There’s no prison (yet) for climate criminals, but if there was, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro would have a spider-infested cell all to himself. Now that Trump is gone, Bolsonaro — a.k.a. “The Trump of the Tropics” or “Captain Chain Saw”— is the most dangerous climate denier in the world. In his two years as president, Bolsonaro has presided over the destruction of about 10,000 square miles of the Brazilian rainforest, one of the most precious ecosystems on the planet. And like Trump, Bolsonaro is proud of his efforts to fuck up the planet. If people were so concerned about climate change, he once suggested, they could eat less and “poop every other day” to save the Earth. When Pope Francis called out the “blind and destructive mentality” behind razing the rainforest, Bolsonaro responded by telling journalists, “Brazil is the virgin that every foreign pervert wants to get their hands on.”
If the climate crisis weren’t so urgent, Bolsonaro would be a problem only for Brazil and its neighbors. But Brazil is a key player in the push to zero-out global carbon pollution. Rainforests absorb about 10 percent of CO2 emissions. With every square mile of rainforest that is cut down, the Paris Agreement’s target of keeping global temperature rise below 1.5 C becomes more and more unattainable. “If we can’t do something about deforestation in Brazil, then the 1.5 C target is probably out of reach,” says Jake Schmidt, senior strategic director for climate with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
At Joe Biden’s climate summit in April, Bolsonaro talked a good game, committing to ending illegal deforestation by 2030. He also moved up the date for becoming carbon neutral from 2060 to 2050, and promised to double the budget for enforcing the forest’s protections. But according to a number of sources and published accounts, Brazil’s minister of the environment, Ricardo Salles, made the deal more explicit in backstage negotiations with the U.S. and other countries: Pay us $1 billion and we’ll cut deforestation by 40 percent for one year.
“It’s extortion,” argues Marcio Astrini, the executive secretary of the Brazilian Climate Observatory, an alliance of 63 civil society organizations. “Bolsonaro and his team are saying, ‘If you don’t give us the money, we don’t know what will happen to the Amazon.’ Everyone knows Bolsonaro is not interested in the climate. He is only interested in using the climate to extort money to use for himself and his friends.”
The Amazon rainforest has been around for 55 million years and is one of the most biologically complex regions of the world, home to one-tenth of all living plant and animal species. The entire Amazon basin includes eight South American countries, but Brazil holds about two-thirds of it.
Globally, about 300,000 square miles of tropical forests were lost between 2013 and 2019 — that’s the equivalent of clearing more than five Manhattans every day for seven years. About one-quarter of that destruction happened in Brazil, and it was almost entirely driven by commercial agriculture, which in Brazil is mostly cattle and soy plantations.
But to call it “commercial agriculture” is a bit of a stretch. In Brazil, almost all of this deforestation happens illegally, by settlers with chain saws and bulldozers who just clear the land, sell the wood, and start raising cattle or soy. As Beto Verissimo, co-founder of Imazon, a Brazilian research institute that promotes sustainable development, puts it, “Deforestation has no relation to economic growth. It’s just organized crime.”
And it’s a crime with increasingly dire implications not just for Brazilians, but for the entire planet. For one thing, tropical rainforests, with their staggering biodiversity, are a likely cradle of dangerous new pathogens. Cutting down rainforests is a good way to release those pathogens and, perhaps, unleash a new pandemic.
For another, rampant deforestation risks transforming the rainforest from a carbon sink to a carbon source (as trees grow, they absorb CO2 and store carbon; when they die, that stored carbon is released). It could also trigger a larger collapse of the entire rainforest ecosystem. Rainforests create their own weather systems, including rainfall. As the size of the rainforest declines, it lengthens the forest’s dry season, triggering even greater warming and drying, killing trees in the nearby still-intact forest, and eventually causing the entire ecosystem to shift from rainforest to savanna. Such a collapse would dramatically alter weather patterns throughout the Southern Hemisphere and accelerate climate chaos in ways that even the most doom-y climate activists would prefer not to imagine.
The tipping point for such a collapse in the Amazon is between 20 and 25 percent deforestation, according to one study. Right now, 15 to 17 percent of the forest has already been cut down. “If you exceed the threshold,” Carlos Nobre, a Brazilian climate and tropical-forest expert has said, “50 to 60 percent of the forest could be gone over three to five decades.”
Large-scale deforestation began in Brazil in the 1970s with government policies that encouraged settlement, and continued unimpeded for the next 20 years. Between 1978 and 2001, the amount of deforested land increased fourfold. Overall, the population of the Amazon increased from 2.9 million in 1960 to 25.5 million by 2010. Logging also thrived, as the demand for mahogany and other hardwoods in Asia and Europe soared in the 1990s.
By 2000, the damage from deforestation was causing an outcry among activists, and Brazilian authorities took action. National parks and indigenous reserves were created, and those protections were stringently enforced with a robust forest service and budget. Between 2002 and 2016, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically. “We were getting it under control,” says Astrini. At its peak, Brazil likely reduced emissions by more than 1.3 gigatons of CO2 per year. By comparison, in their best year, the U.S., Japan, and the EU together reduced emissions by less than a quarter of that.
But when Bolsonaro took office in 2019, that progress ended. His winning coalition of right-wing nationalists and pro-development centrists didn’t give a shit about climate change. He immediately slashed budgets for monitoring and enforcement in the Amazon. “Bolsonaro has basically said, ‘We’re open for business,’ ” says NRDC’s Schmidt. “ ‘If you guys wanna deforest, we’re not going to do any enforcement on it.’ ”
Less than a year after Bolsonaro took office, the Amazon exploded in flames. More than 3,500 square miles of the rainforest burned, blackening the skies in São Paulo and bringing international attention to the destruction of the rainforest under Bolsonaro’s watch. Bolsonaro blamed NGOs, which were trying to “bring problems to Brazil.” French President Emmanuel Macron called Bolsonaro’s deforestation policies “ecocide” and tweeted: “Our house is burning. Literally. The Amazon rainforest — the lungs which produce 20 percent of our planet’s oxygen — is on fire. It is an international crisis.”
Bolsonaro was unrepentant, telling Macron and everyone else to butt out: “The Amazon is ours, not yours.”
Now, with so much at stake in the upcoming COP26 meeting, i.e., the U.N. climate-change negotiations scheduled for this November, the question is what to do about Bolsonaro’s rainforest extortion demands. Any hope of hitting the 1.5 C target depends on dramatically reining in deforestation in Brazil. But any hope of dramatically reining in deforestation depends on Bolsonaro taking action. And because he is a thug, the only way to do that is to pay him (or, if you prefer, to pay the nation of Brazil, which amounts to the same thing).
This is not a new idea. The Green Climate Fund, for example, which the rich nations of the world have promised to fund at a level of $100 billion a year, is expressly designed to pay poorer nations to do things that will avoid CO2 emissions. The Amazon Fund, which developed nations created to save the rainforest, has spent more than $500 million on projects to prevent and combat deforestation (Norway was the biggest contributor until it cut funding in response to Bolsonaro’s slash-and-burn politics). On the campaign trail last year, Biden went so far as to promise he’d mobilize nations to pay Brazil $20 billion to keep the South American country from destroying the rainforest.
From Bolsonaro’s point of view, the trouble is, all this money comes with restrictions. It requires oversight, citizen involvement, transparency in accounting. Bolsonaro wants to use it for whatever he wants, Astrini says, “including paying off his friends and supporters.”
So this is the dilemma right now. Biden and EU leaders are making a big push toward COP26, hoping to demonstrate that the ghost of Trump is gone and the world is finally taking the climate crisis seriously. It will be impossible to make that case if Brazil is not on board — and Bolsonaro, of course, knows this, which gives him a lot of leverage in the negotiations.
Brazilian NGOs and others have been writing letters to the White House, telling Biden not to trust a word that Bolsonaro says. “We’re being told that the U.S. is basically running into a trap with Brazil,” says Alden Meyer, a longtime U.S. climate-policy analyst who is now with E3G, a climate-change think tank. “We are being told he is making commitments that he has no intention of keeping, and that they wouldn’t have the kinds of structures in place to assure good use of the funds, even if they were committed.”
Rather than giving in to Bolsonaro, the White House and others who are involved in climate negotiations are trying to essentially cut Bolsonaro and his team out of the negotiations. Or at least neuter them. This means trying to come up with incentives for state governments in Brazil that are committed to limiting deforestation, as well as finding new ways to apply economic pressure.
One tool is consumer action. “Products associated with deforestation are becoming like blood diamonds,” says Schmidt. “Increasingly, people don’t want to have anything to do with them.” The EU has proposed a number of import restrictions on products derived from deforestation, and similar restrictions are in the works in a number of states, including New York and California.
Another new proposal is a $1 billion public-private partnership initiative called the Lowering Emissions by Accelerating Forest finance Coalition, or LEAF. The effort, which was announced at Biden’s climate summit, would involve major companies like Amazon, Salesforce, and GlaxoSmithKline. They would purchase emissions-reductions credits from forestry projects in countries around the world — essentially paying countries to keep their forests healthy.
“Our tool kit for the last couple of decades has been to throw a bunch of money at climate problems and to try to convince governments to move forward,” says Schmidt. “Now our tool kit is both carrots and sticks. We have corporate players, subnational players. There are a lot more options to try to drive change than there were a few short years ago.”
The political dynamic in Brazil is changing fast, too. Bolsonaro’s environment minister, Salles, is under investigation for a number of crimes related to the export of thousands of shipments of illegally sourced wood. Bolsonaro’s oldest son, Flavio, who was elected to the Senate the same year his father won the presidency, has been charged with graft and money laundering for theft of public funds. Other family members, including Bolsonaro’s wife, have also been implicated in various unsavory financial deals.
Bolsonaro’s popularity is also in rapid decline, driven by his disastrous handling of the Covid pandemic (he called it “a little flu”), which has contributed to the deaths of nearly a half-million Brazilians. Anger and political divisions are growing. In May, wildcat miners opened fire with automatic weapons on an indigenous Yanomami reserve in the Amazon (five people died, including two kids who drowned while trying to flee). Hunger is rising. In late May, tens of thousands of Brazilians took to the streets to demand Bolsonaro’s impeachment.
With a presidential election looming in 2022, many Brazilian climate activists have abandoned hope of influencing Bolsonaro and are already looking ahead to new leadership. “We are trying to work with civil society — banks, agribusiness, indigenous leaders, universities — for how to move Brazil from a pariah to a leader,” says Astrini. “We are crossing the desert now — but deserts have an end.”
But as the criminal reign of Bolsonaro has made all too clear, so do rainforests.