Andres Oppenheimer

Amazon’s massive deforestation would make global climate change even worse. Brazil’s Bolsonaro should abandon this destructive idea.

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Just as a new study says that ocean warming is much worse than previously thought, there are growing fears that Brazil’s new President Jair Bolsonaro will further worsen global climate change by authorizing the Amazon’s mass deforestation.

Bolsonaro’s name came up during my interview with Zeke Hausfather, one of the leading authors of the recent Science magazine article warning that oceans are heating up 40 percent faster than a United Nations climate panel estimated five years ago.

The article, which warned that, among other things, ocean warming will accelerate sea-level rise and lead to stronger hurricanes, made headlines around the world in recent days.

When I asked Hausfather why oceans are warming faster than anticipated, he said that China is now burning about as much coal as the rest of the world combined. China and the United States are the world’s leading polluters, with China taking the lead in recent years, he said.

But, looking forward, he said that there are growing fears that Brazil soon will become an additional problem if Bolsonaro follows through with his plan to allow commercial exploitation of big chunks of the Amazon.

Bolsonaro, an ultra-right-wing former congressman who took office Jan. 1 who likes to be portrayed as South America’s Donald Trump, has made no bones about his skepticism about global warming.

During the campaign, he vowed to allow more agricultural and mining companies to work in the Amazon. He has also criticized environmental protection agencies and claimed that non-governmental organizations are “suffocating” Brazil’s economy.

Less than a month in office, Bolsonaro has made good on some of his promises. His newly appointed environment minister, Ricardo Salles, is the former legal director of the Brazil Rural Society, made up of agribusiness owners.

In one of his first executive decrees, Bolsonaro also transferred key regulatory powers overseeing commercial exploitation of the Amazon to the agriculture ministry, which is friendlier to the private sector than it is to agencies charged with protecting the environment and the rights of indigenous people.

In addition, Bolsonaro issued a decree asking his Ministry of Government to supervise non-governmental organizations. It is not yet clear whether that decree is limited to government-funded NGOs or extends to all such groups.

Hausfather told me that these and other actions could have a devastating impact on climate change.

“The potential is there that if Brazil really decides that they don’t care about the rainforest at all, that they just want to turn it into farmland at all cost, it could really be a catastrophe,” Hausfather said.

Until now, Brazil has been a model country when it comes to its environmental policies. It started converting car engines from gas to ethanol made from sugarcane decades ago, significantly reducing toxic fuel emissions. Also, it had significantly reduced the rate of deforestation of the Amazon.

If Bolsonaro authorizes more commercial exploitation of protected forests in the Amazon, such gains will quickly be eroded, Hausfather told me. The Amazon holds an immense amount of carbon in its trees, and burning Amazon forests would substantially increase the carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

“The world can certainly pressure Brazil,” Hausfather said, adding that the international community can, for instance, link loans to the country’s efforts to stop deforestation. “But at the end of the day, it’s ultimately something that Brazil has to do itself, and we hope that the new government won’t go down some of the paths they’ve suggested.”

Problem is, Bolsonaro was elected with the backing of powerful rural business leaders who want to encroach into protected areas in the Amazon — and who have many backers in Brazil’s Congress. Bolsonaro, who does not have a majority in Congress, may need those legislators to pass his overall economic policies.

Whatever he said during the campaign, Bolsonaro needs to face reality: Destroying the Amazon means destroying Brazil’s future, and with it the world’s climate.

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