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The three emergencies facing our society: health, biodiversity and climate change


Our society is simultaneously living with three major emergencies: 1) the health crisis; 2) the biodiversity loss crisis; and 3) the climate crisis. It should be noted that these crises have deep connections with each other, and important differences, but all cause strong social and economic impacts and affect our planet globally.

Among the most relevant common points is a model of economic development that is guided by the greatest profit in the shortest period of time, regardless of future consequences. Another important common point is that, in the three crises, in general, governments go against the recommendations of science. For more than two decades, science has suggested that a pandemic like Covid-19 could arrive and affect our society with heavy socioeconomic damage. Science has also been warning about the risk of climate change, since long before the Rio-92 Conference, mainly about the risks that the loss of biodiversity causes in many areas of life on the planet. There are thousands of viruses unknown to science that are still in balance in flora and fauna. However, with the continuation of the loss of tropical forests through deforestation, it is only a matter of time for a new virus to migrate from the Amazon to other regions, with enormous damage, such as those caused by Sars-CoV-2.

Among the important differences in the three crises is the temporal issue: while the health crisis associated with Sars-CoV-2 can last about two years, the impact of climate change can last for centuries, the loss of biodiversity is forever. There is no possible lockdown as applied in the Covid-19 pandemic, in the climate and biodiversity crises.

It is important to note that climate change has strong links with the loss of biodiversity that we observe in virtually all terrestrial, aquatic and marine ecosystems (IPBES 2019). The resilience of ecosystems and their ability to react to change largely depend on their biodiversity. The changes observed in the rate of precipitation and its seasonality, and in the increase in temperature, are affecting the functioning of ecosystems. Climate change affects ecosystem patterns of photosynthesis and productivity, and may modify hydrological cycles and carbon dynamics in terrestrial and marine ecosystems.

The functioning of our ecosystems is being strongly affected by climate changes, not only at the global level, but also regionally and even locally. In tropical forests, increased biomass production, tree mortality, changes in species distribution and abundance, and fires are among the changes related to increased atmospheric CO2. Considering the synergistic effects of land use change, deforestation and the high degree of fragmentation and degradation of most Brazilian biomes, the vulnerability of our biota and ecosystems increases, threatening biodiversity and associated ecosystem services.

Such is the dimension of the changes determined by human action on the planet, that the scientific community considers this as a new geological era, the Anthropocene, which is profoundly altering our relationship with nature. It is essential, therefore, that we develop a science that contributes to achieving a sustainable society over the coming decades, reconciling environmental preservation with economic development and social justice.

Brazil is a signatory to the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (Agenda 2030, UN Brazil) and its scientific community has contributed strongly to scientific advances capable of guiding the spheres of public policies and socioeconomic development strategies, as well as to guide decision makers regarding the sustainable development of the country. Brazil needs to face the challenges imposed by climate and environmental change, which go through the establishment of metrics and references, in order to contribute to the formulation of regional and national strategies for detection/attribution, mitigation and adaptation to its effects. Meeting the SDGs and the goals of the Paris Agreement is an important step towards sustainability, but it is not enough. We have a long way to go to build a new society that is minimally sustainable.

The growth of the world's human population, which could reach between 9 and 10 billion people in 2050, places us before one of the greatest global challenges of the 2019st century. The IPBES 50 report shows that, in the last 14 years, 18 of the 2019 environmental services evaluated have declined and that their impacts are socially unevenly distributed between and within countries (IPBES XNUMX). Increased demand and pressure on already scarce natural resources will be inevitable, as well as serious economic impacts.

It should be noted that these three crises pose fundamental questions about our society. One is where we are putting our resources. The example of the United States is emblematic. The country annually spends trillions of dollars on nuclear weapons, war machines. But a single 120 nm virus causes the deaths of more than 210 Americans in less than nine months. Intellectual, scientific and financial resources are evidently being invested in the wrong places. Covid-19 has highlighted important vulnerabilities in our society.

the climate emergency

In 1896, the Swedish physicist Svante Arrhenius wrote an article calculating that if we doubled the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2 ) in the atmosphere, the temperature of the planet would rise by 4 °C due to the greenhouse effect (Arrhenius, 1896). At that time, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 was 280 ppm. We currently have CO2 concentrations at 409 ppm, growing at 2.5 ppm per year. Arrhenius won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1903. Today, with the largest supercomputers in the world, and after the development of quantum physics, if we do the same math as Arrhenius, we will arrive at very close values.

Over the last 150 years, our society has made impressive advances in many indicators (and not so good in others), and the burning of fossil fuels and the clearing of forests has made our species Homo sapiens responsible for changing the composition of the atmosphere. We have increased the concentration of many key gases in maintaining the energy balance of our atmosphere, such as CO2 , methane (CH4 ), nitrous oxide (N2 O), ozone (O3 ), among others. These gases absorb infrared radiation, which is the heat emitted by our planet into space. The atmosphere, by trapping these gases, stores additional heat and increases the Earth's temperature.

Globally, we have several independent measures of this temperature increase, including the NASA GISS,1 the time series compiled by NOAA,2 and many others. Figure 1 shows the evolution of global temperature from 1850 to 2018 compiled by the IPCC, with the average terrestrial temperature and the average of oceanic regions3 (IPCC SRCCL Shukla et al., 2019). We observe that the average temperature increase in continental areas already exceeds 1,5 °C, while the global average temperature increase is 1,1 °C.

Brazil, with a large continental area, also suffered a strong increase in temperature in the last century. Figure 2 shows the average temperature increase in Brazil from 1890 to 2019, calculated by the Berkeley Earth Group.4 We observe an average increase per decade from 24,47 °C in 1900 to 25,99 °C in 2017, therefore an increase of 1,52 °C on average in Brazil. As we noted earlier, the world average, calculated by the IPCC is 1,1 °C from 1850 to 2010. Some Brazilian states have had significant increases in temperature over the last 100 years, in particular the states of the Northeast, such as Piauí (2,27, 2,22 °C), Maranhão (2,14 °C), Bahia (2,09 °C), Ceará (2,11 °C), Alagoas (1,92 °C). The state of São Paulo had a temperature increase of XNUMX °C in the same period.

Figure 1 – Global temperature change in continental areas and the global average, from 1850 to 2018, compiled by the IPCC. 



Figure 2 – Average temperature in Brazil from 1890 to 2019, in annual values ​​and ten-year moving averages.

Climate change goes far beyond temperature increases. Changes in precipitation, atmospheric circulation, extreme weather events, sea level rise and others are also key issues that strongly impact our socio-economic system. As a country with extensive coastal areas, sea level rise and erosion in coastal areas is particularly important.

To face the climate emergency, Brazil ratified the Paris Agreement, committing to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 37% by 2025, and 43% by 2030, compared to emissions verified in 2005, and to eliminate Illegal deforestation in the Amazon by 2025. We also committed to increasing the share of bioenergy in the energy matrix to 18% by 2030, restoring and reforesting 12 million hectares of forests, as well as reaching a 45% share of renewable energies in the composition of the matrix energy by 2030, in addition to a 10% reduction in electricity consumption. These are goals that will require considerable efforts from all of Brazilian society, including the elimination of deforestation in the Amazon.

Brazil shows important vulnerabilities in the environmental and climate areas. The observed increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events has greatly impacted our population, the economy and the functioning of ecosystems. Extreme weather events impact agricultural production, coastal infrastructure, the availability of water resources, and the environmental quality of cities, among many other effects. The deforestation of 11.000 km² per year of forests in the Amazon has a strong impact on global warming, and affects the regional climate of South America, with changes in water vapor transport and surface albedo (Artaxo, 2019).

It is important to note that human action on our planet has already transgressed the planetary limits of biosphere integrity and biogeochemical fluxes of nitrogen and phosphorus and is very close to exceeding the planetary limit of climate stability (Steffen et al., 2015). In human systems, the IPCC recognizes that poor people are the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change (IPCC, 2014). The recent IPCC report on global warming of 1,5 °C (IPCC SR1.5, 2018) highlights the need to eliminate deforestation of tropical forests and reduce emissions from burning fossil fuels by 5% per year until reaching zero emissions by 2050. It will be necessary to remove CO2 from the atmosphere at high rates (on the order of -10 billion tons CO2 per year) from 2050 to 2100 to limit warming to 1,5°C. This task will require immense political, economic and social efforts and a non-existent governance system.

What about our planet's climate future? The set "business as usual” indicates an average increase in global temperature of around 4 °C (IPCC, 2014). If all the countries' commitments agreed in the Paris Agreement are fulfilled, the average temperature increase will be of the order of 3.3 °C. Many countries have already announced that they will not meet their targets. Figure 3 presents a projection of the temperature increase in Brazil in the scenario “business as usual”, calculated with the average of the IPCC models by Inpe. Projections were made for the average temperature for the period 2170-2090, relative to values ​​in 1850.

Vast regions of Brazil, including the areas of central Brazil (Mato Grosso, Goiás, Rondônia and other states), where agricultural production is concentrated, may experience a temperature increase of 5 to 6 °C. There may be a drop in precipitation in the Northeast and in the eastern part of the Amazon by 20% to 40%. Evidently, this scenario, if confirmed, will bring profound changes to our country, such as sharp declines in agricultural and livestock production, strong in the central region of Brazil. The increase in extreme weather events, such as heat waves and prolonged droughts, has additional effects to regional warming, with effects of its own.

Figure 3 – Projection of temperature increase in Brazil in the “Business as usual” scenario, calculated with the average of the IPCC models by Cemadem for RCP 8.5. Projections were made for the average temperature for the period 2071-2099, relative to values ​​in 1850.

A point that worries scientists a lot is the effect of an increase in temperature and a reduction in precipitation of this magnitude in the Amazon rainforest. The forest stores 120-150 billion tons of carbon, which corresponds to about twelve years of global burning of fossil fuels. If a significant fraction of this carbon goes into the atmosphere, the scenario shown in Figure 3 could be even greater, with very significant impacts on both the Brazilian regional climate and the global climate (Nobre et al., 2016). Recent work shows that the Amazon may not be far from this tipping point, as the forest that was absorbing large amounts of carbon ten years ago is now neutral in terms of emissions and could become a global source of CO2 in a few years. This occurs due to the increase in tree mortality, associated with the increase in droughts in recent years, such as the droughts of 2005, 2010 and 2015. The climate is becoming more extreme in much of the Amazon (Artaxo et al., 2016).

The issue of the health crisis and climate change

While the coronavirus pandemic is provoking great urgency because of the danger it poses, climate change must be viewed with equal, and likely even greater, urgency given its rise, across the planet, and in many ways, troubling impacts. predictable and permanent, and which will bring enormous socioeconomic damage to our society (Heyd et al., 2020). It is fundamental that the pandemic and climate change be faced jointly, because it points to the need for profound transformations in our society, and contains important challenges for the Anthropocene. The health of the population is dependent on social, economic, environmental and public policy aspects that integrate this issue as a strategy for the development of the country, state or municipality.

Brazil presents a complex heterogeneity in its regions, with diverse spatial and temporal distribution of certain diseases and great social, cultural, ecological and climatic diversity that directly interfere with the individual and collective resilience of populations exposed to climate change. The health impacts resulting from global climate change will depend on the general state of health of the exposed populations, which, in turn, depend on the conditions of the social determinants of health, such as universal health coverage, socio-environmental governance, public policies and the direction of the model. of development in the country. The tropical climate and ecosystem changes favor the development of pathogens.

Brazil has a great diversity of wild animals that, in turn, harbor multiple and different microorganisms, many of which are considered etiological agents of diseases, both for animals and for humans. As part of the transmission cycle of numerous parasites, human health is linked to the health of wild animals. Environmental changes, including climate change and loss of biodiversity, are determining factors for the emergence of diseases from wild animals. In general, infectious diseases increase in incidence with higher temperatures. Preserved and balanced ecosystems play an important role in the dynamics and control of zoonotic diseases and vector-borne infections.

It is estimated that more than 60% of infectious diseases circulate between animals and humans (zoonosis), and that a large part is caused by pathogens originating in wildlife. Global environmental changes have direct consequences for the spread of pathogens that impact both public health and fauna conservation. Among them, classically, the etiological agents that cause malaria, yellow fever, tuberculosis, toxoplasmosis, leptospirosis, hemorrhagic fevers, rabies, brucellosis, Chagas disease, Ebola, Sars-CoV-2 and other coronaviruses can be pointed out. Arboviral diseases, such as Dengue, Zika, Chikungunya Fever and Yellow Fever, are important threats of global changes to public health.

Changes in land use and changes in precipitation and temperature increase are altering mosquito migration and facilitating the spread of so-called neglected tropical diseases. The precarious health system in the interior of Brazil makes access to treatments difficult for the low-income population, increasing the mortality of these diseases. The transmission of vector-associated diseases by mosquitoes such as Aedes, Culex, Anopheles and others is influenced by the hydrological cycle and temperature, which are changing practically throughout the national territory.

The burning of biomass resulting from deforestation and agricultural practices causes the levels of air pollution in remote areas to have significant effects on public health in the region, with the aggravation of respiratory diseases, especially for children, the elderly and those with previous illnesses, which increases the risk of hospitalization and mortality, aggravating the scenario due to lack of access to health services.

The concept One World, One Health, from the World Health Organization (WHO), links human, animal and environmental health policies. It aims to broaden the vision and actions to face the challenges of preventing epidemics and epizootics, and maintaining ecosystem integrity for the benefit of humans and the biodiversity that support them.

The Covid-19 pandemic caused by Sars-CoV-2 has shown the relevance of this approach. Maintaining climate balance is key in this concept. The Covid-19 pandemic has taught us that anticipatory measures would have been considerably more cost-effective than our present with coping actions, in terms of both lives and resources saved. When we consider this in combination with the much riskier, larger and immeasurably longer-lasting, albeit slower, disruptive impact of climate change, we are called upon to recognize the present opportunities to deal effectively with the pandemic and climate change.

The biodiversity loss crisis

Both due to the occupation of natural habitats and changes in land use and human action, we are witnessing a very significant loss of species in terrestrial and ocean ecosystems (International Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services – IPBS, 2019). Brazil is home to about 15% of the planet's species in a wide variety of habitats. This biodiversity is found in six major continental biomes – Amazon, Atlantic Forest, Caatinga, Cerrado, Pampa and Pantanal. The country also has six large hydrographic basins – Amazon, Tocantins-Araguaia, Parnaíba, São Francisco, Paraíba do Sul and Paraná-Paraguay, and more than 8 thousand kilometers of coastline. The balance in the functioning of ecosystems depends on a high number of plant and animal species.

Several properties of natural systems, in particular biodiversity, are essential for the flows of ecosystem services that have always benefited humanity, providing water and food security, identity and protection of cultural values ​​and ensuring economic, social and human development (BPBES, 2018) . In a scenario towards sustainable development, biodiversity will be decisive for mitigating and adapting to climate change, and should provide new mechanisms for generating income and well-being. On the other hand, in a scenario of the current economic development model (business as usual), in which we continue to develop based on the burning of fossil fuels, in addition to not taking measures to adapt to climate change, the decline of natural systems life support will be inevitable, and will entail accelerating climate change and negative impacts on our society.

Final considerations

Climate change has been influencing changes in rainfall, temperature, level and chemistry of coastal waters, changes in plant phenology, ecosystem functioning and, among others, in the distribution of biodiversity, including the distribution of vectors that transmit illnesses. These changes interact with each other and with social and environmental “multiple stressors” that can amplify their impacts. However, many of these dimensions of climate change, and their interactions, need to be better understood. The strong changes in the rainfall regime in all regions of the country require solutions to alleviate the socioeconomic problems arising from stronger and more frequent droughts, and extreme flooding in large areas.

As is known, the agricultural sector is strongly impacted by changes in rainfall, and climate models with better forecasting quality and scenarios based on socioeconomic narratives based on sustainability can support the adaptation of this and other important sectors to a changed climate. Thus, we have to contribute to the development of strategies based on the integration of different areas of science, aiming to achieve water, food, health and energy security and social justice, seeking climate adaptation strategies that minimize socioeconomic impacts on society.

The impacts of climate change are accelerating rapidly. As a consequence, it is important to recognize the need for strong emission mitigation and adaptation actions (WEF, 2020). Science has made great strides in this area, showing an important dynamism in interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary studies, and aimed at the adoption of public policies, whether for the different regions of the country, or for specific sectors such as water, food, transport and power generation. and energy consumption.

Interdisciplinary science, based on quality and continuous research, is central to facing humanity's greatest challenge in this century: global climate change (IPCC, 2014). Among the possible impacts, the question of large-scale migrations on the planet is in evidence. Some regions inhabited today may not be able to sustain their population economically in the near future. The Brazilian Northeast is an example, because with a temperature increase of 5 °C and a drop in precipitation of 30%, the region that is now semi-arid could become arid and require large internal migrations in Brazil. The same in other regions of our planet, bringing political, social and economic instabilities on a global level.

The scientific and technological challenges to reduce emissions and maintain maximum global warming at 1,5 °C, as established in the Paris Agreement, imply major transformations in social systems, territorial issues and land use, energy, infrastructure and industrial policy (IPCC, 2014). The Brazilian energy commitment in our Nationally Determined Contributions, or Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) implies challenges in the diffusion of technologies through public policies, market instruments and regulation. The transition to a low-carbon economy and greater participation of new energy technologies require profound reforms in the regulatory and institutional environment.

The socioeconomic impact of mitigating and adapting to climate change can be very large, especially in developing countries. But it can also represent new business opportunities and increased energy efficiency, in addition to the possibility of building low-carbon economies. The role of the private sector is fundamental, working together with academia and policy makers to minimize the cost of the major transformations needed in all areas, such as energy, buildings, transport and other sectors. All sectors of society need to contribute to the development of a low-carbon economy.

It is essential that there is integration at all levels, from the individual, to municipalities, states, countries and globally (Artaxo, 2019). For this, we need governance integrated with public policies to be implemented at all levels. These lines of action must contemplate the objectives of the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development and are guided by global studies such as the various reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the actions proposed by the IPBES, the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services , and BPBES, the Brazilian Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services; especially focusing on the transformative actions of our society.

At the global level, the United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP) will play an important role in the coming years and should be replaced by governance mechanisms that globally integrate health, environment and biodiversity issues. This must be done with the formulation of science-based public policies at all levels (municipal, state, national and global). Brazil has demonstrated that reducing deforestation in the Amazon can be done quickly and at modest cost, as the country reduced annual deforestation from 28.000 km² in 2004 to 4.500 km² in 2011 through consistent, long-term public policies. As of 2012, annual deforestation has grown significantly again and in 2019 reaches the level of 10.129 km² in the year. International pressure to reduce emissions and maintain tropical forests could have an important effect and reduce deforestation in the Amazon.

It is possible to build an integrated system in which biodiversity would be incorporated as a central component of the development process, generating a significant increase in the adaptive capacity of natural and human systems. In this scenario, the goals proposed by the Sustainable Development Goals will be achieved, the negative effects of the climate will be present, but the establishment of a non-predatory form of development to biodiversity will allow its conservation, including an increase in its capacity to respond to climate changes , with a decrease in the contribution of carbon emissions from deforestation and an increase in its removal from the atmosphere by extensive ecosystem restoration, especially in tropical regions.

It is important that we radically change our socioeconomic system to a minimally sustainable, fairer system, with less inequalities and meeting the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). One way is to build socioecological systems, in which socioeconomic and biophysical processes and components are integrated. Human beings are considered to be part of the natural system, as opposed to being an external agent that alters ecological systems for their own short-term benefit. Ecosystem services would be integrated into the framework of economic development, with science-based strategies (Artaxo, 2019).

To deal with the three emergency crises, we need to develop governance systems that meet the needs of integrated actions at all levels. In the Covid-19 pandemic, we observed that each country individually developed a different strategy from its neighbors, and even states and municipalities in Brazil had different and sometimes opposing strategies in facing a global pandemic. Evidently, actions like these on the climate issue will not work, because with an integrated global economy, there is no possibility of fragmented actions, which will certainly be inefficient.

The United Nations (UN) has neither the mandate nor the possibility to deal with planetary issues of this magnitude. A new system of global governance will have to be created if we are to stabilize the climate issue and stem the loss of biodiversity. We will have to change our economic system, as continuous economic growth on a planet with finite natural resources is not possible. The social inequalities we have today are a strong source of political, social and environmental instability. As a result of Covid-19, several European countries are discussing strategies for economic degrowth with minimal damage to their countries. Sustainability on our planet is possible and necessary. We will have a lot of work to build it in the coming years and decades, as we have no alternatives.

* Paulo Artaxo is a full professor at the Department of Applied Physics at the Institute of Physics at the University of São Paulo (USP).

Originally published in the magazine Advanced Studies no 100.



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