Home > Uncategorized > Brazil, the Amazon, and Global Warming: It ain’t quite what the media tell you

Brazil, the Amazon, and Global Warming: It ain’t quite what the media tell you

from Dean Baker

Brazil has gotten a huge amount of bad press with the fires in the Amazon with the emphasis on the harm its development policies are doing to efforts to limit global warming. While the policies of Brazil’s right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro, are disastrous, there is an important part of the story that is being left out of most discussions.

The reason that we are worried about global warming is because rich countries, most importantly the United States, have been spewing huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere for well over a century, while destroying the native forests on their lands. They also have paid to have forests in other countries destroyed in order to meet their resource needs.

This is the context in which the destruction of the Amazon is a worldwide problem of enormous proportions. (The Amazon is treasure which should be preserved even if global warming was not a crisis, but that is a different matter.)

The blame Brazil story is one where a group of rich boys are sitting around in their mansion eating a huge plate of cookies. Meanwhile, they send the housekeeper from room to make the beds and clean up. After the housekeeper finishes, she sees the last cookie on the plate and begins to reach for it. The rich boys then all yell at her for being greedy for wanting to take the last cookie.

The rich countries lack of concern for the environment made it cheaper for them to develop. Now poorer countries, who are struggling to develop, are being told that they need to respect the environment for the good of the planet.

In fact, they do need to respect the environment, but we (the rich countries) have to pay them to do it. After all, it is a problem we created. That may not be a politically popular position here, but it is a politically serious one on a world basis and the only plausible way to limit global warming.

  1. A.J. Sutter
    August 26, 2019 at 11:08 am

    This is somewhat misleading. This is not a simple case of Brazil reaching for the leftover cookie. First of all, the destruction is being accelerated by a new policy instigated by the Bolsonaro government — this is a departure from the policies of prior governments. Second, it is a problem created not only by the already-rich, but by the newly rich, namely by the rise in demand for beef in countries like China and elsewhere, as well as in the West (including Japan).

    Plus in Brazil, the destruction of the Amazon for this purpose was a long-standing aspiration of the military junta regime in the 1970s, a regime for which Bolsonaro has expressed nostalgia. “Amazonia will be colonized by the hooves of cows” was their slogan. That policy would also open up the region for mining, and have the side-benefit of displacing the non-white indigenous populations from their lands.

    The dependence on beef in the Brazilian economy is exacerbated by the lack of infrastructure in the countryside. It’s not profitable to grow vegetables and other perishables because they go bad before they can be marketed in larger cities. Brazil is a very resource-rich country, including in oil; it’s not as if it’s a tiny island somewhere, or in the Sahara desert. Its lack of development in this way is due in no small part to a string of corrupt leaders locally, not just in some Northern Hemisphere mansion.

    Bolsonaro’s policies, and those of the crooks who preceded him, aren’t necessarily popular in Brazil. Blaming Bolsonaro for what’s happening now is very appropriate. What the West and China need to do is to eat less beef, for starters.

    • Rob
      August 27, 2019 at 12:31 am

      Thank you A.J. Sutter for this information.

    • Rob
      August 30, 2019 at 7:51 am

      @A.J. Sutter: Please forgive my off topic question, but I cannot find the thread where you made the comment that has been on my mind for a while now as I slowly work my way through your paper. You mentioned, almost as an aside, that you felt, for “other” reasons, economics was not a science. I really would like to know your thoughts on this topic, if you would be inclined to share.

  2. Patrick Newman
    August 26, 2019 at 11:10 am

    But we are where we are and the destruction of the rainforests is a one-way ticket. However, the “rich boys” could declare the area a global international park and pay Brazil rent for maintaining its essential character. The rent to reflect the forecast additional wealth that development is said to generate for Brazil and some contiguous countries.

    • August 26, 2019 at 1:15 pm

      Or they could agree to invest in the economy of Brazil to develop industries that are less harmful. Paying it forward.

      • Patrick Newman
        August 26, 2019 at 1:27 pm

        Yes they could but would you trust Bolsanaro?

    • A.J. Sutter
      August 26, 2019 at 1:29 pm

      Yes, we are where we are, and so the proposal you suggest is very unlikely to happen.

      And even in principle, there is a political element to the valuation: what sort of development, even in the absence of a deal, was being envisioned? Is it one that would keep indigenous peoples on their lands, and avoid or limit mining, as previous Administrations had envisioned? Or it is one that would maximize exploitation, including of minerals, as Bolsonaro would prefer? Colby & Dennett’s “Thy Will Be Done” (Harper Collins 1995) mentions that in the 1960s there was talk of nuking the Amazon to create more of an inland sea, making it easier to transport uranium and other minerals out of the region — should that sort of scheme be the benchmark for the rent valuation, based on opportunity costs? And what will be the mechanism to arrive at a decision on a valuation? What if Bolsonaro is obstinate? So the rent proposal is nowhere as simple as it may appear.

      I leave aside the question of the contribution agreement among the “rich boys”. E.g., The US provided economic assistance to Brazil in the past — should it get some sort of discount on its contribution as a result? What should be the contribution of China and India?

      I think in the near term the planet will be much better off if pressure is put on Bolsonaro.

  3. Jorge Buzaglo
    August 26, 2019 at 3:56 pm

    “We (the rich countries) have to pay them to do it. After all, it is a problem we created. That may not be a politically popular position here, but it is a politically serious one on a world basis and the only plausible way to limit global warming.”

    Will people, and in particular economists, finally understand? That is, to insist, the only plausible way to limit global warming!

    See, e.g. “Creating an Earth Atmospheric Trust: A system to control climate change and reduce poverty”, by Peter Barnes, Robert Costanza, Paul Hawken, David Orr, Elinor Ostrom, Alvaro Umaña, and Oran Young.

  4. Jan Milch
    August 27, 2019 at 6:38 am

    Well said Dean!

  5. Helen Sakho
    August 28, 2019 at 1:41 am

    This is an excellent contribution. Indeed, if the rich had the slightest bit of conscience or consideration for the poor (on any scale whatsoever) we would not be in the mess that we are now, nor would the plant, which we do, after all, share.

    • A.J. Sutter
      August 28, 2019 at 8:01 am

      @ Helen Sakho: On the contrary, as the crisis continues we see that it fits the thesis of this post less and less.

      It had not previously been Brazil’s policy to hold the Amazon hostage to contributions from wealthier countries. What is exceptional now is that a thin-skinned right-wing ideologue holds the reins of power. His intransigence is not based on notions of equity. Witness his unwillingness even to entertain accepting International aid to combat the fires unless perceived slights to his reputation are first apologized for. And witness his hypocritical invocation of “colonialism” when he and his government have shown contempt for the indigenous peoples of the region.

      Whether it might be just for wealthy countries to help fund preservation of the Amazon is a **distinct issue** from whether Bolsonaro deserves blame for (i) creating an environment that emboldens people to destroy more of the forest (aside from his advocacy of misogyny, racism, and a contempt for civil rights) and (ii) delaying to halt the rapid daily progress of that destruction by fire. Aside from the encouragements of Mr Trump, the attitude of wealthy countries toward the Amazon has not gotten noticeably more exploitative since Bolsonaro started dismantling his predecessors’ policies. To deny his contribution to this crisis and to focus all blame on wealthy countries is misguided.

      It is also bizarre, in that whereas progressives in the North previously lent legitimacy to left-wing antidemocratic populists like Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales, they now appear to be extending the same courtesy to a far rightwing antidemocratic populist in Bolsonaro.

  6. Ken Zimmerman
    August 28, 2019 at 2:44 pm

    First, let’s get the story about climate change right before we look to the Amazon. Climate change will certainly impact the planet in dozens of ways. But it is extremely unlikely it will destroy the planet. So the slogan should be, “Save Sapiens.” Climate change impacts will make human life on the planet more difficult, perhaps even impossible. By fighting climate change, humans are fighting to save themselves.

    For us today, it’s sometimes difficult to comprehend just how valueless “undeveloped” resources, including forests, fields, mountains, and valleys were to Americans beginning even before the USA existed. These extreme right-wingers rearing their heads again around the world are throw-backs to that era. If it can’t be monetized, then it worthless. So, before we attempt any other changes to save the Amazon, or Yellowstone, or the great forests, we need to change the culture that takes these as worthless till they “show a profit.” And once you begin to look closely, you’ll be surprised by folks you meet everyday who take this culture as unquestionable. Sometimes human greed and stupidity seem to know no bounds.

    • A.J. Sutter
      August 29, 2019 at 1:21 am

      @Ken Z: Someone once asked Max Planck, who proposed the first version of quantum physics, about the progress of his theory’s acceptance; his reply was that it was moving ahead “one funeral at a time.” The monetizing mindset will vanish at the same rate: the monetizers’ funerals, that is. How many funerals for the rest of humanity will there be in the meantime?

      One cannot predicate action on the extinction of the monetizers’ attitude: we don’t have such a luxurious timescale. Instead, one has to limit or eliminate their *power*. And take action now, such as by putting out those fires and discouraging people from setting similar ones in the future.

      Query also whether the story of climate change is only the story of human self-preservation. While such anthropocentrism is a common attitude, I think there are also many humans have a broader ethical point of view, where we feel some responsibility to the other creatures — animal, vegetable or both — that we are slaughtering through anthropogenic climate change, plastics pollution and much other harm our style of economy has wrought.

      • Rob
        August 29, 2019 at 5:58 am

        @Ken Z. and A.J.: I totally agree. And to address the *power* relationships that are threatening our ecosystem and stability of human civilizations will require political, social, and educational reform on a massive scale.

      • Ken Zimmerman
        August 29, 2019 at 11:14 am

        Today, many of those who hold such power, mostly via great wealth, believe even if the worst comes from climate change, they will still be able to “buy” their way to places of refuge. So long as that belief prevails, changing their actions is near impossible.

      • Ken Zimmerman
        August 29, 2019 at 11:06 am

        A.J. Sutter, I agree that action on the Amazon or any other aspect of climate change should not await the ending of monetization. However if monetization is allowed to continue unimpeded, then all our efforts to stop to climate change will be for naught. The first front then is to de-legitimize monetization as a source of authority or power. Kerensky said to Lenin after the provisional government following the Czar’s abdication was struggling to maintain control. “You have all the power and none of the authority. I have all the authority and none of the power.” To defeat monetization and stop climate change we’ll need both power and authority. Right now those are both held by politicians, corporations, and other supporters of capitalist acquisition and fossil fuel wealth. Absent a massive revolution to seize both, seizing power is not possible. We must then begin with authority. We must begin by removing monetization from the legitimate life for humans. And unusual as it may sound, the recent manipulations of culture via social media and mass advertising have shown us how to do that.

        Certainly the struggle against climate change is in part an effort to maintain what many consider the beauty and grandeur of the Earth. That inspiration is a good thing. But the pragmatic reality is that Earth can and will survive without humans, but humans cannot survive outside the narrow atmospheric and biological window provided currently by the Earth. And that includes things like biological diversity and tolerable limits to every sort of planetary pollution. Socialists and Communists saved capitalism after the Great Depression. In a like fashion, but on a much larger scale, those working to stop climate change are saving our and the other species, and perhaps capitalism from its own destructive tendencies.

      • A.J. Sutter
        August 29, 2019 at 5:12 pm

        @Ken z: Thanks, but my point was much simpler: We have to get those fires out, pronto. And we need to reverse the license that Bolsonaro gave his countrymen to set them. That’s something that needs to be done in weeks or days. Coming up with utopian solutions so that the rich may atone for their historical sins misses the urgency of the situation.

        My jumping-off point in this thread was that Dean Baker’s main post exerts a gravitational pull towards the utopian, not the practical. Nor towards justice in the immediate term, given Bolsonaro’s direct culpability regarding the current fires. On the bigger picture I don’t so much disagree with you (though I certainly wouldn’t put any faith in Communism, which is a productivist doctrine); but when the Amazon is burning the true big picture is the more narrowly-focused one: stop the fires.

      • Ken Zimmerman
        August 30, 2019 at 12:32 am

        I, like you A.J. am a practical person. “…when the Amazon is burning the true big picture is the more narrowly-focused one: stop the fires.” How do we do that? Send in combat infantry, supported by air force, artillery, and tanks (those who set the fires will likely be shooting at those trying to put them out). As a Marine I was involved in several “humanitarian” interventions. No matter the intent, the situation on the ground always gets messy and bloody. It’s unlikely we can persuade Bolsonaro to call out the Brazilian army and others to extinguish the fires. And giving Brazil money seems out, since it turned down the $20 offered by the G7 and then accepted it only so long as the Brazilian government administers the aid. If you have other options, please share.

      • Rob
        August 30, 2019 at 1:10 am

        Who’s army should do the invading Ken? The US? A U.N. force? Good luck with that under current world leadership. I suspect A.J. Sutter has some more pragmatic ideas in mind.

  7. Jorge Buzaglo
    August 29, 2019 at 5:54 pm

    Annual CO2 emissions per capita (metric tons, latest World Bank data, for 2014): Brazil 2.6; US 16.5.

  8. Jorge Buzaglo
    August 31, 2019 at 1:27 pm

    And somewhat more generally:

    High income countries 10.9
    Low income countries 0.3

    • Jorge Buzaglo
      September 10, 2019 at 6:09 pm

      Of course this is a chicken race… And the US and rich countries are winning! ;-)

  9. September 2, 2019 at 7:35 pm

    This all rings true and accurate from Dean Baker right on through. No model required. Very refreshing.

    We see primitive people in expensive suits collecting obsessively. We see want is insatiable and those afflicted with insatiable are incurable to the point of suicide. This would not be so much of a problem it the want was expressed as a private personal vice, like suicide by smoking or obesity. Insatiable want for wealth and power is expressed by criminal insanity as in permanent war for control.

    Now we are discussing reality. The next step after noticing high and low is description of a society that is healthy. more fun and leaves room for the rest of Nature.

    What society is successful as its population gently declines in secure homes with maximum education and almost no money?

  10. September 2, 2019 at 7:57 pm

    One way to stop the fires is to make the United States quit backing the Brazilian coup. How does one do that practically?

  11. September 2, 2019 at 10:08 pm

    It was the US and operation brother sam that stood off shore with supplies for the prior coup.

    • Ken Zimmerman
      September 3, 2019 at 12:17 am

      Garrett, “No model required.” The key word is “required.” Models can be fun, interesting, and sometimes useful. In the book, “The Art of Tracking, the Origin of Science,” anthropologist Louis Liebenberg describes the relationship between human imagination, science, and models. It’s complex.

      A second application of tracking lies in its potential assistance to researchers studying animal behaviour. Trackers have already been employed in studying the ecology and behaviour of lions and leopards in the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park (Bothma, 1986). Most animals are very shy and tend to vanish at the slightest disturbance, while many nocturnal animals may never be seen at all. Direct observations are likely to disturb an animal, making it difficult to study its habits under natural conditions. Tracks, however, give an account of the animal’s undisturbed everyday life and so can afford much information which would otherwise remain unknown. Because the traditional tracker’s understanding of animal behaviour may differ in some ways from that of the zoologist, the researcher should at least grasp the fundamentals of tracking in order to understand the interpretations of the tracker. In particular, the researcher should be able to decide to what extent the tracker’s interpretation is based on empirical evidence, and to what extent it is based on hypothetical assumptions. This is not to say that the traditional tracker is less accurate or “scientific” than the zoologist. Although the zoologist’s models of animal behaviour may in some ways be more sophisticated than those of the traditional tracker, there may he many ways in which the traditional tracker’s understanding of animal behaviour is better. Kalahari hunter-gatherers have in fact been familiar with aspects of animal behaviour that western scientists have only recently discovered. The interaction between trackers and researchers may change the models of both, resulting in an understanding of animal behaviour that contains elements of traditional tracking and modern zoology but which is more refined and sophisticated than either of the two.

  12. Craig
    September 2, 2019 at 11:24 pm

    “Now we are discussing reality. The next step after noticing high and low is description of a society that is healthy. more fun and leaves room for the rest of Nature.”

    The philosophical concept of grace, which is the active/expressive form of love, is the pinnacle concept of wisdom. It is also the true nature of full human consciousness and the best (not yet fully recognized) expression of temporal universe reality.

    As policy is the active/expressive form of systems such concept would seem to be a great one to base an economic system on, and any and all other systems as well no doubt.

    The correct course would be to contemplate the various and utterly pregnant aspects of grace while comparing these with any and all scientific insights and finally, always keeping in mind that wisdom is depth and breadth of knowledge, the mentally integrative process itself and of truths, workabilities, applicabilities and highest ethical concepts of APPARENT opposites.

  13. EDWARD K ROSS
    September 3, 2019 at 5:38 am

    While I acknowledge there has been some good discussion on the Amazon fires from my practical experience in agriculture and an a TV episode I saw several years ago. In my mind it raises the question posed by some of the pictures of the fires show no large trees which suggests the large trees have all ready been logged. then the earlier film I saw made the point that former wet forest land that had been cleared was not easily turned into pasture land to support cattle. What was stated in that program was that the wealthy elite were driven by greed and were not interested in the suitability of the land for cattle. Ted

  14. Ken Zimmerman
    September 3, 2019 at 11:09 am

    Since 1978 over 750,000 square kilometers (289,000 square miles) of Amazon rain forest have been destroyed across Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Venezuela, Suriname, Guyana, and French Guiana. There are many reasons the Earth’s largest rain forest is being destroyed.

    For most of human history, deforestation in the Amazon was primarily the product of subsistence farmers who cut down trees to produce crops for their families and local consumption. But in the later part of the 20th century, that began to change, with an increasing proportion of deforestation driven by industrial activities and large-scale agriculture. By the 2000s more than three-quarters of forest clearing in the Amazon was for cattle-ranching. And not small-rancher ranching. This is corporate ranching. Which continues even though most of it shows no monetary profit.

    As a result, forests in the Amazon region are cleared faster than ever before in the late 1970s through the mid-2000s. Over that period immense areas of rain forest were felled for cattle pasture and soy farms, downed for dams, dug up for minerals, and bulldozed for towns and colonization projects. At the same time, the proliferation of roads opened previously inaccessible forests to settlement by poor farmers, illegal logging, and land speculators.

    But in 2004 that trend began to reverse in Brazil. Annual forest loss in Brazil (containing nearly two-thirds of the Amazon’s forest cover) was reduced by roughly 80%. The drop was the result of several factors, including increased law enforcement, satellite monitoring, pressure from environmentalists, private and public sector initiatives, new protected areas, and macroeconomic trends. However, the trend in Brazil is not mirrored in other Amazonian countries, some of which have experienced increasing deforestation since 2000. Even Brazil’s success in curbing deforestation stalled in 2012. And in July 2019, deforestation soared to levels not seen since the mid-2000s. This is blamed on the new far-right government of Jair Bolsonaro, who scaled back efforts to fight illegal logging, ranching and mining. Protecting the Amazon was at the heart of Brazil’s environmental policy for much of the past two decades. At one point, Brazil’s success in slowing the deforestation rate made it an international example of conservation and the effort to fight climate change. But the so-called populist Bolsonaro changed Brazil’s course substantially, retreating from the efforts it once made to slow global warming by preserving the world’s largest rain forest. While campaigning for president last year, Mr. Bolsonaro declared that Brazil’s vast protected lands were an obstacle to economic growth and promised to open them up to commercial exploitation. This settles in my view the question as to whether neoliberalism is now the state religion just about every place in South America, and much of the rest of the world. Isn’t insanity a hoot? It’s literally killing Sapiens and most of the other species on earth.

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