The Direct Links Between Southern Brazil’s Massive Flooding and Climate Denial

Right-wing groups are peddling false claims that the heavy rainfall that led to the region’s disastrous flooding in May is not related to climate change.
Flooding in Rio Grande do Sul on May 8. Credit: Thales Renato/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

On May 9, volunteers and emergency workers were still rescuing people and animals who remained stranded on the sixth day of flooding on the streets of Rio Grande do Sul’s capital, Porto Alegre. Social media images of the rooftop rescue of a horse named Caramelo shocked the world. 

A day before the dramatic rescue, Porto Alegre’s deputy mayor, Ricardo Gomes, appeared on a livestream wearing a cap with the Brasil Paralelo logo. Brasil Paralelo is a far-right media company with a streaming platform focusing on “journalism, entertainment, and education,” as its website states. The company was founded in Porto Alegre in 2016 and serves as a main channel of climate denialism among right-wing groups in Brazil. By wearing the Brasil Paralelo logo, Gomes associated himself with an institution that experts say is a purveyor of climate denialism, at the height of a climate-related disaster. 

Some days later, Ricardo Felício, a professor of Brasil Paralelo’s education wing who has also appeared on many of the platform’s documentaries, wrote that climate change did not cause the extreme rainfall in South Brazil. He published his opinions in the Revista Oeste (West Magazine), a print and online publication that caters to far-right followers of former President Jair Bolsonaro, saying “CO2 has nothing to do with it!” 

Southern Brazil was under water for the entire month of May, and two months later, it’s still facing the consequences of the worst flood in its history. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced – 180 have died, and 32 are still missing. 

Flooded rivers swept away entire communities in a disaster on par with 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. The town of Estrela, located on the banks of Taquari River, was more than 70 percent submerged. In recent years, the region has experienced more and more extreme rainfall. Residents of towns on the Taquari River are still feeling the impacts of their third consecutive flood in a six-month period.

Porto Alegre, with 1.4 million inhabitants, was flooded for four weeks between May and June due to swelling water from the Guaiba River and failures of the city’s anti-flood system. The region’s main airport, Salgado Filho International Airport, is not expected to operate again until December.

Porto Alegre’s mayor, Sebastião Melo, and Deputy Mayor Gomes have led its city council since 2021. Both were elected in the wake of Bolsonarism and won decisive victories. And both have faced media criticism for failures in managing the city’s emergency responses to the flood and for failing to update its anti-flood system.

Gomes has participated in events run by Atlas Network, an extensive global collective of more than 500 think tanks, many known to have a history of working against climate action. He attended Atlas Network’s 2019 CEO Summit of the Americas, where leaders of right-wing think tanks gathered to exchange ideas. He appeared at the summit as president of RELIAL, a network of right-wing Latin American research organizations. He is a member of Atlas Network’s Global Council of CEOs team.

Gomes also participated in Atlas Network’s 2020 Latin America Liberty Forum online, again representing RELIAL. The politician is also a long-standing ally, teacher, and host of a political series on Brasil Paralelo’s YouTube channel. His political connections reveal an intricate network that links Brazilian far-right organizations that deny climate change with international think tanks.

Brasil Paralelo’s Roots

In the months after the center-left Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff was impeached in 2016, far-right proponents established Brasil Paralelo, which arose from the growth of far-right ideas that gained ground in the country at the time. Its five founders, who were students, claimed that mass media was overwhelmingly left-wing, and they wanted to challenge mainstream public opinion about the nation’s political crisis after Rouseff’s impeachment.

Three of the original founders, Lucas Ferrugem, Henrique Viana, and Filipe Valerim, now run the company. Experts interviewed for the platform’s first documentaries included names from Instituto Millenium, Instituto Liberal, and Instituto Mises, partner think tanks of Atlas Network in Brazil in 2016.

Inside Brasil Paralelo’s studios. Credit: Brasil Paralelo/Wikimedia Commons.

A panel titled “Entrepreneurship for Common Good” by Atlas Network partner Acton Institute used Brasil Paralelo’s founding and development as a case study in 2021. The panel explored how “entertainment can shape a society’s culture,” and Brasil Paralelo’s role within the “prevailing cultural winds to point Brazil towards pillars of freedom and virtue through a holistic approach to education and entrepreneurship,” as the video states. 

Alejandro Chafuen, president of Atlas Network between 1991 and 2018 and a Mont Pelerin Society member, taught a Brasil Paralelo course about faith and free-market ideas in 2019. Chafuen also mentioned the media company in his Forbes magazine column in 2023, in which he compared the Brazilian organization to the U.S. nonprofit conservative media group PragerU. He made the same comparison to his YouTube subscribers (over 3.38 million) and Instagram followers (2.5 million), indicating that Brasil Paralelo surpassed PragerU’s audience levels with more than 300,000 subscribers on YouTube and around 400,000 on Instagram. 

Chafuen compares the popularity of Brasil Paralelo to widespread support for Olavo de Carvalho, the deceased influential far-right philosopher who was also known for his strident scientific denialism, including climate denialism. Chafuen also wrote in Forbes that “Brasil Paralelo is planning to land in the United States and replicate its success with U.S.-focused topics, teams, and profiles.”

In August 2023, Brasil Paralelo ran an article raising doubts about the effects of climate change stemming from a speech by UN Secretary Antonio Guiterrez claiming that “the era of global boiling has arrived”. According to the article,”It is not a question of denying climate change, but of discussing whether or not humankind influences this process and to what degree the planet will warm up (or cool down).” 

Chafuen’s article promoted a 2021 Brasil Paralelo documentary called “Cortina de Fumaça” (“Smoke Screen”). It stated that the documentary seeks to answer questions such as, “How does the environmental movement affect the economy in Brazil and other countries? What lies behind some of the main environmentalist misinformation?”

Patrick Moore, a known climate science denier, is presented in the documentary as a co-founder of Greenpeace. Years before, DeSmog had reported that this claim was false. Moore stated in the documentary that Greenpeace is “a conspiracy organization, spreading junk science around the world.” 

One of the sections in “Smoke Screen,” which is available on YouTube, is titled “Environmental apocalyptic predictions that are false.” The journalist Augusto Nunes, one of the founders of Revista Oeste, said in the segment that the Amazon rainforest is not being destroyed, contradicting official data from 2021. Other sources in Brazil, including Aldo Rebelo, former minister of defense during Rousseff’s government, supported the same argument. 

According to the documentary, environmental campaigners’ criticisms and so-called “lies” about the Amazon rainforest’s deforestation are attempts to protect the U.S. and European agricultural markets. 

In another article in September 2023, Brasil Paralelo defended the idea that global warming legitimizes NGOs’ actions pushing international actions such as the Paris Agreement, which the platform claims keeps developing countries producing less while first-world countries maintain their production. 

In an interview with The Intercept Brasil, researcher Renata Nagamine from the Brazilian Center of Analysis and Planning (Cebrap) said Brasil Paralelo’s “Smoke Screen” uses a “scientific repertoire on the margins of climate science.” 

When contacted by DeSmog, representatives for Brasil Paralelo did not respond to requests for comment.

“CO2 Has Nothing to Do With It!”

Climate change boosted the rainfall volume in Rio Grande do Sul by 15 percent, according to a study by the website Clima Meter, which confirmed the influence of climate change on the recent  flooding disaster in the region. 

Clima Meter is “an experimental rapid framework for understanding extreme weather events in a changing climate based on looking at similar past weather situations.” From the analysis of the patterns of local precipitation and the ElNiño-Southern Oscillation, the researchers interpreted the “Brazil floods as an event whose local characteristics can mostly be ascribed to human driven climate change.”

Flooding in South Brazil on May 5. Credit: Ricardo Stuckert/Wikimedia Commons

Davide Faranda, a researcher of the Laboratory for Sciences of Climate and Environment at the Institute Pierre Simon Laplace and coauthor of Clima Meter’s study on Brazil’s flooding, said in an interview with the local newspaper, GaúchaZH, that floods have been intensified by the burning of fossil fuels and have a major impact on vulnerable communities, which bear the brunt of climate change.

However, Ricardo Felício, who teaches courses at Brasil Paralelo and is a professor of geography at the University of São Paulo (USP), offered a contradictory explanation for the disaster.

“It is confusing to relate the climate to a meteorological scenario of large dimensions, which is the case here,” wrote Felício in his May 12 weekly column in Revista Oeste. “CO2 has nothing to do with it!” 

In addition to writing for Revista Oeste, Felício is a well-known climate denier in Brazilian politics. DeSmog uncovered an interview with Felício on a once-popular Brazilian TV show, where Felício stated in 2012, “There is no scientific proof of global warming.” Brazil’s ex-president Bolsonaro tweeted an interview between Nando Moura, a well-known right-wing influencer, and Felicio in 2017.

Between 2017 and 2021, Felício gave several lectures at universities and trade associations across the country denying climate change after the Aprosoja Mato Grosso (an association of soybean growers) sponsored his talks, according to a BBC investigation.

Journalists and media executives founded Revista Oeste in 2020. It is a self-proclaimed conservative outlet and claims the problems of capitalism should be solved with more capitalism.

The magazine’s print cover in June 2024, a month after the tragedy in Rio Grande do Sul, showed the planet resting on a palm, followed by the headline “The global warming hoax.” The periodical also published other articles on the floods in Rio Grande do Sul, denying climate change had a part in the disaster.

“Historically, apocalyptic predictions about the climate have not come close to coming true. Now, activists are blaming climate change for the floods in Rio Grande do Sul,” wrote the journalist Myllena Valença. The piece claimed that “facts overturn the delirious prophecies of environmental activists, who for decades have been announcing disasters caused by global warming.” Felício is a leading source in the report. 

Revista Oeste’s June 2024 cover. Credit: The Wayback Machine

The June print edition also featured an interview with the president of Environmental Progress, Michael Shellenberger, a well-known nuclear energy enthusiast and a Republican witness in climate hearings in the U.S. Congress. In the interview, he pointed out he is optimistic about the environment and pessimistic about civilization. “I’m worried about the hysteria around global warming,” Shellenberger said. 

When contacted by DeSmog, representatives for Revista Oeste did not respond to requests for comment.

A Well-Connected Deputy Mayor 

Donations poured into Rio Grande do Sul in the aftermath of the flooding disaster to help people who had lost everything. Brasil Paralelo asked for donations for an organization called Instituto Cultural Floresta (ICF). 

Porto Alegre’s Deputy Mayor Gomes also requested donations to the same organization, even though his City Hall made its own donation channel available, an Agência Pública investigation revealed last month. 

The ICF is a nonprofit organization based in Porto Alegre, and according to its website, it focuses on providing security forces with military equipment. Leaders and members of the organization are connected to the Instituto de Estudos Empresariais (IEE), an Atlas Network think tank partner in Brazil that promotes the right-wing annual meeting, Liberty Forum, which is sponsored directly by Atlas Network, and boosts right-wing political candidates. 

Leonardo Fração is president of the ICF and a former IEE president. He spoke at the Liberty Forum in 2018 and in 2010.

Other ICF members are affiliated with IEE, including Bruno Zaffari, the owner of real estate and supermarket companies, and Wilson Ling, the director of the plastic packaging and forestry company Évora S.A. 

Gomes held various positions, including president of the IEE from 2009 to 2012. But his relations with right-wing think tanks stretch much further. Between 2016 and 2020, he served as the president of RELIAL, and he also is a member of the Mont Pelerin Society. DeSmog research found that Mont Pelerin Society members are affiliated with over 100 organizations that also appear on the membership list of the Atlas Network.

Atlas Network also quoted Gomes in a report about the Latin America Liberty Forum in 2021.

RELIAL presents itself as a network of brain trusts that “disseminate and implement liberal principles as their flag.” Agustín Etchebarne, a member and a former director of  RELIAL, is also the general director of the Fundación Libertad y Progreso, an Argentinian Atlas-affiliated think tank that supported the election of far-right Argentinian President Javier Gerardo Milei.   

Atlas Network awarded Fundación Libertad y Progresoa a grant in 2024. The organization spent the money to promote an international summit in partnership with the Cato Institute for the six-month anniversary of the inauguration of Milei. The event took place June 11-12 in Buenos Aires, and Milei attended.

Fundación Libertad y Progresoa promoted an international summit in partnership with the Cato Institute for the six-month anniversary of the inauguration of Argentininan President Javier Milei. Credit: Wikipedia

When contacted for comment,  Atlas Network said in a statement that the organization “has no grant programs related to climate change and makes no policy prescriptions to its partners on the subject of climate change.” It also stated that it “does not fund initiatives advocating against the existence of climate change.”

The organization stated that it “has no partnerships with candidates, parties, or government officials,” and that its “partners are independent, nonprofit organizations engaged in public policy issues.”  

Atlas also asserted that “there are no ‘Atlas Network groups’ in Brazil,” but instead “independent partner organizations that apply to receive training, grants, and networking opportunities from Atlas Network.”  The think tank network also stated that its partners are “each governed independently and are not managed by our organization.” 

Political Negligence and Climate Denialism

The media has widely criticized Porto Alegre’s Mayor Melo for his crisis management issues and his administration’s low budget for flood prevention. To defend against the criticism, Melo claimed online that, “I’m not a denialist on anything, much less on the climate issue.”

Porto Alegre suffered two severe floods in 2023, including its biggest flood since 1941. However, since 2021, the city council reduced its investment in flood protection, and added no additional protection in 2023. 

Experts also condemned the city’s failure to maintain its anti-flooding system, which was designed in the 1970s. The Municipal Department of Water and Sewage, which operates the system, has laid off more than half of its employees since 2013. In addition, Melo’s term in office has included environmental scandals and conflicts with environmentalists and indigenous people. 

When contacted by DeSmog, Porto Alegre’s City Hall Press Office, which represents Melo and Gomes, did not respond to requests for comment.

When the flooding crisis deepened in Porto Alegre, Melo used a Bolsonarist style, applying the motto that every person looks out for his own, which summarizes his way of doing politics. “If you have a house on the beach and can afford to leave, I recommend that you leave and go to the beach,” he said, talking about wealthier families who have second homes at the beach. This comes from the mayor of a city where inequality is so entrenched that many people don’t have one home, let alone a second beach house. 

Gomes has said he will not seek reelection with Melo this year, but that he will continue supporting Melo against “the radical left.” Everything suggests, however, that the Brasil Paralelo cap will officially be part of his uniform. 

Lucas Araldi is a Brazilian journalist and a PhD Candidate in Political Science at the University of Kassel, Germany. He studies the struggles between right wing and progressive networks of intellectuals on environmental and labor policies in Latin America.

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