Updated at 1:55 p.m. ET on August 25, 2019.
When Jair Bolsonaro won Brazil’s presidential election last year, having run on a platform of deforestation, David Wallace-Wells asked, “How much damage can one person do to the planet?” Bolsonaro didn’t pour lighter fluid to ignite the flames now ravaging the Amazon, but with his policies and rhetoric, he might as well have. The destruction he inspired—and allowed to rage with his days of stubborn unwillingness to douse the flames—has placed the planet at a hinge moment in its ecological history. Unfortunately, the planet doesn’t have a clue about how it should respond.
In part, the problem is that so much of the world is now governed by leaders who share Bolsonaro’s sensibility. Even before Bolsonaro presided over the incineration of the world’s storehouse of oxygen, he led a dubious regime. His path to power began with the corrupt impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, followed by the arrest of his higher-polling electoral rival.
In part, the problem is the dismal state of international institutions, which haven’t been so tattered since World War II. In the face of global critics begging Bolsonaro to stop the destruction of the Amazon, he shouts about the threats to Brazil’s sovereignty. For that complaint to land, he would need democratic legitimacy, and this revanchist has none; yet those critics do nothing more than sputter inconsequential rage.
If a country obtains chemical or biological weapons, the rest of the world tends to react with fury—or at least it did in the not-so-distant past. Sanctions rained down on the proliferators, who were then ostracized from the global community. And in rare ( sometimes disastrously misguided) cases, the world decided that the threat justified a military response. The destruction of the Amazon is arguably far more dangerous than the weapons of mass destruction that have triggered a robust response. The consequences of the unfolding disaster—which will extinguish species and hasten a worst-case climate crisis—extend for eternity. To lose a fifth of the Amazon to deforestation would trigger a process known as “dieback,” releasing what The Intercept calls a “doomsday bomb of stored carbon.”
It is commonplace to describe the Amazon as the “world’s lungs.” Embedded in the metaphor is the sense that inherited ideas about the sovereignty of states no longer hold in the face of climate change. If the smoke clouds drifted only so far as the skies of São Paulo, other nations might be able to shrug off the problem as belonging to someone else. But one person shouldn’t have the power to set policies that doom the rest of humanity’s shot at mitigating rising temperatures.
What makes Bolsonaro’s behavior so galling is the pointlessness of it. Of course, he has ties to agribusiness, which would like to raze the forest for its cattle and crops. And he campaigned on the promise of damming the river and developing the region into the country’s economic engine. But there are even baser motives driving Bolsonaro’s gleeful policy of deforestation: The man has a demonstrable record of racism, and he’s compared the indigenous people who live on protected lands to animals in a zoo. And like Donald Trump, he squeezes personal joy from his confrontations with foreign leaders and NGOs, posing as the manly enemy of the effete elites. In other words, he’s letting the fires burn, at least in part, to troll his enemies. He’s cutting out the world’s lungs for the sake of owning the libs.
The situation isn’t without hope. The world can treat Bolsonaro with, at least, the urgency it has shown Venezuela’s dictator, Nicolás Maduro. To force him away from his policy of deforestation, and to prod him to intensely fight the fire, world leaders should threaten to cancel trade agreements and ban the import of timber and beef from companies that operate in the Amazon; they should sanction members of the Bolsonaro inner circle (who, in the grand tradition of the nation’s political history, seem to have achieved an expertise in money laundering); they should turn Bolsonaro and his sons, who serve as their father’s henchmen, into pariahs, forbidding their international travel.
Thus far, French President Emmanuel Macron is the lone world leader who seems appropriately terror-struck by the satellite pictures of the devastation. And when he proposed rolling back trade agreements with Brazil, he spurred Bolsonaro to at last mobilize his military to act against the flames.
If there were a functioning global community, it would be wrestling with how to more aggressively save the Amazon, and acknowledging that the battle against climate change demands not only new international cooperation but, perhaps, the weakening of traditional concepts of the nation-state. The European Union or a coalition of nations should, at least, mull sending planes or firefighters to extinguish the flames, even if Bolsonaro rejects their presence. Admittedly, that might not be practical or might exacerbate the problem. But the case for territorial incursion in the Amazon is far stronger than the justifications for most war. In the meantime, the planet chokes on old notions of sovereignty.
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