The gathering storm

Leo Sakamoto laments the dawn of the climate era – and worries for the fate of the most vulnerable.


Credit: WikiCommons

In December 2021, storms killed at least 26 Brazilians in southern Bahia state and left nearly 100,000 people displaced or homeless. This is the kind of extreme weather event that environmental activists and scientists have in mind when they speak about climate change.

Other regions of my giant country were affected by a lack of water. Large sandstorms engulfed towns in the state of São Paulo, where the dry winds whipped up the soil left bare since native vegetation was cleared for agriculture.

Year after year, the government justify the tragedies caused by the rains in Brazil by claiming that they were simply ‘above average’. But the graphs charting the curve of rainfall from decades ago are no longer a reliable reference. While it rains more in some regions, it rains less in others.

Extreme rains and drought do occur even without global warming. But the difference now is that, with climate change, their frequency increases: from every decade to annual events. Everyone is affected but the people who lose their lives are those who inhabit the poorest and most vulnerable places.

What many have been calling ‘hell’ around here is just a taste of Brazil’s new normal

Some of these deaths could be avoided – if public authorities would stop seeing climate change as a remote hypothesis and start urgently adapting Brazil to this new reality.

The government needs to build decent, affordable housing and adopt effective early-warning measures for storms. Instead, we have seen federal government and its supporters in Congress rushing to bring in laws that make life easier for business, not vulnerable people.

Ricardo Salles, the controversial Environment Minister who served until June last year, was nothing if not pragmatic. He recommended to President Jair Bolsonaro, in a meeting on 22 April 2020, that the government take advantage of the media’s focus on Covid-19 deaths to undermine rules and regulations designed to protect nature.

What many have been calling ‘hell’ around here is just a taste of Brazil’s new normal. And now – as a result of lack of effective measures taken by governments to reduce carbon emissions, as we saw in the ‘blah blah blah’ of the COP26 climate meeting in Glasgow (to quote Greta Thunberg) – more is right around the corner.

In fact, Brazil was one of the stars of COP26. But there is a yawning abyss between our stated grandiose goals and the daily practice of destroying our precious ecosystems.

The Amazon rainforest, Cerrado grasslands, Pantanal wetlands and Atlantic forest biomes are being gravely damaged by the dismantling of law enforcement and the advance of projects that make indigenous populations vulnerable, facilitate the theft of public lands and cause environmental destruction.

In the coming decades, we will see environmental refugees. Productive farms will turn into desert, raising the threat of famine and conflict over water and arable land. I fear that many people will die in Brazil and across the world as the planet becomes more inhospitable.

Every year, we see an updated list of animals at risk of extinction in Brazil as a result of human action. Our species, however, will survive – at least the richest, who will buy their protection, for a time. And what will be the fate of the poorest? Will they be left to drown, all the while believing it’s God’s will, like the people in Southern Bahia?