Panel explores the role of cities in the climate crisis

Maria Eduarda Vaz
April 07, 2023

Cities pose special challenges in the effort to combat climate change. We know them as centers of commerce and population, but we must not forget that both of these are susceptible to severe weather changes.

These were among the topics discussed by a panel of experts at the launch of the Climate Hub Rio on March 14 at the Museum of Tomorrow, in Rio.

Moderated by Teresa Borges, senior program manager at the Rio Global Center, the panel discussed how government, academia, and civil society can work together towards more sustainable cities and climate justice.

Cities are a central part of society, said Daniel Zarrilli, special advisor for climate and sustainability at Columbia University.

“[Cities are] centers of culture, media, commerce. [They are] Also, of course in an era of climate change, a place of vulnerability, a place where all the pre-existing challenges are exacerbated”. 

Daniel Zarrilli, Special Advisor for Climate and Sustainability at Columbia University, during the Climate Hub Rio launch event on March, 14. Photo: Fabio Cordeiro

Issues such as housing and affordability, economic insecurity, and infrastructure challenges are always present in cities, he said, but when you add the challenges of climate it exacerbates all of those problems. 

“And whether that’s the physical challenges, landslides, droughts, sea level rise, storms, those do play out in cities,” Zarrilli said. “But the social challenges of climate change are important as well – migration, food insecurity – the social impacts are, in fact, in many ways much worse.”

When talking about Brazil and Rio de Janeiro, in particular, favelas must be part of the conversation, according to Tainá de Paula, municipal secretary for environment and climate of the city of Rio de Janeiro. 

Tainá de Paula, Municipal Secretary for Environment and Climate of the City of Rio de Janeiro, during the Climate Hub Rio launch event on March 14. Photo: Fabio Cordeiro

Throughout the years, the thought of favelas as problems to be solved and places to be wiped clean has dominated. De Paula said that this must change and because favelas are an integral part of the city and its identity – and therefore critical to its response to the climate emergency – they provide a good test case for new approaches and potential solutions. 

“If we manage to develop local technologies, local solutions to problems that occur both in the macro- or micro-territory of the favela, to a large extent, we will be able to solve this problem in the entire city,” she said. “If I can solve Rua do Valão or the Cunha canal in Jacaré, I can solve Rua Jardim Botânico.”

“This territory [favela] was and is a solution; an economic solution, a housing solution, a solution for savage capitalism that made our cities precarious and did not provide an environmental solution to our favelados [people who live in favelas] and to our territories”, she added.

One example is LabJaca, a laboratory for research, training, and production of data and narratives about favelas and peripheries, located in the Jacarezinho favela, in the north of Rio de Janeiro. 

Thiago Nascimento, a youth leader from Jacarezinho, and co-founder of LabJaca, said part of the group’s mission is to challenge the type of public policy that does not listen to their experience.

Thiago Nascimento, a youth leader from Jacarezinho, and co-founder of LabJaca, during the Climate Hub Rio launch event. Photo: Fabio Cordeiro

“Based on data, we can definitely think of public policies that engage residents, that make a difference and that deliver life quality to the favelas,” he said.

LabJaca and other periphery-based organizations recently formed Clima de Mudança: Periferias em movimento nos temas de clima e meio ambiente, a coalition with a global reach, made up mostly of organizations from the periphery of Brazil and from countries in the Global South that work in favor of climate justice.

Nascimento said the coalition was founded as a way of valuing the knowledge of these local organizations and showing why academia should not treat them just as an object of study. 

“We've been developing different things for a long time, surviving all these impacts of climate change,” he said. “So, it's high time for us to have an active participation in thinking about futures, thinking about a new model of society, thinking about how to pave new paths so that other people - young people, black people from the periphery - can be occupying these spaces [of discussing and designing public policies].”

Bringing his experience in dealing with the damage caused in New York by Hurricane Sandy – the largest recorded Atlantic hurricane that pummeled the northeast in 2012 – Columbia’s Zarrilli shared that the public policies implemented were informed by academia and civil society. The city had several years before the hurricane set up the New York City Panel on Climate Change, an organization made up of academics from various universities in the region, including Columbia, that was helping to understand the best science around climate change and what it was going to mean for New York City. When the hurricane struck, the panel was recalled back into service to help bring the science into the policy development. 

“I think there’s just so much richness to that type of example that worked in New York City,” Zarrilli said.“I think [it] is a very common approach that we can take here to make sure that community voices, the science and the research that academia can provide, as well as the actionable policy and investments and deliverables that government can do, all of that coming together I think is how we really solve big complicated problems.” 

“It’s by doing it together, it’s by asking the questions together so that we can all work towards common outcomes at the end”, Zarrilli emphasized.

Natalie Unterstell, climate activist and President of Talanoa Institute, during the Climate Hub Rio launch event on March, 14. Photo: Fabio Cordeiro

Natalie Unterstell, climate activist and president of Talanoa Institute, commended the New York City model, stating that Brazil needs to move towards this direction and take a more active approach to such issues. 

“The good news is that Brazil has a great opportunity,” she said. “We have the possibility of reaching the end of this decade with up to 80% reduction in emissions. This at a low cost and without having to invent disruptive technology. We can, if we do that, be the first country to be net zero. We have the potential, and we have the chance to do it cheaply and quickly.”.

The time to act is now, Unterstell said. 

“We are ready to act, but honestly, we have a lot to do,” she said. “So it won't be a government, it won't be a climate authority, we [all the sectors of society] have to really join hands and go ahead, otherwise it won't happen.”

Climate Hub | Rio Launch (March 14, 2023)

Climate Hub Rio is a knowledge, research, and innovation hub that will bring together experts from Brazil, Columbia University, and around the world, to discuss and work on global climate issues while benefiting from an important regional perspective. The project is a partnership between the City of Rio de Janeiro and the Rio Global Center and will foster more effective collaboration and outreach between local leaders in Brazil and the global scientific community.

The Hub will offer scholarships to Brazil researchers and scientists to develop projects in the country and also at Columbia University, in New York. The Hub's goal is to promote broader cooperation between the academic community at Columbia University and Brazil, as well as promote more effective collaboration and outreach between local leaders in Brazil and the global scientific community.

From education to action

The Climate Hub will be organized around four main activity models.

Education: Columbia faculty participation in educational programs to be developed at the Hub.

Convening: development and organization of events and programming around diverse climate-related issues, including energy transition, land use, and climate equity.

Network: creation of connections between academic talents, with the aim of promoting research and, above all, expanding the dissemination outside of Brazil of the work and results developed by the Hub and partner educational institutions.

Action: Make a concrete impact on climate policy actions locally in Rio de Janeiro, nationally in Brazil, and globally through the Columbia University network.