Threats Worked in Brazil—and They Might Elsewhere, Too

Do the Amazon fires point the way for future international efforts to combat climate change?

An activist holds a sign depicting Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro with the slogan “Exterminator of the Future,” during a protest about the fires in the Amazon rainforest in Cali, Colombia, on Aug. 23.
An activist holds a sign depicting Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro with the slogan “Exterminator of the Future,” during a protest about the fires in the Amazon rainforest in Cali, Colombia, on Aug. 23. Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images

By now, everyone with internet access is familiar with the grim situation unfolding in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest. The ongoing blazes have been the source of widespread outrage over the policies and rhetoric of Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro. Several countries have offered aid while also threatening punitive measures such as boycotts. Bolsonaro, in turn, has seethed over the international community’s “colonial mindset,” asserting Brazil’s sovereignty over its territory and repeatedly issuing reminders of the historical deforestation of Europe.

The situation in the Amazon exposes the very heart of the greatest collective action problem that humanity has faced, and it foreshadows harder battles to come. The actions of each individual country have consequences for the global climate, yet perpetrators are loath to make sacrifices when others, especially those with equal or greater responsibility, are not doing the same. The fact that threats of economic punishment seem to have shifted Brazil’s behavior—Bolsonaro finally sent in its military to fight the fires and agreed to a meeting of Amazon countries to be held this Friday—suggests that a similar approach could be taken to address climate change on a larger scale.

Although it is the dry season in Brazil—a time when fires in the Amazon are routine—many of the conflagrations scorching the rainforest are the result of farmers illegally expanding fields, no doubt emboldened by the words and actions of the Brazilian president. Since taking office in January, Bolsonaro has sought to systematically dismantle the environmental protections that had cut Brazil’s deforestation rates by over 80 percent between 2004 and 2012, and that had contributed to its acclaim as a leader in conservation. Bolsonaro’s environment minister, Ricardo Salles, denounced a “proliferation” of environmental fines that were “ideological,” and the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, known as Ibama, imposed fewer deforestation fines in the first five months of 2019 than during the same period of any year in the last decade. The previous head of the agency resigned within a week of Bolsonaro’s inauguration following attacks by the president, and in February, 21 of Ibama’s 27 state heads were fired. Meanwhile, a measure in Congress proposed by Bolsonaro would eliminate a deadline for unregistered rural properties to be entered in the Rural Environmental Registry, an important land use monitoring tool.

In part thanks to the rolling back of enforcement, deforestation in July was 278 percent greater than last year, and the number of fires in the Amazon is 80 percent higher than at this point last year. It bears noting that fire rates were even higher than this for most of the 2000s under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and that deforestation rates had been creeping back up since 2012 as Brazil’s Forest Code and other environmental regulations were weakened under Bolsonaro’s predecessors, Dilma Rousseff and Michel Temer. Past deforestation and forest degradation have increased the likelihood of fires by creating dry debris, and many of this year’s fires are merely clearing fields that were already deforested. But Bolsonaro’s attitude warrants alarm, and his policies are doing undeniable harm to the Amazon at a time when it is approaching a tipping point—nearing a level of deforestation that could reduce its capacity to recycle moisture sufficiently and trigger its conversion into savanna.

The international community has wielded both carrots and sticks to get Bolsonaro to step back into line. Carrots, such as aid, have been largely unsuccessful.

In turn, the international community has wielded both carrots and sticks to get Bolsonaro to step back into line. Carrots, such as aid, have been largely unsuccessful. In mid-August, Brazil’s Ministry of the Environment said it would shutter a committee that allocates funding to deforestation projects and instead compensate farmers displaced by conservation areas, even on illegally occupied land. Norway and Germany, the two largest contributors to the billion-dollar Amazon fund, which is disbursed through the committee, froze tens of millions of dollars of funding in response. But Bolsonaro told them to keep it. He suggested that German Chancellor Angela Merkel use it to reforest Germany instead. He even initially declined the (admittedly meager) $20 million offered by the G-7 to fight the fires, later saying he would accept the aid under the condition that Brazil be allowed to choose how it is spent. The evidence suggests that offers of aid for conservation will not affect Bolsonaro’s actions. Most aid goes to environmental groups, which Bolsonaro perceives as a threat to his economic development agenda, the livelihood of his rural supporters, and Brazil’s sovereignty over the Amazon.

In turn, countries have picked up the stick. Finland, for instance, proposed that the European Union ban imports of Brazilian beef—a move that would sting, as the EU accounts for 11 percent of Brazil’s beef export revenues. Indeed, such boycotts are a prospect that has long been openly feared by Brazilian agribusiness. Earlier this year, Agriculture Minister Tereza Cristina, concerned about international shunning of Brazilian products, successfully argued against Bolsonaro’s plans to place the Ministry of Environment under the Ministry of Agriculture and withdraw the country from the Paris climate agreement.

Days after Finland’s gambit, Ireland and France threatened not to ratify the landmark trade deal between the EU and the South American Mercosur trade bloc. Scrapping the agreement, which was touted as a potential gateway to future deals with Canada, South Korea, and other nations, would be a blow to Bolsonaro’s free trade agenda. Later that day, Bolsonaro declared he would send the military to fight the fires. Economic threats, it seems, resonate deeply.

President Sebastián Piñera of Chile took yet another tack, acknowledging the need for both respect for territorial sovereignty and for the shared responsibility for the global climate. He and French President Emmanuel Macron announced a cooperation plan on reforestation between Amazon countries and the G-7 to be presented at the United Nations General Assembly later this month. Bolsonaro agreed to attend the Friday meeting of leaders of Amazon countries in Colombia, although he will now miss it to undergo surgery. He may send a representative in his place, but it’s unclear what will be proposed and whether Brazil’s president will support it.

Bolsonaro will likely continue to bristle at attempts to regulate the Amazon, especially while the world’s biggest climate change contributors remain unchecked. Deforestation in Brazil has huge implications for climate change, but it is far from the only country not doing enough—nor the most significant. Indeed, the vast majority of global emissions originate from just a handful of other countries, including China and the United States.

Chile, seeking to position itself as a coordinator of climate change efforts, will face a much more daunting challenge in December as the host of the 25th edition of the U.N.’s flagship meeting on climate change. Countries are due to ratchet up the climate commitments they agreed to meet by 2020, and specific agenda items such as final rules on carbon markets are to be addressed before then. Persuading nearly 200 countries to undertake a major transformation of their economies in order to meet the Paris target for limiting global warming will be exceedingly difficult.

How countries hold each other to account is thus pivotal. The Paris agreement lacks an enforcement mechanism, and that will not change in Chile. Countries will have to enforce the agreements themselves and perhaps find a way to stand up to the biggest powers. For all the fingers pointed at Brazil, it is telling that the United States has yet to pay any real price for its departure from the Paris agreement. Most countries cannot afford to sever economic ties with the United States or China, but if the international community cannot find a way—through carrots or sticks—to convince those countries to drastically cut their emissions, economic ties will cease to matter.

The apocalyptic clouds of smoke that darkened the afternoon skies of São Paulo in late August are a potent metaphor for the impending climate catastrophe. Likewise, international outrage over the destruction of the Amazon is a microcosm of the climate problem itself. Each country controls its own territory and has the ability to take actions that its leaders believe are economically advantageous, even if they are environmentally destructive to the entire planet. But if the key countries don’t take action voluntarily, the international community must somehow transcend sovereignty to confront climate change. Hopefully, once the smoke has cleared, the fires in the Amazon will prompt a hard look in the mirror.

Lisa Viscidi is the director of the Energy, Climate Change, and Extractive Industries Program at the Inter-American Dialogue. Twitter: @lviscidi

Nate Graham is the assistant for the Energy, Climate Change, and Extractive Industries Program at the Inter-American Dialogue.

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