The ‘new normal’ is the climate emergency

While Brazil breaks records of extreme weather events, governments insist on denying the obvious.

Resistência-PSOL (Brazil)
Defesa Civil Porto Alegre

It was already the night of Tuesday, January 16, when a strong storm hit Porto Alegre and the metropolitan region. It can’t be said that it was a surprise; at least 24 hours before, the National Institute of Meteorology (Inmet) issued red-level alerts for the entire region, projecting intense rainfall of over 100mm, hailstorms, and winds up to 100 km/h.

Sebastião Melo’s (MDB) city hall, Eduardo Leite’s (PSDB) government, and Energia Equatorial Group, despite receiving this ‘spoiler’ from Inmet, followed the same script as always: they did not go to the field to execute the contingency plan, remained inert, and in the morning of the 17th, facing a scenario where 1.2 million people were without water and 714 thousand properties without power, they went on TV and the internet to disclaim responsibility for the consequences. The blame for the blackout and water shortage, once again, was placed on the unpredictable force of nature.

While Brazil breaks records of extreme weather events, governments insist on denying the obvious

In Rio Grande do Sul itself, months earlier, in September, the passage of an extratropical cyclone affected more than 100 municipalities, with greater severity in the Vale do Taquari region. In total, 51 people died, and another 30 thousand were left homeless and displaced. What did the authorities say at the time? The same excuses as now. In November, the city of São Paulo suffered a blackout that lasted a week in several regions, affecting a total of 2 million people. What did Mayor Ricardo Nunes (MDB), Governor Tarcísio de Freitas (Republicans), and ENEL Group say? The same hypocrisy in the face of tragedy and the same blame-shifting game to try to absolve themselves of responsibility.

Almost a year ago, the most intense storm in a 24-hour period in the history of Brazil hit the São Sebastião region on the São Paulo coast. In the previous summer, between January and February 2022, the rainy season that ravaged São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, and Bahia had already resulted in the deaths of 254 people and left another 170 thousand homeless or displaced. In the south of Bahia, around 660 thousand people were affected by heavy rains.

Even though the characters change, the excuses are always the same. Throughout Brazil, leaders insist on denying the obvious: climate change is here to stay. According to data from the National Center for Monitoring and Alerts of Natural Disasters (CEMADEN), Brazil recorded a record incidence of extreme weather events in 2023. There were a total of 1,161 occurrences, an average of 3 per day. The emergency alerts issued were also the highest in the historical series, averaging 9 per day, totaling 3,245 throughout the year. These events, both hydrological (river overflows, floods, etc.) and geological (landslides), resulted in the death of 132 people, injuring another 10 thousand, leaving 74 thousand homeless, and 524 thousand displaced. The economic losses reached R$25 billion.

Brazil going against the global tide

In 1959, then-governor of Rio Grande do Sul, Leonel Brizola, incorporated (nationalized) the assets that the subsidiary of the American company Bond & Share owned in the state, for the symbolic value of 1 cruzeiro. The State Electric Power Commission, founded in 1943, would take over the operation, reorganized and renamed as the State Power Company (CEEE).

In March 2021, 62 years later, Governor Eduardo Leite (PSDB) decided that he would also go down in history, but in the opposite direction, auctioning CEEE for a single value of only R$100 thousand to the Equatorial Energia Group. The justification, or rather, the propaganda in favor of privatization, argued that only the private sector could make the necessary investments to meet the quality parameters of the National Electric Energy Agency (ANEEL). However, in both 2022 and 2023, the company was far from reaching such parameters. Worse, in 2022, CEEE-Equatorial ranked last in ANEEL’s national ranking of energy continuity, a national parameter for assessing service quality.

Equatorial Group is the 3rd largest company in the sector in Brazil, operating in 7 states – Rio Grande do Sul, Maranhão, Amapá, Piauí, Alagoas, Pará, and Goiás – with coverage that reaches about 30% of the national territory. Another giant in the sector is ENEL, the same one that left the population of São Paulo in a blackout for a week and, in addition to the State of São Paulo, operates in Rio de Janeiro and Ceará.

Besides leaving two Brazilian capitals (Porto Alegre and São Paulo) in a blackout, Equatorial and ENEL share other coincidences. Both are questioned for the quality of their services, labor precariousness, and inflation of prices, as well as the absence of contingency planning to deal with extreme weather events. However, the coincidence that interests both the most is profits. In the case of Equatorial, the consolidated net profit for the third quarter of 2023 was R$927.7 million, a 58.7% increase compared to 2022. ENEL, in São Paulo alone, jumped from R$777 million in 2019 to R$1.4 billion in 2023.

It seems contradictory that companies that profit so much are not capable of structuring themselves to deal with the effects of climate change, or at least to develop and execute contingency plans to respond more effectively to extreme weather events. In reality, the iron contradiction lies in the nature of these companies, in what they qualify as operational profitability. In the case of ENEL, to double profits in São Paulo in 4 years, it was necessary to increase operational profitability from 16.1% to 22.2%. In practice, this meant, among other measures, the dismissal of 35% of the workforce. In Rio Grande do Sul, Equatorial Group followed the same script, implementing a voluntary dismissal plan (PDV) that resulted in the dismissal of 998 workers.

It is needless to say that profit is the goal of any private company. However, the problem in this case is when the core activity of these companies is linked to strategic sectors such as energy, water, and sanitation. Access to electricity, water, and sewage treatment should not, under any circumstances, become captive to this obsessive logic of profit. According to data from the Public Futures database, the main concerns raised by the population served by such companies worldwide are: deterioration in services, price inflation, lack of investments, and lack of transparency.

The same survey indicates that, for example, between 2000 and 2023, 1,400 public companies were created or re-nationalized. The electric power sector accounted for 27% of this total, totaling 374 re-nationalizations. In the water and sanitation sector, there were a total of 344. In both sectors, the vast majority of cases occurred in Europe. However, there are examples from the global south, such as Lagos and La Paz, the capitals of Nigeria and Bolivia, where social movements integrated with the population defeated privatization.

Here in Brazil, in 2023, unions and social movements in São Paulo organized a popular plebiscite against the privatization plan of the Bolsonaro-supporting governor Tarcísio de Freitas (Republicans). After months of campaigning and debates promoted in communities, study, and work locations, ballot boxes were distributed in high-traffic areas such as metro stations and bus terminals. In total, about 897 thousand votes were collected, with 97% of them opposed to the delivery of passenger trains, the subway, and SABESP (São Paulo State Basic Sanitation Company) into private hands.

In Porto Alegre, the sequence of announced tragedies pushed the population to the limit. From June 2023 to January 2024, there were at least 4 extreme events where history repeated itself: all kinds of disruptions (floods, blackouts, water shortages, landslides), inert authorities, and the population paying the price. Bolsonaro-supporting Mayor Sebastião Melo (MDB), who takes pride in the title of ‘City Custodian,’ seems to forget that there are people in this city. After the last storm, the population’s indignation went beyond, and the revolt with neglect translated into protests that spread across various communities in the city, with more than 120 protest points during the blackout days. The vast majority of these acts were spontaneous, some involving dozens, and the largest ones a few hundred people.

Now, inspired by the experience of São Paulo, social movements in Porto Alegre are beginning to organize with the perspective of holding a popular plebiscite to question the delivery of companies in strategic sectors, such as CEEE-Equatorial and CORSAN (Rio Grande do Sul Basic Sanitation Company), into private hands.

The lesson we can extract from all these cases points to the necessary questioning of the myth of the efficiency of the private sector at the expense of the public; this myth, in fact, is at the heart of the neoliberal propaganda exhaustively repeated in Brazil, whether by governments, business media, or lobbyists in Brasília and farialimers.

The lesson we can extract from all these cases points to the necessary questioning of the myth of the efficiency of the private sector at the expense of the public; this myth, in fact, is at the heart of the neoliberal propaganda exhaustively repeated in Brazil, whether by governments, business media, or lobbyists in Brasília and farialimers.

And what does all this have to do with climate change? These experiences of re-nationalization have served as a starting point in creating a new culture of awareness not only of water and energy consumption but of the connection of both with sustainability and the mitigation of the effects of the climate emergency. In the immediate case of extreme weather events, the difference between public and private management can be decisive in determining who will live or die, in establishing contingency plans that aim at caring for the population, in the case of public management, or the cold reduction of maintenance and operational costs in the case of private management.

A villain called El Niño?

El Niño is a natural climatic phenomenon characterized by abnormal warming of Pacific Ocean waters in its equatorial range. In Brazil, the phenomenon is known for causing a higher incidence of long droughts in the north and northeast, and more intense rains in the south. This happens because El Niño modifies rainfall patterns, interfering with the climate of the regions under its influence.

Scientists warn that the incidence of these widely known phenomena cannot be a justification for the unpreparedness of authorities in the face of extreme weather events. In fact, they cannot even be pointed out as the causes of the very serious events we experienced in 2023.

This was the case with the historic drought that devastated the Amazon basin between June and November of last year. The river levels reached the lowest levels in 120 years of measurement. However, contrary to expectations, a study released on January 24 by a commission of scientists from Brazil, Denmark, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands, indicates that the effects of El Niño were less decisive for the occurrence of the drought. The crucial factor would have been the dramatic increase in temperature in the region, a result of deforestation and burning. In other words, it was human action and not a natural phenomenon that caused the event. By human action, one should understand the predatory action of agribusiness and mining, in their insatiable quest to expand agricultural frontiers and inadvertently explore new mineral deposits.

We live in a world without time

In March 2023, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), an agency linked to the UN, released the synthesis report on global warming assessments. The message is dramatic; to prevent the temperature from rising by 1.5°C by the end of the century, it would be necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 48% by 2030. The IPCC acknowledges, however, that we are far from achieving this. Year after year, COP reports sound like letters of intent, little capable of producing concrete actions even for mitigating the effects of climate change.

After defeating Bolsonaro in the elections, President Lula engaged in rebuilding Brazil’s international image, also in the context of the climate agenda. In COPs 27 and 28, the ‘Brazil is back’ speech centered around the commitment to zero deforestation by 2030. Indeed, from January to July 2023, deforestation in the Amazon region decreased by 42%, a result of a change in direction compared to the Bolsonaro government. However, even though the reduction of deforestation is crucial for Brazil, and the Amazon is a symbol, other biomes also need help, such as the cerrado or even the Pampa, the smallest, most degraded, and most unprotected of Brazilian biomes.

Moreover, on the way to COP 30, which will be held in Belém in 2025, it will be necessary to integrate into the agenda of combating the effects of the climate emergency, topics such as state control of the management of strategic areas such as energy, water, and sanitation. At this point, much needs to be done to clean up the rubble of both Bolsonaro’s government measures, such as Law 14,026/2020, which encourages the privatization of the sanitation sector; as well as breaking with the logic of decades of neoliberal influence in formulating public policies that, by adopting a privatizing orientation, contribute to leaving the Union, States, and Municipalities vulnerable when acting in the face of extreme weather events, which are the immediate effects of a climate change that is here to stay.”

Marcado como:
climate emergency