If it all feels a bit cosmetic, it should. In the form of Trump, the G-7 is playing host to the world’s climate denier in chief, a president who has called global warming a hoax and, since taking office, worked assiduously to roll back U.S. environmental protections. Then there’s the backdrop to the proceedings: By the end of the summer, some 440 billion tons of ice will have calved off Greenland’s ice sheet — the consequence of record heat waves. And when the planet isn’t melting, it’s ablaze.
This week, global attention fell on the Amazon rainforest, where widespread fires led to the city of Sao Paulo — the largest metropolis in the Western hemisphere — being cloaked in dark smoke. Videos uploaded on social media showed vast stretches of devastation, with animals scurrying for shelter within the charred husk of the forest. Online hashtags urging action and prayers for the Amazon went viral, proliferated by Hollywood celebrities, French President Emmanuel Macron and others.
Our house is burning. Literally. The Amazon rain forest - the lungs which produces 20% of our planet’s oxygen - is on fire. It is an international crisis. Members of the G7 Summit, let's discuss this emergency first order in two days! #ActForTheAmazon pic.twitter.com/dogOJj9big— Emmanuel Macron (@EmmanuelMacron) August 22, 2019
“According to the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service, the fires have led to a clear spike in carbon monoxide emissions as well as planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions, posing a threat to human health and aggravating global warming,” noted Andrew Freedman of the Capital Weather Gang.
“The Amazon rainforest serves as the lungs of the planet, taking in carbon dioxide, storing it in soils and producing oxygen. Scientists agree that it is one of the world’s great defenses against climate change,” wrote my colleague Terrence McCoy. “In Brazil, it has suffered 74,155 fires since January, the space research institute reported. That’s up 85 percent from last year and significantly higher than the 67,790 blazes at this point in 2016, when there were severe drought conditions in the region associated with a strong El Niño event.”
In this instance, climactic conditions don’t explain the surge in fires. Instead, many point to the government of far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who came to power vowing to end or loosen up protections for forested areas inhabited by indigenous people in favor of the country’s powerful agribusiness industry. Some of the blazes were probably started by emboldened cattle ranchers or farmers seeking to clear new land for cultivation or pasture. In the space of little more than a year, critics argue, Bolsonaro has reignited the “arc of fire” that ravaged the Amazon rainforest in the 1970s and ’80s.
“I cannot remember any other big fire episode like this one,” Vitor Gomes, an environmental scientist at the Federal University of Para, told my colleagues. “It is also sharply overlapped with the increased deforestation. Attributing the whole episode to natural causes only is practically impossible.”
Bolsonaro, though, is contemptuous of his domestic opponents and international critics. He has dismissed the findings of his own government’s scientific agencies as “lies” and advised those concerned about global warming to eat and defecate less, because that would collectively bring down emissions.
This week, he accused left-wing nongovernmental organizations of deliberately starting the fires, but later admitted that he had no evidence to back up the claim. “Everything indicates that people went there to film and then to set fires,” he said. “That is my feeling.”
Bolsonaro’s stance here is part of his broader nationalist politics. He and his allies have no time for lectures from foreign elites and nothing but scorn for the indigenous Amazonian communities and leftist environmental policies that they see as obstacles to economic growth. The surge in deforestation has provoked a diplomatic spat between Brazil and European countries and now may halt a free-trade deal between the European Union and South American trading bloc Mercosur.
The putative pact requires a commitment to the Paris climate accord, which among other things calls for an end to illegal deforestation in the Amazon by 2030. But Bolsonaro may be tempted to take Trump’s path instead and pull Brazil out of the Paris agreement, which would mark a significant blow for global efforts around climate action.
Smoke from wildfires in the #AmazonRainforest spreads across several Brazilian states in this natural-color image taken by a @NASAEarth instrument on the Suomi NPP satellite. Although it is fire season in Brazil, the number of fires may be record-setting: https://t.co/NVQrffzntr pic.twitter.com/4JTcBz9C8f— NASA (@NASA) August 21, 2019
“Brazil has a responsibility not only to its own citizens but also to the entire earth,” wrote American climate campaigner Bill McKibben. “Bolsonaro’s tantrums, like Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris accords, damages not just his own nation for a few years; it also imperils the entire earth for millennia to come.”
But such an appeal won’t move Bolsonaro. “This seems to be at the heart of a lot of what the president believes. It’s not just about climate change ― it’s also about globalism, sovereignty and economic development,” Oliver Stuenkel, an international relations professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo, told HuffPost. “For the president, it’s, if you believe in [climate change], it’s a conspiracy meant to keep Brazil from developing. … And he knows this causes agony and outrage among his international opposition.”
Nationalists like Trump and Bolsonaro probably see the cause of climate action as a political dead end for their base. On the other side of the Atlantic, their right-wing counterparts in Europe are a bit more attuned to the scientific reality of the threat but still exhibit deep contempt for some activists seeking to drive greater awareness.
In the United States, climate change is a fully partisan issue, largely thanks to the Republican Party’s wholesale embrace of the fossil fuel industry — the American analog to Brazil’s agribusiness lobby. But concern is widespread on the left and a key subject of debate ahead of the 2020 election. On Thursday, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders unveiled a $16.3 trillion Green New Deal platform, possibly the most radical proposal put forward so far by a candidate that would create some 20 million new jobs while dramatically restructuring American society and economy around a supposedly more sustainable future.
“We need a president who has the courage, the vision, and the record to face down the greed of fossil fuel executives and the billionaire class who stand in the way of climate action,” the plan’s call to action declares, taking aim at Trump and his allies. “We need a president who welcomes their hatred.”
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