Brazil's climate sabotage
As Amazon deforestation surges, Jair Bolsonaro says only cash can make it stop.
There are few humans with more power over the climate than Jair Bolsonaro. The Trump-like president of Brazil knows this better than anyone—which is why he’s threatening to destroy it unless he gets lots of cash.
Reports of this threat come from President Joe Biden’s virtual summit of world climate leaders held this past Earth Day. At that summit, Bolsonaro publicly pledged to make Brazil carbon neutral by 2050 and end illegal deforestation of the Amazon rainforest by 2030. That was great news, because ending deforestation in the Amazon is crucial to reaching the 1.5 degree Celsius target. It simply will not happen without Brazil.
Privately, however, Bolsonaro refused to make any agreement with the Biden administration to end his own legal assault on the Amazon. And his environment minister, Ricardo Salles, told the Wall Street Journal that it wouldn’t happen unless the U.S. gave Brazil at least $1 billion. “We think that $1 billion … is a very reasonable amount that can be mobilized up front,” he said.
Salles told the Journal that Brazil needs the money because it can’t save the rainforest without it. The country, he said, needs help to increase enforcement of environmental laws against illegal deforesters, and to support new programs to “provide alternatives to poor farmers who slash and burn to raise crops and cattle.”
But that’s very hard to believe, given the Bolsonaro administration’s record of implementing policies that actively weaken environmental enforcement and encourage slash and burning in the Amazon. The recent alarming acceleration in Amazon deforestation is a “direct result” of Bolsonaro’s policies, according to Amnesty International. Also, literally the day after the interview, Bolsonaro approved a 24 percent cut to Brazil’s environment budget.
“Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is not the result of a lack of money, but a consequence of the government’s deliberate failure of care,” former Brazilian environment ministers Marina Silva and Rubens Ricupero wrote in The Guardian. Marcio Astrini, the executive secretary of the Brazilian Climate Observatory, seems to agree. “It’s extortion,” he told Rolling Stone’s Jeff Goodell in a recent interview. “Bolsonaro and his team are saying, ‘If you don’t give us the money, we don’t know what will happen to the Amazon.’
Silva and Ricupero warned the Biden administration not to fall for Bolsonaro’s trap. “What the government is missing is not cash, but a commitment to the truth,” they wrote. “To reach a billion-dollar agreement with Bolsonaro’s government at this crucial moment will only strengthen its resolve: it will be a boon for the farmers and land-grabbers who have illegally occupied public forests and indigenous land and send the precisely opposite message to that which is needed in this crucial year for the climate.”
So what should Biden do instead? Some suggest a regional environmental treaty, though Bolsonaro hasn’t been known to take those very seriously. Others, like Senate Democrats, have urged Biden to only give aid with very strict conditions. There’s also the option of a more aggressive approach—denial of aid, sanctions, et cetera, et cetera.
The most immediate thing Biden has to do, though, is appoint a new U.S. ambassador to Brazil. Because up until last week, the Bolsonaro-friendly ambassador appointed by Trump remained in place. Todd Chapman, the now-former ambassador to Brazil, had “made headlines by cozying up to Bolsonaro’s administration, particularly by hosting the president at a July 4 barbecue at his residence in the midst of the pandemic,” the Federal News Network reported. His resignation last week “could signal more U.S. pressure on Brazil regarding environmental issues,” it added.
This is a story that will continue to unfold. Until then, I recommend reading the Rolling Stone feature about Bolsonaro’s climate sabotage published last week, which deems him “the most dangerous climate denier in the world.” It’s a succinct and well-reported summary of the threat Bolsonaro poses to everyone’s future, and why that threat is coming to an alarming head right now as a dry season exacerbated by fossil fuels approaches.
I also recommend reading about how deforestation in the Amazon has been accelerating lately, and how a climate-fueled dry season is making the problem worse. You don’t have to go anywhere to do that; I’m re-posting an article about it from Mongabay below.
One more thing: We talk about the U.S. a lot at the newsletter. But Brazil’s role in our collective climate future cannot be overstated. The country is home to more than half of the Amazon, which covers 4 percent of the Earth’s surface and is home to one in ten of Earth’s species. The carbon-absorbing trees in that forest are a big reason fossil fuels haven’t already turned the planet into an unlivable hotbox. Without them, we’re fucked.
I know that all seems very depressing. But if we don’t know about it, we don’t care. And if we don’t care, nothing gets done.
The recent surge in Amazon deforestation, explained
This article was originally published on Mongabay.com, and is republished here with permission.
By Rhett A. Butler
Destruction of Earth’s largest rainforest is accelerating ahead of the region’s peak fire and deforestation season, reveals data released Friday by Brazil’s national space research institute INPE.
According to INPE’s satellite-based deforestation tracking system, DETER, forest clearing in the Brazilian part of the Amazon amounted to 1,391 square kilometers, an area 24 times the size of Manhattan, in May. That represents a 67 percent increase over May 2020 and puts deforestation nearly on pace with last year’s rate, when forest loss in the region reached 11,088 square kilometers (4,281 square miles), the highest level since 2008.
The figure also represents the highest recorded in any May since at least 2007. Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon typically peaks from June to September, when the region experiences its dry season, which also coincides with when most fire-setting occurs.
Ninety-seven percent of the deforestation detected during the month occurred in just four states: Pará (37 percent), Amazonas (25 percent), Mato Grosso (20 percent), and Roraima (15 percent). Pará and Mato Grosso normally rank as the top deforesters in Brazil due to cattle ranching and clearing for agriculture. Amazonas and Roraima typically do not top the list of states in terms of deforestation. Acre, a state that has historically had high rates of deforestation but has implemented measures to control forest clearing, accounted for only 2 percent.
Deforestation associated with mining amounted to 38 square kilometers, 88 percent of which occurred in Pará. While mining represents only a small fraction of forest clearing, the figure in May is the highest since INPE started monthly tracking under its current system in August 2016. Mining in the region has been attracting attention of late due land invasions and associated violence against Indigenous communities by wildcat miners.
Climate-fueled fire season expected to worsen problem
Scientists are bracing for a bad fire season in the southern and eastern Amazon, an area known as the “arc of deforestation” for its high rates of clearance, due to below average rainfall during the most recent rainy season.
Fires the past two years have made international headlines, calling public attention to the surge in deforestation under Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Fires are already burning in the Amazon, according to the Amazon Conservation Association’s Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP), which tracks burning in the region.
A resurgence of fire and deforestation in the Amazon is heightening concerns about the fate of Earth’s largest rainforest, which stores billions of tons of carbon, houses millions of people including scores of Indigenous tribes, and serves as the planet’s greatest refuge for biodiversity.
Roughly 20 percent of the Amazon has been cleared since the 1970s and researchers fear that the ecosystem could be approaching a point where vast areas transition toward drier habitat akin to that of the adjacent Cerrado and Chaco biomes. There are already signs this may be underway, including changes in species assemblages, reduced humidity, and tree die-offs in the southern reaches of the Amazon.
Bolsonaro emerges as top climate villain
These worries have spurred international condemnation of the forest policies of the Bolsonaro administration. Since taking office in January 2019, Bolsonaro has rolled back protections for the Amazon, cut budgets for environmental law enforcement, granted amnesty for some illegal deforesters, and used heated rhetoric against environmentalists and Indigenous peoples.
Deforestation under the Bolsonaro administration through its first 29 months is more than three times higher than under Dilma Rousseff, the last president for which there is equivalent period of rule, while violence has jumped — data published last month by the Pastoral Land Commission showed a record number of land conflict cases in 2020.
Catch of the Day:
Fish hides from stressful news in his favorite place: leg nooks.
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I recommend that folks check out E.O. Wilson's book "Half Earth" (sorry, don't know how to put italics in this comment). Written in 2016 right before Trump was elected, he puts out a plan to put aside half of the planets' land in order to protect and replenish the planetary ecosystems as a necessary prerequisite for our own survival. It is an ambitious plan, but he makes a compelling case for setting aside places like the Amazon forest as evolutionary "hot spots," i.e. places that are ecologically orders of magnitude more diverse and vulnerable than other more disturbed areas of the planet and necessary to protect the processes of life including our own.
Isn't it possible to just let things fall apart and nature will reconstruct itself and we'll get through that bottleneck through the miracle of genetic engineering? Well, of course: nature has bounced back from the elimination of 95% of living species before, as well as much less dramatic shocks to the system like the asteroid hitting the Yucatan Peninsula, wiping out the mega-dinosaurs. Remember, though, that these recoveries have taken millions, not thousands of years. EO Wilson is pretty compelling when he says: forget about humanity surviving the current transition described as the Anthropocene unless we shield much more of the planet's ecosystems than we are currently attempting in order to help the diversity of life through our self induced biological bottleneck. And as far as genetic engineering, I'd give better than even odds that this technology will hasten our demise as a dominant species, not extend it, as we'll weaponize it just as we've done with every other technology we've developed.
To get back to the point, Wilson's pre-Trump book makes a compelling argument for a plan well worth studying and adopting, and gives an eloquent context for why Bolsonaro is such a threat.
This is so hard to read. Thanks for bringing it to our attention - I admit, news about the Amazon's destruction is so debilitatingly sad and hopeless to me that I usually try not to read or think about it. But your reminder at the end of this piece was important - if we don't know, we won't care, and we won't be able to make a change. I guess the hard thing for me is feeling extra powerless about pressuring a Trump-like president of a totally different country. At least in the US I feel like I can try to pressure our leaders. But thanks for this article and context - it's so helpful!