OP-ED: Brazil fires, and U.S., threaten entire planet

Basav Sen
Tribune News Service
US President Donald Trump shakes hands with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro during a joint news conference in the Rose Garden at the White House Tuesday, March 19, 2019 in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

The Amazon is ablaze, with a record number of fires. This is horrific news for Brazilians, especially the indigenous peoples who have called the rainforest home for millennia, and for all humanity.

A crucial carbon sink, the Amazon rainforest absorbs atmospheric carbon that would otherwise heat the planet and accelerate the global climate crisis. Often called “the lungs of the planet,” the Amazon region is a crucial source of oxygen for all people.

Alarmingly, these fires raging in Brazil are no natural disaster. They’re a political disaster — one that’s all too familiar to us here in the United States.

More:Respiratory ailments hit in Amazon as Brazil spurns G-7 aid

More:Trump embraces Brazil’s Bolsonaro, another brash president enmeshed in scandal

To date, the Amazon has suffered 85% more fires this year than last. In fact, most of these fires are intentionally started to clear land for agribusiness.

It’s no coincidence that forest destruction has increased under far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who assumed office in January.

Bolsonaro has promised to exploit the Amazon for agribusiness, mining and other commercial activities. To do so, his administration has undermined laws protecting both forests and the people who live there — and launched openly racist attacks on indigenous peoples to marginalize them.

When confronted with evidence of his own misdeeds, Bolsonaro has done what authoritarians always do — shoot the messenger. He’s called deforestation data from his own government “fake news” and fired the head of the agency that produced it. He is even claiming (without evidence) that the fires were started by NGOs to tarnish Brazil’s reputation.

Sound familiar?

Here in the United States, the Trump administration has repeatedly attempted to undermine the science on climate change, spread misinformation about wildfires and retaliated against government scientists who work on climate change.

Where Bolsonaro deregulates the rainforest, Trump deregulates coal emissions (even as the government’s own analysis shows the extra pollution will kill up to 1,600 people). Where Bolsonaro demonizes NGOs, Trump-allied state governments are criminalizing peaceful protests against fossil fuel infrastructure.

As in Brazil, the anti-extraction protests, often led by indigenous people, are being targeted for criminalization in the United States. Meanwhile, the Trump administration is systematically handing over sacred indigenous lands to oil and gas companies.

And don’t forget about trying to sabotage international climate agreements.

The United States is the world’s largest historical emitter of greenhouse gases, yet Trump walked away from the Paris climate accord early in his term. Joining us as a climate “rogue state,” Bolsonaro’s Brazil tried to undermine the global climate talks in Poland last December.

You don’t have to take my word on these parallels: Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton has praised Bolsonaro as a “like-minded” partner.

The emergence of dangerous authoritarian governments — in Brazil as well as in countries including India and the Philippines — poses a grave threat to the world today. Not only do they threaten human rights and democracy, but they deepen the climate crisis.

Transforming this reality must start by acknowledging it. The Amazon is already burning — now we need the movements against these governments to catch fire, too.

— Basav Sen directs the Climate Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies. This column was produced for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.