The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Brazil’s Bolsonaro threatens the planet

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Jair Bolsonaro is the clear favorite to become Brazil’s next president. Polls place the far-right candidate comfortably in front of his challenger, Fernando Haddad, ahead of their Oct. 28 runoff vote. Stirred by a gargantuan government corruption scandal and rising crime rates, voters are so angry that most of them are willing to look past Bolsonaro’s record of homophobia, misogyny, racism and apologia for dictatorship — those voters, at least, who weren’t already enticed by Bolsonaro’s ultranationalist agenda.

That agenda has rung alarms inside and outside Brazil. In last-ditch television ads, Haddad linked his heavily favored opponent to the grim history of abuse and torture under the country’s former military rulers. The Economist, a publication known for its center-right politics, was so perturbed by the “real threat” Bolsonaro poses to Brazilian democracy that it endorsed a Latin American leftist.

But while experts and pundits wring their hands over another blow to liberal democracy in the West, others see a more dire risk lurking behind Bolsonaro’s platform: The candidate’s potential war on the environment.

In speeches, Bolsonaro has declared that, like President Trump, he would pull his country out of the Paris climate accords. Courting the support of the powerful agribusiness lobby, Bolsonaro has railed against the country’s “excessive” policing of its rural areas and forests. He floated the idea of combining the country’s agriculture and environment ministries, which critics worry would enfeeble environmental protections. And he has long supported opening up indigenous areas, currently protected by the government, to agricultural and commercial use.

“Environmentalists fear that a Bolsonaro presidency will signal open season in the Amazon for illegal loggers, miners and crooked ranchers in Brazil, home to 60 per cent of the world’s largest rainforest,” noted the Financial Times.

“I think we are headed for a very dark period in the history of Brazil,” said Paulo Artaxo, a climate-change researcher at the University of Sao Paulo, to Science magazine. “There is no point sugarcoating it. Bolsonaro is the worst thing that could happen for the environment.”

Until now, Brazil has been a leader in the battle against climate change. It hosted the pioneering Earth Summit in 1992, when world leaders first convened to sign a U.N.-backed convention on climate change. Starting in the mid-2000s, its left-wing government worked doggedly to curb deforestation in the Amazon basin, the proverbial lungs of the world. Brazil pledged zero illegal deforestation by the end of the next decade as well as significant reductions of its carbon emissions. Its ratification of the Paris accord in September 2016 was viewed at the time as a huge victory for international climate campaigners. And it is expected to host the next round of U.N.-brokered negotiations on climate policy in November 2019.

But data shows that deforestation has picked up in recent years. Global demand for Brazilian beef and soy, two of the country’s' chief commodities for export, has led to further expansion of farmland in forested areas. With Bolsonaro at the helm, the assumption is that things will only get worse.

“The increase of deforestation will be immediate,” said Edson Duarte, the country’s environment minister, in a recent interview with a Sao Paolo newspaper. “I am afraid of a gold rush to see who arrives first. They will know that, if they occupy illegally, the authorities will be complacent and will grant concordance. They will be certain that nobody will bother them.”

Duarte pointed to the hypocrisy of Bolsonaro, who has made crime-fighting a major part of his campaign pitch, in promising to weaken the government’s ability to protect Brazil’s forests. “It’s the same as saying that he will withdraw the police from the streets,” Duarte said.

For members of Brazil’s indigenous communities in the Amazon, a Bolsonaro presidency spells disaster on multiple fronts. “If he wins, he will institutionalize genocide,” says Dinamam Tuxá, the national coordinator of Brazil’s Association of Indigenous Peoples, in an interview with Fabiano Maisonnave of Climate Home News. “He has already said that the federal government will no longer champion indigenous rights, such as access to the land. We are very scared. I fear for my own life.”

Outside the country’s borders, a Bolsonaro presidency may dent the already-fragile international efforts to tackle carbon emissions. In addition to Trump’s noisy defection from the Paris agreement last year, rancor over proposed targets for emissions cuts led to Australia’s prime minister being ousted by his own party two months ago.

“The international community is sending mixed signals about the importance of this issue, which has changed the domestic political calculus in a number of countries,” observed Joshua Busby for The Post’s Monkey Cage blog.

Bolsonaro does not embrace climate denial as ardently as Trump. Instead, he has argued that the challenge should be seen as a demographic and family-planning problem. But he also echoed the American president’s insistence that international agreements regarding climate change infringe on national sovereignty and therefore should be rejected.

“It’s good that he does not deny the problem, but he’s not listening to what top scientists are saying,” said Carlos Rittl, the executive secretary of the Climate Observatory, a Brazilian organization, to Today’s WorldView.

The prognosis, after all, is bleak: A U.N. panel on climate change warned this month that the world stands on the brink of failure if “rapid and far-reaching” measures are not made to curb emissions of greenhouse gases. That includes converting large swaths of agricultural land to growing trees.

Bolsonaro is moving in exactly the opposite direction. And under his leadership, Rittl warned, Brazil may soon become part of the climate-change problem.

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