Opinion: This man is now the world’s biggest environmental threat 


Jair Bolsonaro during his inauguration in January. Photo credit: Senado Federal – Solenidades. Homenagens, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia.

By Anders Lorenzen

Columnists and environmentalists love to moan about Donald Trump’s attack on the environment. For sure, not only Trump’s actions both at home, such as the scaling back of EPAs ability to reduce emissions, and abroad exiting the US from the Paris Agreement has been damaging. But states have fought back setting stronger clean energy and emissions reduction targets. At the moment it does not appear that clean energy instalments and investments have severely suffered from the Trump presidency.

But it is a different story if you venture south and into the biggest country and largest economy in South America, Brazil.

With the election as president of the far-right politician, Jair Bolsonaro, who took office in January not only are human rights and democracy eroding fast but so is protecting the environment, and in particular the Amazon rainforest and thereby the ability to tackle climate change. Scientists and policymakers agree that a key strategy in fighting climate change will be halting Amazon deforestation, as well as growing greater forest cover globally.

But under Bolsonaro not only is Brazil failing to reduce deforestation rates but data suggests destruction has tripled compared to last year. This has serious consequences as scientists warn that if this trend continues the Amazon will reach a tipping point, a point of no return where the Amazon will turn into a savannah. This means that even if deforestation is halted trees will start dying and the world’s largest rainforest, also called the lungs of the Earth, will start to collapse. This has already happened in part of the Amazon, the Cerrado.

There is no big surprise that we have arrived at this depressing scenario as this is precisely what scientists and campaigners had warned. Bolsonaro had, prior to taking office, warned that he would slash regulations and unveil a development boom in the Amazon. He angrily attacked his critics saying that the Amazon is Brazil’s property to do with whatever they want. He also attacked industrialised countries for hypocrisy as they themselves have cut down their forests.

But what happens in the Amazon does not stay in the Amazon and increased and continued deforestation will alter the world’s climate and environment. It will greatly increase emissions and could put a significant dent in the world’s ability to tackle climate change. It could trigger a series of tipping points to which there’s a point of no return and will raise questions about humanity’s ability to survive on planet Earth.

What is depressing about this is that without global interference we are not likely to see any changes soon. The ability of the country to function and the collapse of democracy is brilliantly documented in the Netflix documentary, Edge of Democracy. The impeachment of Dilma Vana Rousseff and imprisonment of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the two former presidents, mainly due to the fact that the opposition did not agree with their policies is the death stab to democracy in what is the ninth-largest economy in the world.

Bolsonaro says that what happens in the Amazon is up to Brazil. But we have seen already that leaving the Amazon in Bolsonaro’s hands will be disastrous for the global climate crisis and biodiversity. With the huge focus at the moment on fighting climate change, the world cannot sit idly by and let Bolsonaro destroy the Amazon, and thereby severely reduce our ability to tackle climate change.

World leaders and the UN have the power to put pressure on the Brazilian government by, for example, putting sanctions and import tariffs on Brazilian beef and soya unless Bolsonaro rapidly changes course. More extreme measures must follow if this has no traction such as ripping up trade agreements. To sit back and only use diplomacy and traditional lobbying to influence the Brazilian government to change course when it is hellbent on destroying the world’s largest forest would be a huge gamble with the world’s climate.



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