US-based thought leaders emphasize the climate role in extreme events to “spur more immediate action” (Mcnutt 2019, p. 411). Understanding extreme events as opportunities to call attention to climate change, they approach delinking as a problem to be addressed and as a function of insufficiencies, e.g., at the levels of public understanding or journalistic capacity. Part of a broader emphasis on extreme events as opportunities to shape public opinion and policies in favor of climate action (see, for example, Albright and Crow 2019; Davidson et al. 2019; Mann et al. 2017), this understanding drives their policy recommendations in direction of public education campaigns.
Our analysis suggests that there are geographical limits to the validity of this understanding and of associated assumptions and framing recommendations. It shows the importance of contextual understanding to properly evaluate and guide framing choices bearing on disasters and climate change; it cannot be assumed a priori that knowledge, care, or conviction with regard to the reality of climate change warrants emphasis on its role in disasters, even where attribution studies might find such a role.
Moreover, we suggest that recognition of the geographical limits to the validity of this understanding ought to guide science and funding agendas, helping define whether and where more precise attribution of climate change should be a top science priority. It should also help ensure that communication strategies are fit to specificities of contexts, considering not only particularities of national climate change politics but also whether communications allow proper space and consideration to the multiplicity of problems vying for attention and policy improvement. Stressing climate change does not always serve climate action, and it does not and should not always trump all other concerns.
Rather than deficits at the level of understanding and care, our findings indicate that astute understanding of policy opportunities and trade-offs in the areas of climate change, forest conservation, and disaster prevention underpin Brazilian actors’ tendency to actively play down the role of climate change and, sometimes, even actively and emphatically disassociate it from extreme events. This was apparent in our Discursive Linking Analysis and is further reinforced by our discussion below of a number of factors underpinning the national tendency to deemphasize the climate role in the two disasters: a relative absence of climate skepticism nationally, low probability that the climate frame would stimulate additional policy action, dismal national performance in the area of disaster prevention, and felt urgency to counter lobby groups’ increasing pressure to weaken laws protecting Brazil’s flora and fauna. According to our data and analyses here, disaster prevention and nature conservation—Brazil’s highest ranked environmental issue of concern—were not obviously served by framing extreme events as expressions of climate change.
High public concern and low levels of climate skepticism
American scientific thought leaders’ climate-stressing messages about disasters are adapted to a context very different from that of Brazil, where the population already expresses exceptionally high levels of concern about climate change (Lewis et al. 2019). Ignorance and skepticism about the theory and reality of human-induced climate change have little apparent hold. In line with this, the 2007–2008 and 2011 major debate statements revealed an important absence: none of them centers on confirming or contesting whether or not climate change is happening. Similarly, our discursive linking analyses found no skeptical views expressed about the theory of climate change. It revealed that Brazilian scientific and political environmental leaders spearheaded the push-back against interpretations of the two tragic disasters as caused by climate change. These actors are not uninformed with regard to climate change, nor indifferent, nor unconvinced. Nor are Latin Americans as a whole (Carle 2015). Confirming a tendency in surveys spanning decades (Leiserowitz 2007; Lorenzoni and Pidgeon 2006), a 2015 Pew Research Center survey found 75% of Brazilians to express high concern about climate change (Carle 2015), and a 2019 international comparison showed them to be the most climate concerned population in the world (Lewis et al. 2019). While there are important, ideological limitations to Brazilian newspapers’ climate coverage (Lahsen 2017), US-style climate skepticism is not prevalent in it (Dayrell and Urry 2015; Painter and Ashe 2012). Current studies find that skepticism about the theory and adverse impacts of human-induced climate change is mostly—or most strongly—a phenomenon in the global North and, primarily, in the USA, from where it diffuses only in a limited manner (Jacques et al. 2008; Painter 2011; Painter and Ashe 2012).
The findings of this study lead us to suggest that where climate skepticism is low, discursive space opens up for framing disasters such that they lead attention to other problems and solutions. Calling attention to climate change as cause is relatively less necessary in a context of generalized acceptance of its reality and high levels of worry about it.
Governmental leaders’ dominance in national discourses limit policy opportunities related to climate change
The findings of this study indicate that Brazilian policy and discursive contexts imposed formidable obstacles to policy development on climate change. Importantly, past policy achievements and countervailing positions of powerful national political leaders offer relatively limited opportunity for strengthening national climate policy. Our Major Debate Analysis revealed the strong dominance of federal governmental actors in print media debates around the disasters: they offered 43% of all statements presented in the articles analyzed. Over half of this subset of government statements were made by the President of the Republic and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and they stressed emphatically that developed and developing countries should have differential responsibilities in the climate mitigation. Together with Environment Ministry representatives (with whom they contributed 74% of all government statements), they also stressed that current Brazilian actions to reduce climate change were strong and sufficient during the period in focus.
The emphasis on Northern responsibility was subject to a modest consensus among the statements analyzed. By contrast, the government-promoted statement that current Brazilian actions to reduce climate change were strong and sufficient was contested by 65% of all statements on the topic, reflecting interpretations to the contrary. Nevertheless, the strength of government actors in national media coverage of climate change, and their emphatic stress of these positions present a powerful constraint to further development of climate change mitigation policies. Our Major Debate Analysis (Section 3.3) indicated considerable support for the principle of developed countries’ primary responsibility, understanding of national climate action as already considerable, and a government perception of conflict between national development priorities and additional emission reductions, as especially expressed by the powerful Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Objectively, Brazil could do more to reduce its greenhouse emissions. Its emissions from agriculture, energy, industrial activity, and waste were and remain high (de Azevedo 2016), and emissions from deforestation are “irrationally” high compared with the country’s associated economic output (Viola and Franchini 2017). Already in the early 2010s, leading analysts expressed doubt that the country would reach even the lower range of its official national emission reduction goal by 2020 due to insufficient federal prioritization and resource allocation (Pagliosa et al. 2012).
On the other hand, emissions from energy use in Brazil remain exceptionally low compared with those of most countries because of the large share of renewable sources (Ministério da Ciência e Tecnologia 2010). Moreover, Brazil has made great achievements in climate policy and emission reductions from deforestation. Between 2005 and 2011, Brazil achieved a 30% reduction in its carbon emissions by lowering the rate of deforestation—an internationally unequaled reduction at a time when the globally national average was a 9% emissions increase compared with 1990 levels (Economist 2010). This reduced its share of global emissions from 6 to approximately 2.5% (de Azevedo 2012). In addition, Brazil went from having no climate policies in 2000 to significant voluntary commitment to emission reductions in 2009 (at least 36.1% by 2020 relative to a projected business-as-usual scenario). Furthermore, it enshrined this international commitment into a national climate law in 2009 and increased its mitigation commitment further in 2015, becoming the only developing country with an absolute mitigation target for 2025 (Aamodt and Stensdal 2017).
Brazil’s emission achievements and their political use are apparent in the government-promoted major debate statements (statements 7 and 9). The positions expressed and promoted by the government actors confirm other analysts’ assertions (Viola and Franchini 2017) that the country’s emission achievements have enabled Brazil’s government to promote an idealized understanding of Brazil as an environmental superpower that has exceeded its responsibilities as a developing country. This discourse gained traction, also internationally (Howard 2014; Nepstad et al. 2014; Patterson 2016; Richards et al. 2017), starting in the late 2000s when Brazil was able to reduce the worst excesses of deforestation in the Amazon.
Dismal disaster prevention and its decoupling from climate policy
Whereas Brazil could boast of climate policy achievements during the timeframe in focus, national disaster preparedness was marked by profound failure, as also recognized by the government itself under the United Nations Hyogo Framework for Action. Just months before the Serrana disaster, Brazil submitted an obligatory report to the UN with an inventory of national actions and preparedness in face of calamities due to flooding, drought, earthquakes, and similar extreme events, admitting nearly total unpreparedness (Chade 2011). The chronic nature of this general lack of preparedness was captured by Brazil’s former Environment Minister, Green party representative, and Secretary of Environment in the Rio de Janeiro State Government, Carlos Minc: “In Brazil, there is no culture of prevention. In countries with cyclones and earthquakes, there are frequent simulations and training sessions, even for children. Here, until very recently, sirens and risk mapping were inexistent. Environmental (and not only environmental) impunity is the rule ...” (Minc 2015).
Relatively little institutional and financial support is to be found nationally and internationally to enhance climate adaptation and resilience. Largely delegated by the UNFCCC to national decision making, adaptation is subject to inadequate traditional international development funding (Council of Foreign Relations 2013). Nationally, official climate policies do not necessarily translate into climate vulnerability reduction and adaptation, due to a disconnect between official climate policy and actual decision-making at the level of forest—and more generally land—management, as was emphatically pointed out by Marina Silva and other environmental leaders discussed in The Discursive Linking Analysis.
Emphasizing the climate role in extreme events might encourage disaster prevention in some contexts, but this was not the case in Brazil during the periods we have examined. This helps explain why Brazilian environmental science and political leaders would forego the climate frame and instead center responsibility on actors or decisions which reduced vulnerability to extreme events in general. Tellingly, the media coverage portrayed local government officials’ initial attribution of the Santa Catarina disaster as a convenient but unconvincing means to escape their responsibility for the deep and chronic lack of disaster prevention, and national experts highlighted the role of poor monitoring and alarm systems, poverty, vegetation loss, and disorderly occupation of hills and slopes. As such, the Brazilian framing choices emphasizing more direct human drivers (compared with an indirect human role in the form of climate change) reflect well-informed blame gaming. Besides their important moral inflections, the choices to stress poor environmental decision-making, lacking disaster preparedness, and socio-economic inequality rather than climate change are politically astute considering the divergent national policy opportunities in the areas of climate change and disaster prevention.
US scientific thought leaders’ recommendations to emphasize the climate link to extreme events assume that doing so is strategic for environmental policy, and they implicitly posit climate change as serving—or trumping—all legitimate concerns. Our analysis of Brazil does not support this assumption.
Under the combination of circumstances that we have outlined above, pressing for national vulnerability reduction through a climate framing was a less obvious means of obtaining such an outcome, compared with a direct attack on faulty national disaster preparedness, including relevant forest and land management. In a sense, then, the framing away from the climate role in the tragic national extreme events might, at least in some instances, reflect a strategy to reduce national vulnerability to extreme events and, as such, also to climate change, to the extent that it expresses itself in the intensification of such events.
On the other hand, climate change is not the only concern in societies vulnerable to extreme events, and disasters can offer windows of opportunity for changes beyond climate, as they touch interacting domains, including social, economic, environmental, and legal systems (Birkmann et al. 2010, p. 650). As citizens of a country marked by exceptionally high levels of both socio-economic inequality and biological diversity, including two biodiversity hotspots (the Atlantic Forest and the Cerrado) and the larger part of the Amazon forest (IPBES 2018), Brazilians have more than climate change to care about, forcing additional strategic choices about what problems to emphasize when framing major, tragic extreme events. Deforestation in Brazil’s biodiversity-rich biomes is causing deep losses of ecosystem services and biodiversity that undermine nothing less than water, food, energy, and climate security in Brazil and beyond (Cowie 2018; Lahsen et al. 2016).
While Brazilians care deeply about climate change, surveys show that they attach great national pride and value to their abundant and beautiful natural environment (Brasil 2012). Indeed, they persistently rank deforestation and not climate change as the most important environmental problem (Crespo 2002; Crespo and Leitao 1993), and not only for Brazil: a 2012 survey found that only 10% of Brazilians listed climate change as the world’s most important environmental problem, against 64% who listed deforestation first (Brasil 2012).
This is highly pertinent to our analysis here since, during the years leading up to 2012, circumstances compelled environmental leaders to mobilize to protect national forest laws against lobby groups’ forceful—and, in 2012, eventually successful—pressures to weaken them. The proposed revisions to the Forest Code were intensely debated, as Brazilians rightly (Azevedo et al. 2017) worried that the revisions would intensify forest loss, as well as risk of flooding and landslides in cases of intense rainfall. Both our discursive linking and our major debate analyses showed Brazilian actors contesting insufficient enforcement of the Forest Code and pressures to weaken it, which would increase deforestation. Given that Brazilian decision-making bears so importantly on planetary biodiversity loss and conservation, and considering also other relevant circumstances discussed above, the Brazilian tendency to use extreme events to draw attention to this problem and other highly pertinent national social and policy issues can seem strategic and wise.
Science communication and counter-factual reflections
Disasters are generally multi-causal, including climate patterns and human decisions affecting vulnerability and resource use (Ribot 2009). Theoretically, that reality can be communicated. However, neither American nor Brazilian framings reviewed here generally did so. Instead, this study reveals that public actors are inclined to either highlight or else downplay, if not dismiss, the role of climate change in contributing to disasters. Popular communication tends towards simplification, as scientific nuances and qualifications can undermine clarity, sow confusion among publics, and fail to promote desired action paths (Hassol, et al. 2018).
The science of attributing specific extreme events to climate change is uncertain, and recent studies find that direct human drivers (e.g., decision-making affecting resource use) are more important than climate change in recent droughts in Brazil, for example (Otto et al. 2015). Current attribution science thus offers Brazil’s scientific and environmental leaders flexibility to frame extreme events in ways that serve their particular concerns and policy context. What would it have meant for Brazilians’ environment, politics, and policies if the science had come to be considered certain and unambiguous as to the role of climate change in the events in focus—or if it comes to be considered thus in the context of future extreme events?
Despite common beliefs and scientific ideals to the contrary, science does not determine social interpretations, and scientific claims bear the imprint of societal forces (Jasanoff 2004); they are inflected with diversity of meanings and morality, not least when they are communicated to society (Candall, 2010). Nevertheless, understandings accepted as scientific facts do weigh strongly, especially among scientific and political environmental leaders; they restrict the legitimacy of some interpretations relative to others, especially in science-laden environmental—as opposed to anti-environmental—subcommunities and networks (Lahsen 1999; Layrargues 2018). In the counterfactual scenario considered immediately above, such enhanced certainty or authoritative claims would reduce the interpretive flexibility available to Brazilian scientific and environmental leaders to focus blame on more direct, urgent, and relevant social and political causes, and to thus exert pressure for more responsible decision-making where it might be more deserved and beneficial—in the area of forest protection, for example, and enhanced societal resilience.