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.