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The climate decade: fire, water and the era of extremes

Updated: Oct 18, 2020

By Cassia Moraes and André de Castro dos Santos

Sopala, R. A copyright free image by of 2019 Amazon fires.

After the New Year's euphoria full of wishes for prosperity, 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 one of the wettest areas on ​​the planet, Australia is in an area in which long periods of drought are normal. Forest fires are expected due to heat and drought, an important phenomenon for the biomass renewal of Australian vegetation. After the dry period, rains come to naturally end the burning and life follows its cycle. This year, however, drought and intense heat extended well beyond normal, resulting in an atypical burning season, which left behind unprecedented devastation: an area almost the size of England was destroyed by fire, with flames reaching 12m tall, 6x bigger than the flames of fires in the Amazon last year. Although most of the fires in Australia were not caused directly by humans, as was the case of fires in the Amazon Rainforest, the magnitude of the impact is a consequence of a phenomenon caused by human activity: climate change.

Climate change intensifies existing natural processes, such as fires in Australia. The flip side of this coin has unfolded this February in Brazil with severe storms in the southeast of the country impacting São Paulo and Belo Horizonte. A combination of factors has reinforced the impact of these phenomena, which scientists warn will become increasingly common and more extreme. Human intervention continues to undermine natural processes exacerbating the impacts of global climate change. In Brazilian metropolises, intense use of concrete and vertical construction has resulted in the formation of heat islands. The heat absorbed by the concrete is transported to the air and concentrated close to the surface since verticalization impairs air circulation and heat dissipation. For this reason, humid winds that used to pass over cities, now, precipitate - at times violently - over these urban areas, due to the concentration of heat. Storms, such as those over the past few days, are becoming more common and intense with increasingly devastating effects. The historic channeling of waterways, both surface and underground, as well as soil waterproofing and 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 have a different impact on rich and poor populations in these cities, as was brilliantly and poetically exemplified for the film Parasite, a big Oscar winner this year. Although upscale neighborhoods also have been impacted, causing multi-million losses, the areas and peripheral populations are the most affected. While for the more affluent classes the torrential rains are a setback, the effects on the periphery are devastating suffering loss of life and destroyed uninsured property.

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 the norm. At the same time, adaptation should be designed to make cities more resilient and, consequently, reduce the damage of these phenomena. The mitigation of heat islands must combine a change in land use and modification of existing buildings. The implementation of vertical gardens and green ceilings, 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 source 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 moreover the elaboration of effective policies for access to housing. Soil waterproofing, in turn, can be mitigated by replacing asphalt in determined by the old cobblestone or the interlocking floor. That is, inexpensive alternatives often already exist that allow water to penetrate the soil, supplying groundwater and avoiding a disordered runoff, responsible for floods and diseases. Youth: a possible solution to tackle climate change

Finally, a neglected component of change adaptation in the face of the climate crisis is the professional training of young people in order to prepare them with the skills needed in the transition to more sustainable and resilient societies. In this way, 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 decade: the climate crisis and unemployment.

Like Game of Thrones, Parasite, and other blockbusters, the climate crisis is a narrative based on extremes, opposites, and extraordinary events. However difficult it is to fully grasp these calamities as we continue to struggle with the destruction from the floods and heavy rains. Many more instances will occur, waters will flow faster and phenomena such as Australia's forest fires will occur around the world. , While in Brazil fires of this type are sure to escalate in the Cerrado, a biome with characteristics and climatic dynamics similar to those of Australia, we must recognize the unnatural fires in the Amazon that intensify risks by significantly decreasing the amount of moisture transported to other regions of the country. In the climate game, cause and consequence mix and bluff is no longer an option.

Cassia Moraes has a Master in Public Administration and Development from the University of Columbia, CEO of Youth Climate Leaders (YCL) and Network and Funding Coordinator at Brazil in the Climate Center.

André de Castro dos Santos is a researcher with a Ph.D. in Climate and Political ChangeSustainable Development by the University of Lisbon and in Environmental Law by theUniversity of Sao Paulo.

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