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Climate change

Words and weather

Natural disasters require new communication strategies among scientists in public administration

RAFAEL ANDRADE / FOLHA IMAGEMSeven thousand tons of land blocking a tunnel in Rio raise questions about the city’s administrationRAFAEL ANDRADE / FOLHA IMAGEM

The German geographer Philipp Schmidt-Thomé came to the conclusion, based on personal experience, that the best way to inform public administrators of research results is to be clear, simple and direct, avoiding exaggeration and offering alternatives on how to handle the situation. “If people are afraid, they may lose all hope and not take the measures required to avoid the worst”, stated Schmidt-Thomé when he presented to the University of Campinas (Unicamp) and to FAPESP the work he has done since 2002 in Europe to avoid natural disasters.

Schmidt-Thomé coordinates a group of experts from 29 European countries and develops maps that identify areas where natural disasters might occur. Some natural disasters are typical of the northern hemisphere, such as snowstorms. However, other disasters may also take place in Brazil and be even more severe as climate change enhances the power of floods, droughts, erosion, soil degradation, wildfires and landslides, for instance.

This outlook should encourage governments to pay more attention to territory management, but communication between scientists and public administrators still needs  improvement in order to ensure that measures to reduce the impact of harsher climate conditions are indeed  implemented, according to Schmidt-Thomé, who has been working since 1998 in Finland’s Department of Geology.

He acknowledged that establishing this communication is not always easy, since it requires that  parties use the same language and select information that may be in fact useful: “Officials responsible for public policies don’t have time to read more than one page of results”, he noted. “Adopting excessively scientific jargon may reduce their interest, but exaggeration has a more negative impact because it may convey the idea that there’s nothing to be done.”

That is why Schmidt-Thomé believes that the support of social scientists is valuable, as they have more experience in dealing with different audiences, more so than scientists who focus on the sciences of nature. In Brazil, the willingness of parties to engage in dialogue seems to be rising. “It is important to listen to different opinions”, said Pedro Leite da Silva Dias, director of the National Computing Science Laboratory (LNCC) and chairman of the executive committee of the 3rd Regional Conference on Climate Change: South America, held in November in the city of São Paulo.

Even when communication is effective, some barriers are insurmountable. Schmidt-Thomé said that politicians sometimes want precise answers; for example, they want to know how many centimeters the sea will rise by a given date; but as science works with scenarios, not with certainties, this is impossible. Politicians may allow scientists to share their views and understand what they are saying, but may not accept the scientists” conclusions. This is what happened in the north of Germany. Had they acknowledged that climate change was a real threat, mayors would have had to encourage significant changes  in the area, which depends on tourism. Since some houses are half a meter lower than the sea level, any rise in the ocean’s level would be devastating.

Schmidt-Thomé provided a number of maps of areas more prone to droughts, floods and other natural disasters, previously used as urban planning and management tools in other parts of Germany, Estonia, Finland or Poland to avoid tragic incidents such as the 2002 floods of the Elba River in Germany. One of the maps, in which he superimposes areas prone to natural disasters, clearly shows that the most vulnerable areas in Europe are the most populated regions in the triangle formed by London, Munich and Milan.

“There is nothing in Brazil quite as wide-ranging”, states geographer Lucí Hidalgo Nunes, a professor at Unicamp’s School of Geosciences, at the end of one of the Finnish scientist’s presentations. One week later, after heavy rains, the city of Rio de Janeiro stopped as a result of a seven thousand-ton landslide which partially closed the Rebouças tunnel, one of the most important links between the city’s northern and southern areas.

“We must understand the potential effects of heavy rains in cities”, warned Carlos Eduardo Tucci, a professor at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), during a conference held in São Paulo. According to him, excess water was a critical issue even before it became even a more major problem as a result of climatic changes. And it is precisely developing countries such as Brazil that have the highest levels of urbanization, stated the geographer Helena Ribeiro, from the School of Public Health of the University of São Paulo (USP).

Islands of heat
Helena Ribeiro believes that climate change is a matter of public health and signs of this are already being seen.  She conducted a study, published in 2005 in the journal Critical Public Health, showing that people who live in warmer areas, i.e., in urban islands of heat,  within the city of São Paulo suffer from cardiopulmonary diseases more often than those who live in neighborhoods with milder temperatures.

The solution? Less pollution, more trees and roofs of a lighter color are examples of some solutions. According to Humberto Ribeiro da Rocha, a professor at USP, the Master Plan of a number of cities could be changed. Up to now, however, the number of initiatives implemented has not matched the pace of the suggestions. “I have seen no public policy changes”, stated Rocha.

Geographer Hugo Ivan Romero, from the University of Chile, was more critical: “City administration throughout Latin America is a fiasco”, he said. He described the disparities found in Chile’s capital city, Santiago, which are the same as in Brazilian cities: richer citizens live in areas with more greenery, which have a better climate, whereas poorer citizens live in the areas with fewer trees and that are more subject to floods and strong climatic variations. “Urban climate is the result of sociopolitical development that primarily affects the more vulnerable layers of the population”, concluded Romero. “I wonder if we will have the willpower to change this.”