation plan in May.

“The adaptation agenda is strategic,” she said. “What were considered extreme events in the ‘old normal’ will likely be the new normal, and we don’t yet know what the extremes will be. We must be prepared and adapted but also move on with the mitigation agenda.”

“Civil society and the scientific community have already done their part,” Silva added. “Those who haven’t yet are governments and companies.”

Lula at COP28
Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva speaks at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP28) in Dubai in December 2023. UNclimatechange, Flickr

Global South countries struggle for funding

Globally, the biggest challenge faced by Global South countries is obtaining financing for climate adaptation.

On multiple occasions, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has called on rich countries to deliver on their pledge to provide USD 100 billion in annual climate finance. This commitment was made at COP15 in 2009 and reaffirmed six years later by the Paris Agreement but has only recently been met.

One of the main demands from civil society in terms of sustainable finance is to increase funding for adaptation rather than mitigation measures alone.

Herschmann says some activists are calling for adaptation finance to be doubled so that resources can be more evenly divided between mitigation and adaptation.

There has been progress in this arena in the form of the Loss and Damage Fund, announced at COP28 last year. But no funds have yet been distributed to vulnerable countries, and the fund has only raised a total of USD 660 million to date – falling far short of meeting the needs of affected communities.

Herschmann believes the main limitation of climate financing is that there will never be enough resources to repair, adapt and mitigate all aspects of the climate crisis, even with international support.

“The fund will never cover everything. We need money to repair and assist countries, but we will always have less money than the impacts of climate change.

“So, the closer we can stay to the 1.5-degree target, the better.”

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