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Climate change calls for adaptations but they are still not a priority

Scientists say that the challenge in cities like São Paulo lies in integrating public policies related to climate change with policies that pertain to housing, urban planning, and water resources management among other urgent problems

Global climate change is imposing risks on cities and leading to the need for them to develop adaptation plans. But how can cities like São Paulo, that have so many other infrastructure and development problems develop an adaptive capacity that allows it to efficiently respond to the challenges imposed by climate change?

Finding answers to this question is one of the objectives of a study conducted by scientists at the University of São Paulo (USP) and the University of Michigan (UM), with funding from FAPESP and the U.S. university.

According to the project coordinators, professors Gabriela Marques Di Giulio at the School of Public Health at USP, and Maria Carmen Lemos, at the School of Natural Resources and Environment at UM, the growing realization that mitigation alone will not be enough to avoid the impact of climate has led to an increase in the number of cities all over the world that are presenting adaptation plans that recognize the risks associated with climate change and the impacts it will have on their socioeconomic systems.

Despite this, there are many other cities at risk that have done little. And their reasons for this include economic, institutional or political constraints that reduce the capacity to provide basic services, infrastructure and support to their populations.

Di Giulio and Lemos, who presented their findings on March 28 at FAPESP Week Michigan-Ohio, which runs through April 1 in the U.S. cities of Ann Arbor and Columbus, point to the fact that studies have identified resources and governance structures that are increasing the likelihood of successful adaptation. And understanding how these resources interact both positively and negatively is essential in building more resilient and sustainable cities.

“São Paulo, for example, which is our focus of research, is part of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group [network of megacities committed to facing the challenges involved in global climate change] and is one of the few megacities that has a municipal policy on global climate change, instituted in 2009, although most of the objectives have yet to be achieved,” Di Giulio said.

According to her, in São Paulo the challenge is integrating public policies related to climate change with policies that pertain to housing, sanitation, urban planning, water resources management and urban mobility.

“It’s a highly heterogeneous metropolitan region in terms of access to resources, poverty levels and the ability to act together in dealing with climate change,” she said.

“From our research, we have tried to understand how a megacity, in the case of São Paulo, has mobilized itself to address the risks and threats posed by climate change, how the decision makers in science, policies and civil society perceive climate risk at the local level, and how contextual factors are influencing local adaptive capacity,” she said.

Di Giulio explained that the research is based on qualitative methods that include review of the scientific literature, documentary research – analysis of public opinion surveys, journalistic content, documents and socioeconomic data –, interviews with actors and social groups, and technical and scientific meetings.

The joint project funded by FAPESP and the University of Michigan includes two researchers in the state of São Paulo and one in Michigan, in addition to Di Giulio and Lemos.

The researchers have already conducted four project tasks since October 2014 that included holding a seminar, a workshop and meetings in São Paulo and in Michigan.

Among the project findings, Di Giulio mentioned the publication of articles such as Building adaptive capacity in the megacity of São Paulo, Brazil: urgencies, possibilities and challenges, presented in 2015 at the RC21 International Conference, sponsored by the International Sociological Association, in Italy and “Megacities and climate change: an interdisciplinary focus on the city of São Paulo,” to be published in 2016 as a chapter in a book.

Other Brazilian cities

“We’re building an analytical platform to better understand the complex process of adaptation, especially when we consider the uncertainties related to projections regarding climate and the frequency of extreme events. In terms of contextual factors that are directly influencing adaptive capacity, we are also examining how economic, institutional and political constraints affect the ability of cities to provide basic services and support their current populations, infrastructure and ecosystems,” Di Giulio said.

According to the study, the population in São Paulo tends to view climate change as a minor problem. “People recognize the impacts of climate change, but although they are worried, for them the impacts compete with other matters that are more pressing,” Di Giulio said.

The researchers are analyzing recent urban policies in São Paulo, among which are specific interventions in systems of mobility, housing and sustainable infrastructure initiatives, but they believe that these and other measures have not been described as actions for adapting to climate change.

The project continues with development of the CiAdapta (Cities, Vulnerability and Climate Change), an integrated and interdisciplinary approach for analyzing actions and adaptive capacity. The new project, which goes through 2017, is funded by the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq). CiAdapta involves six Brazilian state capitals: São Paulo, Manaus, Fortaleza, Vitória, Curitiba and Porto Alegre.

Another project carried out by Lemos and Di Giulio involves cities in the state of São Paulo. “We plan to develop a theoretical and methodological platform to analyze climate adaptation that applies to all the cities whose populations range between 20,000 and 500,000 inhabitants. We initially developed a questionnaire that has been distributed to these cities with the collaboration of the São Paulo State Department for the Environment,” said Lemos, who did her undergraduate work at the Federal University of Juiz de Fora and earned her master’s and PhD at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“It’s important to emphasize that what the cities have done up to now to prepare themselves for global climate change along with the platform we are developing can help not only in making decisions in the study cities, but in other Brazilian cities as well,” said the UM professor.

Heitor Shimizu, in Michigan | Agência FAPESP