Sohn: Save the rainforest, save the Earth

Sohn: Save the rainforest, save the Earth

August 24th, 2019 by Pam Sohn in Opinion Times

A woman holds a sign reading in Spanish "There is no planet B" during a protest to call on Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro to act to protect the Amazon rainforest, outside the Brazilian Embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Friday. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

Photo by Natacha Pisarenko

The lungs of the Earth have consumption. And the typhoid Mary responsible appears to be Brazil's Trumplike president Jair Bolsonaro, who encouraged loggers, cattlemen and farmers to go ahead and cut or burn the trees of the Amazon rainforest and clear the land — without fear of the usual environmental regulation and penalties.

Bolsonaro, a climate denier who took office in January, has opened up the rainforest to business interests by stripping away its protections. During his campaign, he pledged to limit fines for damaging the rainforest and to weaken the influence of the environmental agency.

Now it's August, and more than 73,000 fires have scorched the country this year, an increase of 85 percent over last year, according to the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research. The current rate of burning rainforest has been estimated at one and half football fields of rainforest every minute of every day.

The Amazon, home to about 3 million species of plants and animals and 1 million indigenous people, is the largest rainforest in world.

It is called the lungs of the Earth because its trees and vegetation have traditionally supplied 20 percent of the world's oxygen.

It also traditionally has served as a massive carbon sequestering machine — providing a hedge against accelerating climate change. Trees, through photosynthesis, in a sense breathe in carbon dioxide and, breathe out oxygen.

But when the forest burns, all the carbon is released en mass in the smoke, which in turn speeds climate change. What's more, if the rainforest burns to the point of no return, scientists say the land could become a dry savanna that would continually emit carbon, plunging the planet ever deeper into an already dire climate change crisis.

Coming into this year, deforestation in the Amazon was already at a decade high. These fires coming now on top of that are causing some experts to fear that the rainforest will soon enter a death spiral from which it will never recover.

Bolsonaro, often called the "Trump of the Tropics" lived up to the moniker this week when he put the blame for the crisis on his political enemies, rather than on his policy. He made unfounded claims that non-governmental organizations started the fires out of anger after he cut their funding.

But environmentalists blamed the increased development of the region, saying cattle ranchers and loggers burned the land to clear it for their use, emboldened by Bolsonaro's pro-business policies.

The controversy went global Friday, with France and Ireland saying they will not ratify a huge trade deal with South American nations unless Brazil does more to fight the fires, according to BBC.com. And the fires are expected to be discussed at the weekend's G7 summit in Biarritz, France.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the fires "not only heartbreaking" but "an international crisis."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has called the fire an "acute emergency shocking and threatening not only for Brazil and the other affected countries, but also for the whole world."

Finland's finance minister (and current president of the Council of the EU) has called on the EU to consider banning Brazilian beef imports.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres tweeted on Thursday: "In the midst of the global climate crisis, we cannot afford more damage to a major source of oxygen and biodiversity. The Amazon must be protected."

French leader Emmanuel Macron said Bolsonaro lied to him about his stance on climate change.

Bolsonaro accused Macron of meddling for "political gain", and said calls to discuss the fires at the G7 summit — which Brazil is not participating in — showed "a misplaced colonialist mindset." Bolsonaro's son, who wants to become Brazil's ambassador in Washington, retweeted a video calling Macron an idiot.

(You can't make this stuff up, but if it were fiction, we could call it a Mini-me saga of the tragic Trump reality show. The trouble is, Earth literally is hanging in the balance.)

But the world appeared to get Bolsonaro's attention, and on Friday he said he was considering options for fighting the fires, including deploying the military.

The trade deal that is at stake — the EU-Mercosur trade deal — has been 20 years in the making and it will smooth or gridlock trade between the EU and a South American trade bloc known as Mercosur, which consists of Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay, according to the BBC.

The EU is Mercosur's second biggest trade partner, accounting for 20.1% of goods exchanged in 2018. EU exports to Mercosur accounted for 2.3% of the EU's exports last year. The trade includes food and beverages, tobacco and farm products from the South American side and machinery, chemicals and pharmaceutical products from the EU.

The deal, which explicitly says the countries have to commit to tackling climate change, still must be approved by parliaments of all Mercosur and EU countries.

It just goes to show: Everything really is connected. And elections really do have consequences.

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