Extreme events are here to stay

Image: Terrance Moon


What is happening in Rio Grande do Sul – and elsewhere – will be a foretaste if urgent and ambitious actions are not taken to protect the population and natural environments

Rio Grande do Sul was once again a victim of calamitous effects caused by extreme weather events. Four destructive events in just over six months. The latest devastating phenomenon – May 2024 – was unusually violent. It recorded rainfall levels never seen before since measurements have been made. It caused numerous deaths and missing people, suffering to thousands of homeless and displaced people, loss of property, material damage to the population, industry, agriculture, infrastructure, public and private services, health, education and rural and urban ecosystems in an unprecedented way.

The year 2023 was the hottest the planet has known, among hundreds, not to say thousands of years, according to NASA. Our future will inevitably be disastrous without drastic actions that alter the course of ecological deregulation. What is happening in Rio Grande do Sul – and elsewhere – will be a foretaste if urgent and ambitious actions are not taken to protect the population and natural environments; or more precisely, the habitability conditions of living beings, humans and non-humans, that live on the face of the Earth. For now, the so-called ecological and energy transitions remain a fallacy in the face of urgency.

The drivers of climate change

Without being experts, the Rio Grande do Sul victims were able to verify that the four vectors that characterize climate change were present in the tragedies in Rio Grande do Sul: they occur more frequently, are more intense, last longer and are more territorially extensive. However, these phenomena have always existed, but they did not manifest themselves as they currently do and whose future tendency is to progressively worsen. The same four vectors can be observed in the case of droughts, heatwaves, fires, windstorms, cyclones, hurricanes and not just in relation to floods and torrential rains.

From being exceptional, these phenomena are becoming permanent. However, with a serious aggravating factor: they are here to stay and will be repeated. They no longer knock on our door, but have already entered the anteroom. Each region of the planet is being affected by different extreme events. Some regions will be hit by cyclones, others by rising temperatures, droughts, fires, floods, reaching unprecedented levels of degradation. Others will be more vulnerable than others, perhaps this is the case of Rio Grande do Sul.

Climate disasters are everywhere

Gauchos are not alone in this tragedy. In recent weeks, storms have ravaged East Africa: 188 deaths in Kenya, 155 in Tanzania, 28.000 families displaced in the Democratic Republic of Congo, 2.000 in Burundi. In China, the rains affected Guangdong, the largest province with 127 million inhabitants. In mid-April, rains and gales hit Oman, the United Arab Emirates and other Persian Gulf countries. Now, in May, Afghanistan – not to mention the other calamities affecting the planet.

The extreme climate events that we see in various regions of the planet are not the result of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that have recently been released into the atmosphere. There is an inertia between the release of GHGs and their effects. In reality, current events are a consequence of GHGs released and accumulated in the atmosphere over the last 20 or more years. In other words, future extreme events are already determined by the GHG emissions we currently emit. If it were possible, by magic, to suppress all the planet's GHG emissions today, reducing them to zero, the increase in the planet's temperature would continue its upward trajectory over the next few decades.

For this reason, extreme weather events are here to stay and can only get worse. The future trend will be worsening, if there is no radical cut in fossil energy consumption. All the more so because the thermo-industrial society – from which only a part of humanity benefits – has never consumed as much fossil energy as 2023, despite all the warnings issued over four decades. This means that Rio Grande do Sul will experience new climate catastrophes over the next few years and decades. There is no way to escape this reality that does not only depend on local and regional actions, but, above all, global ones.

Environmental deregulation is not spontaneous

Global warming – and its consequence, climate change – is not an isolated, unique phenomenon. It is a component of something much broader: the ecological deregulation of the planet. We are on the way to a new ecological balance of which we have no idea what it will be like. The deregulation is made up of other no less serious phenomena such as: loss of plant and animal biodiversity; depletion of non-renewable natural resources; pollution of natural environments (water, air, soil…). These are phenomena that engender others.

Global warming is not a spontaneous phenomenon. This is a transformation forged by our way of social organization and of production and consumption of goods and services in term-industrial society – begun with Watt when he built a coal-fired energy converter in 1777, the steam engine, the first device capable of transforming thermal energy into large-scale mechanics.

Global warming is not something uncertain and unknown. This is a phenomenon that is measured daily and whose predictions – made four decades ago – are coming true in a more pronounced way than initially imagined.

The increase in the planet's average temperature due to GHG increases water evaporation; As a result, humidity in the atmosphere increases, a phenomenon that causes more abundant rainfall. The amount of water on Earth always remains the same, however, what changes are the proportions between solid, liquid and gaseous states. It is estimated that the increase in 1°C in the planet's average temperature translates into a 7% increase in atmospheric humidity. In the last 50 years, the Earth's temperature has risen by around 1°C. Containing the planet's average temperature at 1,5ºC at the end of the century is now a pipe dream.

There are possible actions to contain climate change

Broadly speaking, there are two possible urgent actions to contain the effects of global warming if we intend to preserve existing forms of life on the planet: attenuation (mitigation) and adaptation. Both actions must be combined at the global, regional and local levels to be effective. It will not depend solely on the efforts of the gauchos and other victims from the four quadrants.

The first, attenuation, means a drastic reduction in GHG emissions, particularly those derived from the consumption of fossil energy. In other words, reduce the use of fossil fuels as much as possible, reduce the consumption of animal proteins, reduce mobility, reduce production and consumption, deforestation, fires; also abolish monoculture, reforest, revegetate urban areas, recover ecosystems (forests, savannas, wetlands, etc.), bring production closer to consumption... These are actions of a global, regional and local nature. The results of mitigation will be noticeable in the long term, not immediately.

The second, adaptation, requires important infrastructure works to contain floods, landslides, dikes, or reforestation of river basins to retain water, land planning, etc. The investments will be colossal. When defining adaptation programs, it is necessary to determine to which level of increase in average temperature it will be necessary to adapt: ​​2ºC, 2,5ºC, 3,2ºC…

The higher the temperatures to which we must adapt, the greater the investments; all depending on local, regional and global conditions; warming is not uniform in all regions and the events are also distinct. The results will be more immediate, however, expensive, palliative and feasible at the local and regional level.

The future cannot be an extension of the present

However, mitigating and adapting are measures that conflict with the ideology of economic growth in a finite world. Reducing the consumption of primary fossil energy by half, by the middle of the century, means reducing the functioning of the apparatus of machines that move thanks to fossil carbon, in 85% of cases. This is not a question of a classic economic recession, but rather a retraction of physical flows of biotic and abiotic raw materials, substrates for production and consumption processes.

The energy transition, for example, is a phenomenon that will not be overcome in a few decades. It is enough to note that humanity consumes 12 billion tons of fossil energy annually. There is no way to suppress them without causing disruption to the way of life and organization of fossil society, which today benefits around 30% of humanity in an extremely unequal way. Furthermore, as it is constituted, it is unable to extend to the remaining part, the excluded population.

The future will not be an extension of the present, it will not be a simple matter of changing infrastructures, electrifying production processes, mobility, replacing fossil energies with renewable energies. It is about cultural, civilizational change.

*Tomás Togni Tarquinio he was Government Secretary in Amapá, on the occasion of the execution of the pioneering Amapá Sustainable Development Project (PDSA).

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