Brazil Climate Change & Climate Action Politics & Diplomacy Resilience & Society
New Atlanticist May 14, 2024

Brazil’s tragic floods should put climate adaptation at the top of the G20 and COP agendas

By Valentina Sader

For the last two weeks, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil’s southernmost state, has been the victim of the worst climate disaster in its recent history. Hit by torrential rain, five months’ worth of typical precipitation fell in a mere fifteen days in some areas. Cities and towns remain under water, and the rainfall continues. At least 147 people have died, another hundred are missing, and more than half a million are displaced, impacting more than two million people in the state. The ongoing flooding in Rio Grande do Sul is an unfortunate example of the urgent need for countries to focus on adaptation measures to climate change. Brazil has a unique opportunity to drive these commitments forward as it hosts the Group of Twenty (G20) Leaders’ Summit in November and the United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP30, in 2025.

Severe weather is not a new phenomenon for the state, which has seen record-breaking rainfall in recent years. A foretold tragedy, the flooding in Rio Grande do Sul is the fourth weather-related crisis to hit the state in less than a year. At the end of 2023, Rio Grande do Sul saw a similar situation, when a heat wave exacerbated intense storms and major flooding.

The region is prone to weather-related disasters, and the current flooding has been linked to the periodic El Niño weather phenomenon. In the past few decades, the state’s capital city, Porto Alegre, has adapted to control the extent of the impact of torrential rains on the city. However, the infrastructure in place must be updated to the new reality of extreme weather events, which are more intense due to climate change. Designing suitable financial instruments for resilient infrastructure with support from international and domestic financial institutions will be crucial.

The extent of this disaster is immense. To put it into perspective, about 90 percent of the 497 municipalities in Rio Grande do Sul were impacted by the rain and flooding. Brazilians are bearing the immediate brunt of these floods, including on their economy. There will also be implications for global trade and food security in the weeks and months ahead.

Rio Grande do Sul is an important state for Brazil. It represents 6 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), the fifth largest state GDP in the country. A major agribusiness state, it accounts for 70 percent of Brazil’s rice production. It is a significant producer of soybeans—of which Brazil is a leading producer and exporter—and an important meat-producing state. And while in Rio Grande do Sul rain continues to fall, not too far from there, in other regions of Brazil, farmers are suffering through a winter drought.

The governor of Rio Grande do Sul, Eduardo Leite, estimates that a yearslong reconstruction plan costing some nineteen billion reais (around $3.7 billion) will be needed in his state. Private sector investments and insurance could play a crucial role in supporting the recovery of the region, implementing adaptation measures and building the resilience of the affected communities. This level of support now will be critical to reduce future losses and tap into the immense economic, social, and environmental benefits of investing in adaptation and resilience. According to one recent estimate, each dollar invested in resilience and adaptation could generate up to twelve dollars in economic benefits.

Local and federal governments must take on the responsibility to put climate adaptation at the core of their strategic plans and development efforts. Countries must prioritize adaptation and resilience investment plans that strategically crowd in private sector investments and ensure that subnational governments and local communities can access insurance and financing to adapt and build resilience. Brazil is in a unique position to do so. With Brazilian municipal elections in October, this is a crucial moment for Brazilians to institutionalize climate mitigation and adaption efforts as part of local governments’ agendas.

At the geopolitical level, the G20 Leaders’ Summit in Rio de Janeiro in November will be an opportunity for Brazil to drive the climate adaptation agenda forward and to obtain buy-in and financing from the largest economies in the world. COP30 in Belém, Brazil, in 2025 is another such opportunity. The site for COP30, located in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil’s north, was chosen in part to showcase the roles of biodiversity, sustainability, and conservation in climate action. The flooding in the country’s south will be a tragic reminder of the importance of adaptation being central to the climate agenda, as well.

Valentina Sader is a deputy director at the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, where she leads the Center’s work on Brazil, gender equality and diversity, and manages the Center’s Advisory Council.

Further reading

Image: A drone view shows a flooded city center after people were evacuated in Porto Alegre, in Rio Grande do Sul state, Brazil, May 5, 2024. REUTERS/Renan Mattos