Water goes, water comes

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By JEAN MARC VON DER WEID*

Conventional media fails to point out the deeper causes of climate phenomena

Floods in Rio Grande do Sul are nothing new. In the 40s of the last century there was an overwhelming flood, a record that remained until that of a few days ago. What is new is the frequency of the event: last year there were two more major floods, interspersed with a heavy drought. It was a kind of preview of the current catastrophe, the proportions of which are indeed the great new fact.

Much has already been said about the combination of climatic factors that generated atypical rainfall, concentrated in a few hours and days, exceeding the drainage capacity of rivers, lakes and ponds. On the other hand, several articles pointed to the lack of maintenance in the flood control infrastructures set up and added to since the 40s and which collapsed under the pressure of the waters. And the position of the government of Rio Grande do Sul was widely denounced, disfiguring environmental legislation and facilitating the elimination of riparian forests for the benefit of agribusiness (among other absurdities).

What does it take for public opinion to wake up? In my opinion, the mainstream media has treated these events correctly (to a certain extent), pointing to global warming as the driver of climate change and catastrophes, in addition to the responsibilities of different levels of government. Denialism is a rarity in newspapers and television, but it prevails on social media. Where the conventional media fails is in not pointing out the deeper causes of climate phenomena. Global warming is to blame, and this is caused by the burning of fossil fuels. But the explanation stops there.

On the other hand, important economic actors whose actions are at the origin of catastrophes solemnly ignore their criminal role and this is reflected in politics, since elected officials at all levels very often have some “tail tied” with powerful lobbies who finance their campaigns.

The best example of this open or disguised denialism is the agribusiness community and its ruralist group in Congress and in numerous Legislative Assemblies and City Councils, as well as representatives in state governments and city halls. For these economic and political actors, the shouting in the conventional media has no effect whatsoever.

They continue, undaunted, to devastate the environment with deforestation and fires, legalizing the occupation of riparian forests and hillsides, polluting lands and waters with increasingly dangerous pesticides, eliminating biodiversity, destroying soils, expanding arid and semi-arid areas, to name a few. just some of the perverse effects of the relationship between agribusiness and nature. More than 20 bills are being rapidly processed in Congress and each of them has effects that favor global warming.

Anyone who thinks this is a case of ignorance is dreaming. If this were the case, an information and education effort could overcome the lack of awareness, at least for a good part of this public. Unfortunately, the essential factor is something else: it's called greed (greed, in English). More money can be made more quickly by adopting a model that is destructive to the environment and the planet. What matters is maximum short-term profit.

Many of these ruralists are aware of the problems they cause, but expect others to make the effort to prevent them from worsening, while pocketing huge profits from their destructive practices. If environmental impacts make production difficult, agribusiness will first hand over the losses to the government on duty, which will pay for it, as everyone has done in the last 50 years, if not since the arrival of Pedro Álvares Cabral. When things get worse, they will abandon the devastation they have caused and live off fat incomes somewhere on the planet that is not at great risk.

The bad news is that you won't be able to go to Miami anymore, as this mecca for Brazilian rentiers is on track to be flooded by rising sea levels in the middle of this century. The oases of the rich will become increasingly smaller as the planet's average temperature rises, but the money will allow them to extend their good life for longer than the 90 to 99% of the population. More than half of these less well-off people around the world already have a life full of basic needs, which make it shorter. Even in cataclysm, class differences remain.

If convincing economic agents of the catastrophic impacts of their businesses is a pipe dream, how can you get them to stop acting as they do? It is the role of the State to guarantee the present and future of citizens and history shows that advances in controlling the impacts of capitalism, when they occur, are the result of restrictive public measures with severe punishments for offenders. But capitalism is not dominant by chance and these controls (specific, localized and temporary) have never been able to stop the catastrophe that is already affecting us all over the world. They were not even able to limit the acceleration of the ongoing environmental tsunami.

Once again, this is not pure ignorance or denialism among politicians across the planet, although there are many Bolsonaros, Trumps and Mileis out there. Presidents of the United States have already been enlightened by scientific studies and even think thanks military officials pointing to many of the growing risks at least since Jimmy Carter's presidency. But the pressures of lobbies interested in maintaining the status quo prevailed, along with voters' reaction to each threat to the destructive “American way of life”. Obama went further than all his predecessors and successors, at least in his speeches in his last years in government, 2015 and 2016. Barack Obama bet on playing his last political chips at the Paris COP, which celebrated an apparent success in reaching an agreement to contain global warming to 1,5º C by 2050.

Unfortunately, the IPCC report that served as the basis for the debates in Paris, released in 2013, was already out of date with the latest developments in the climate crisis and this warming limit could already be considered exceeded. The first months of 2024 saw this index, predicted for mid-century, beaten several times, although not yet at the annual average. This record, annualized, should be broken and surpassed this year or next. Now the bet is to prevent warming above 2º C by mid-century, but the speed with which the previous index was beaten does not promise success in this endeavor.

Barack Obama was immediately disavowed by his successor, the nefarious Donald Trump, who withdrew from the Paris agreement (Joe Biden subsequently returned to it). Other presidents have tried to apply some measures to restrict the use of fossil fuels, as was the case of Emmanuel Macron, in France, who was subjected to strong pressure from drivers (the famous yellow vests), professional or not, and was forced to back down.

The oil industry, despite prophesying the “end of the oil era” soon, is showing itself willing to push for the use of fossil fuels “to the last drop”, ensuring huge profits with the expected high prices. And the oil companies have the support of all the governments of the most important countries, which spent a whopping seven trillion dollars annually on subsidies and tax exemptions to keep prices accessible to users of all types. All expenses aimed at the so-called green economy are a minimum fraction of this amount.

In other words, between “responsible” (or irresponsible) politicians and powerful economic agents, we are in full “business as usual” (more of the same) in terms of containing (or rather expanding) greenhouse gas emissions.

And the general public? We can classify it into several types: (i) Religious deniers: those who believe that climate catastrophes happen as divine punishment for sins committed. (ii) Liberal deniers: those who believe that the “narrative” of global warming is a communist deception to prevent the free functioning of the market. (iii) Left-wing nationalist denialists: those who believe that global warming is a creation of imperialism to impede the progress of developing countries.

(iv) Defenders of relative control of GHG emissions (a variant of the previous category): these are those who demand the freedom to continue emitting GHGs in developing countries and demand from advanced capitalist countries the necessary effort to limit global warming. Something like: “you have already polluted and heated the world to develop so that now the burden of emission control measures must fall on you”. In other words, this is the team that defends the “historic” right to heat the planet. (v) Defenders of policies to control GHG emissions, as long as they do not affect the way of life they have adopted.

This last category is very numerous and politically influential. They are those who do not accept stopping using their private cars as a means of transport, eating picanha until they regurgitate and consuming without restrictions all the comforts, necessary or not, offered by the market. They are the ones who struggle every time fuel prices rise, an essential measure to strengthen the path to fuel replacement.

In Brazil we have a very negative combination of these categories, starting with those responsible for politics.

Lula was elected with a strong speech against deforestation and positioned himself as an environmentalist champion at the COP in Sharm-el Sheik, Egypt, in 2022, shortly after his election, rubbing Jair Bolsonaro's nose in photochart. Lula promised to eliminate deforestation in all biomes in Brazil during his government. He did not, however, say a word about reducing the use of fossil fuels. Once in government, Lula began to fight for the expansion of oil exploration, control of fuel prices and Petrobras' investments in refining. With this stance, Lula placed himself in category (iv) of our typology.

The promise to “eliminate deforestation in all biomes in Brazil” was restricted to the Amazon, in 2023. But even in this biome we have to note that the level of deforestation under Jair Bolsonaro's government was so high that the 60% drop in The index still remained higher than in the Dilma years. And, on the other hand, rates in the Cerrado doubled and increased (in smaller percentages) in all other biomes. Finally, even in the Amazon, fires were record high in 2023, greatly increasing our contribution to the warming of the planet.

It is true that we contribute little to emissions from the use of fossil fuels, but emissions from deforestation and burning take us to fifth place among the largest GHG emitters. We are behind only the United States, China, Russia and the European Union (as a group).

In relation to deforestation/burnings, the government maintains an ambiguous attitude, with a discourse contrary to the destructive practices of agribusiness, but without robust measures necessary to contain them. Worse still, the government sent a sympathetic message to deforesters by rejecting a letter from the European Union announcing the decision not to import any agricultural products from deforested areas.

The curious thing is that this discussion took place within the framework of the negotiations on the European Union/Mercosur agreement, although the European decision is not subordinated to this understanding and is part of a vote by the European parliament that has been ratified by almost all national parliaments. Even more curious is the fact that the agreement contains extremely negative clauses for us and our neighbors (which deserved to be repudiated), but the reaction was based on the letter threatening deforesters, in the interest of beef exporting agribusiness.

The Brazilian public has shown solidarity with the victims of the Rio Grande do Sul catastrophe, more than in previous events. It remains to be seen whether each person's lifestyle habits are understood as part of the causes of the disaster. And if everyone would be willing to change their lives to save the planet for our children and grandchildren.

It is clear that there is a very important responsibility of the government to reduce GHG emissions due to the use of fuels. People will only abandon individual private transport (cars) to use public transport when appropriate State policies create quality public transport (subways, buses, trains, ferries) and inhibit the use of private cars except for essential activities . That's not what we're seeing. On the contrary, the automotive industry is invested in or subsidized and public transport is ignored. The mode of freight transport continues to be based on trucks, which is not only very polluting and generates GHG, but also expensive, compared to other forms, predominant in developed countries.

The path ahead – if we want to do our part in defending the future of the planet – will be arduous and perhaps too late.

*Jean Marc von der Weid is a former president of the UNE (1969-71). Founder of the non-governmental organization Family Agriculture and Agroecology (ASTA).


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