John Bolton's climate legacy
How Trump's third National Security Advisor quietly helped screw the planet.
Did Donald Trump really fire John Bolton, his third national security adviser in less than three years? Or did the famously mustachioed war monger resign, like he claimed in a Twitter post on Tuesday?
Here’s what I think:
I don’t care!
Welcome to HEATED.
Worst. Bromance. Ever.
There is one thing I do care about when it comes to John Bolton—and that’s the effect his tenure in the Trump administration has had, or will have, on the global climate.
Which brings me to his relationship with Jair Bolsonaro.
Bolsonaro, for the unfamiliar, is the far-right president of Brazil. (On the left in the picture). He most recently made headlines for rejecting $20 million in international aid to slow devastating wildfires in the Amazon rainforest—wildfires that continue to burn rapidly throughout the region.
Bolsonaro’s not a huge fan of the Amazon rainforest in general—at least, not as the planet’s most effective natural tool for fighting climate change. No; Bolsonaro sees the Amazon as more of a money-making opportunity, and would like to chop down a lot of it for farming and mining and logging. He also does not think climate change is a thing. Go figure.
Anyway, John Bolton, on the right in the picture, was the first member of the Trump administration to make contact with Bolsonaro. Shortly following the Brazilian climate denier’s election in January of 2018, Bolton praised him as a “like-minded” leader whose win was a “welcome development” for the region. Weeks later, before Bolsonaro’s inauguration, Bolton met with Bolsonaro for breakfast at his home in Brazil. (That’s where the picture is from). The two men were joined by a few members of Bolsonaro’s team, including his then-incoming foreign minister Ernesto Araujo, who has said he thinks climate change is a Marxist invention.
The meeting went well, according to Bolton, who tweeted a few pictures and said he looked forward to a “dynamic partnership” with Brazil. He said Bolsonaro’s election would help quell the rise of socialist governments in the Southern Hemisphere, and would cause “the righteous flame of freedom” to “burn brightly again” in the region.
Seriously, he said that. Like, I couldn’t even make this stuff up if I tried.
Why it matters.
I’m not blaming John Bolton for the skyrocketing rate of deforestation that’s taken place in Brazil since Bolsonaro’s election. Nor am I blaming him for Bolsonaro’s weakened forest conservation policies, which are likely contributing to the increase.
What I am blaming Bolton for is America’s failure to even try to stop the rapid destruction of the Earth’s carbon regulation system, which cannot be replaced once it is gone. To me, Bolton’s legacy will always be that he not only ignored, but actively encouraged this destruction by palling around with Bolsonaro—thereby worsening the climate emergency and amplifying one of the biggest national security threats we face.
The job Bolton held exists for one reason: to advise the president on the most pressing national security threats to the United States. It is the consensus of the United States military that climate change ranks among those. Even James Mattis, Trump’s former Defense Secretary, has admitted to this. Left unchecked, climate change will spur mass migrations that push millions into over-strained and inhospitable host nations; quicken the rise of authoritarian regimes; destroy military infrastructure on both land and sea; and spark resource wars from Africa to the Arctic. Even today, climate change is “impacting stability in areas of the world where our troops are operating,” Mattis wrote in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The United States has the ability to stem this threat, even when it’s not burning in our backyard. In an op-ed for NBC News last week, Democratic Senators Chris Murphy and Brian Schatz laid out a few things we could do about Brazil deforestation:
First, we must make clear that the fires in Brazil are a national security crisis and that we are willing to pause aspects of our bilateral relationship with Brazil until their government takes action to bring them under control, along with the ranchers and loggers reportedly starting. Nothing about our relationship with Brazil should be business as usual until Bolsonaro takes meaningful action to quell the fires and protect the Amazon. …
Brazil’s sovereignty over the rainforest is unique among nations, and they should not be expected to bear the responsibility of preserving this crucial ecosystem on their own. Going forward, if Bolsonaro’s government commits to taking conservation seriously, we should stand ready to help Brazil develop its economy and provide opportunities to ordinary Brazilians that do not rely on destroying the Amazon.
Sure, Trump may not have (read: would not have) listened to Bolton if he advised the president on these threats or potential actions to stem them.
But because he never made them, the blame falls to him.
Bolton’s choice to ignore the Amazon burning around him isn’t the only thing I’ll remember him for.
Indeed, the Center for Climate and Security’s Francesco Femia reminded me yesterday that Bolton supported creating a climate science review panel at the White House, intended specifically to challenge the findings of mainstream climate science. A New York Times article about the panel also reminded me that Bolton brought on William Happer—the climate denying physicist who once said carbon dioxide was being demonized “just like … the poor Jews under Hitler”—to lead the panel as part of the National Security Council.
Though the panel was never officially created, it helped Bolton send a signal "to all the departments and agencies that climate change is not a national security priority,” Femia said. And now, “we've wasted three years” doing nothing, he added. “The consequences for security could be significant."
The consequences for Bolton, however, will likely be few—in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he were rewarded handsomely for his inaction. After all, as the Times article reminded me, both Bolton and Happer “are both beneficiaries of Robert and Rebekah Mercer, the far-right billionaire and his daughter who have funded efforts to debunk climate science.” And before he joined the Trump administration, as another article reminded me, “Bolton held a senior fellowship at the American Enterprise Institute, which is funded by fossil fuel magnates the Koch brothers, notorious for backing climate science denial worldwide.”
So I’m sure Bolton won’t be out of a job for long. People that willing to screw the planet never are.
OK, that’s all for now—thanks so much for reading HEATED! If you liked it, hated it, or want to pitch me a story idea, let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
See you tomorrow!