Which is to say: not effective at all. De minimis. Nada.
But in the cataclysm that is the Amazon fires of 2020, it seems like symbolism is everything—unless, of course, you’re an indigenous person whose very real home has been destroyed by very real fires set by greedy, racist ranchers.
It’s really a stunning juxtaposition: on the one hand, a massive crisis that threatens the stability of the Earth’s atmosphere, and the other hand, a whole lot of BS from all sides.
Admittedly, most of the BS is coming from the side of Brazil’s Trumpist demagogue, Jair Bolsonaro. To take but three examples:
First, Bolsonaro’s American Embassy says the forest fires are totally natural, nothing to see here, and Brazil is a world leader in firefighting.
In fact, the 40,341 fires recorded this year represents a 79 percent jump from last year, and 35 percent higher than the average for the last decade. The weather isn’t drier or hotter than normal. But just coincidentally, the spike in fires comes in the wake of years of Bolsonaro’s incendiary rhetoric against environmentalists, preservation, and anything that isn’t slash-and-burn agriculture.
This reminds me of the 60 percent spike in American anti-Semitic attacks from 2016 to 2017, the year Donald Trump took office. Also a coincidence?
Bolsonaro gave ranchers carte blanche to break the law, and that’s what they did.
Second, Bolsonaro is a big baby. He’s whining that Europeans don’t respect Brazil’s sovereignty, while he himself is of European descent and has carried out a pre-genocidal crusade against Brazil’s indigenous people. And now he’s complaining that the EU isn’t giving Brazil a trade deal he wants, as if Brazil is a spoiled child entitled to trade agreements no matter what it does.
Importantly, part of that trade deal governs Brazilian beef exports, which are one of the primary drivers of Amazonian deforestation. It’s entirely appropriate for the deal to be reconsidered as the extent of Brazilian malfeasance comes to light.
Third, of course, these fires are not natural. They’ve been set by farmers, as satellite data shows. Overall, deforestation in Brazil has skyrocketed since Bolsonaro took office—so much so that he fired the widely respected head of the government agency tracking it, since the numbers were embarrassing. In Trumpian fashion, Bolsonaro even accused the scientist of trying to harm Brazil’s image in the world.
Already, skeptics have greeted Bolsonaro’s apparent about-face on fighting the fires with derision and protest. Given his long history of extreme anti-environmentalism, it’s hard to believe his quite recent interest in protecting the rainforest is anything other than PR—and an attempt to salvage that trade deal.
But the BS isn’t only on Bolsonaro’s side of the table. Consider three other examples:
First, despite the justifiable horror at watching “the lungs of the planet” burn, most of the fires appear to have been set on non-old-growth forest that had already been clear cut. Yes, they have spread to virgin rainforest, and that is truly a catastrophe both for its inhabitants and for the planet.
But those same satellite images that show the fires being set by farmers also show that most were not set on virgin forest.
Second, $22 million is peanuts. By way of comparison, the state of California spent more than $600 million fighting its wildfires in 2018, which were smaller and fewer than Brazil’s. It’s a nice gesture, I guess, but just a gesture.
(Of course, it’s possible that the figure is so low because Bolsonaro’s government wouldn’t accept any more. Already, Bolsonaro has rejected the aid while his own environment minister has welcomed it—another similarity to Trump.)
Finally, while it’s very tempting to blame Bolsonaro for everything—he’s an odious, racist, homophobic, toxic-masculine populist who rode to power on the grievances of incels and extremists—the fact is that Western appetites for Brazilian beef (and, to a lesser extent, soy) are the economic engines for Amazonian deforestation.
If that beef weren’t worth anything, Brazilian agribusiness wouldn’t be cutting down forests to produce it.
A recent investigation by The Guardian, Repórter Brasil, and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism revealed that the massive Brazilian agribusiness firm AgroSB supplies cattle to the Brazilian meat-packing giant JBS, which The Guardian described as “the world’s biggest meat packing company and single biggest supplier of beef, chicken, and leather globally, with 350,000 customers in more than 150 countries.”
Both JBS and AgroSB have long been bad news, illegally deforesting land, exploiting workers, and, in a nice twist, bribing politicians, including those whose takedowns paved the way for Bolsonaro’s rise to power.
Now, with Bolsonaro in charge, JBS and AgroSB can break all the environmental laws they like, since Bolsonaro has said he opposes those laws and his administration has sharply decreased enforcement of them.
But again, if JBS didn’t have those 350,000 customers, this crisis wouldn’t be happening. While it’s commendable for the EU to send over a $22 million check for firefighting planes, Brazil exports $6.5 billion worth of beef every year, 7 percent of it to the EU. That’s $455 million worth—20 times the EU’s aid package.
While France’s Emmanuel Macron grabs the headlines, the finance minister of Finland, Mika Lintila, is the one calling for the EU to ban Brazilian beef entirely until Brazil’s own laws are enforced.
Of course, even that wouldn’t do much—Hong Kong and China buy 43 percent of Brazilian beef exports, while Arab countries buy 20 percent. (The United States buys only 2 percent.) But it would be less hypocritical than writing a $22 million check to solve a $455 million problem that Europe itself has helped create.
Beneath all the Brazilian cow manure, however, the reality is that the fires in the Amazon threaten to erase all of the (feeble) efforts the world has made to limit carbon dioxide emissions and increase “carbon sinks” like forests.
According to The New York Times, Brazil’s share of the Amazon lost more than 1,330 square miles of forest cover during the first six months of this year, a 39 percent increase over the same period in 2018.
And the Amazon alone is responsible for about 25 percent of the 2.4 billion metric tons of carbon that global forests absorb each year. That’s right; it’s a quarter of the world’s total carbon sink.
Just the act of burning or cutting trees releases the carbon they’d been storing. One report by Global Forest Watch found the carbon dioxide emissions from tropical deforestation averaged 4.8 gigatons per year between 2015 and 2017. That’s equivalent to the emissions of 85 million cars over an entire decade.
In short, Bolsonaro is lying about what caused the increase in the fires (he did), and European leaders are, if not lying, at least taking action that is symbolic rather than meaningful.
Eventually, the carnival of lies will come to an end. In 20 years, I suspect my daughter won’t remember much about Europe’s $22 million aid package. But I dread the day she asks me why we couldn’t have stopped global climate catastrophe.