Why the Amazon fires strike dread in our hearts.

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Bruce Duncan.

The extraordinary fires in the Amazon in August 2019 struck dread into the hearts of climate specialists and observers worldwide, since the Amazon forests remain one of the great bulwarks against global warming. They cool Latin America, and generate 20% of the world’s oxygen. Smoke from the fires darkened the sky over Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, almost 2000 miles away.

Speaking from the G7 Summit in Biarritz France, the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on 25 August that the ‘dramatic climate emergency’ came as the World Meteorological Organization reported the years 2015 to 2019 being on track as the five hottest years on record.

Guterres warned that the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made it clear that ‘we absolutely need to keep the rise of temperature to 1.5 degrees Celsius to the end of the century, and to be carbon neutral in 2050’, plus reduce carbon emissions by 45% by 2030. The commitments of the 2015 Paris Climate Conference were not enough to do this, and countries will have to reduce their carbon emissions substantially to become carbon neutral. Guterres said taxes had to be shifted from people to carbon, subsidies for fossil fuels ended, and no more coal plants could be built after 2020.

Australia, meanwhile, subsidises fossil fuels by about US$29 billion a year.

In a special report in August, the IPCC said that to keep temperature increases even under 2℃ would require significant reductions in emissions from the land sector, including food production, which together emits about 29% of global emissions. Land-based ecosystems, forests, and seagrasses, together with farmed land and managed forests, absorb about 22% of global greenhouse gases, leaving a very significant gap. Improved land management will be essential to provide secure food production. Rising temperatures have caused global drylands in drought to increase by 40% since 1961, with water becoming scarcer. According to the World Resources Institute, a quarter of the world’s population over 17 countries lives in areas of extremely high water stress.

Threats to Brazil’s Amazon

Brazil had until recently made enormous efforts to slow deforestation of the Amazon, preventing more than seven billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions. An Amazon farmer is legally obliged to set aside 80% of his or her land for forest, incurring heavy costs on farmers. To compensate and encourage such farmers, Norway and Germany had signed ‘pay-for-performance’ contracts with the Brazilian government, but, because of the Brazilian government’s apparent collusion with massive land clearing, they have suspended US$60 million earmarked as sustainability funds.

The UK has entered into similar sustainability agreements with several states in Brazil. Rich countries can help translate emission reductions into carbon-neutral commodities, voluntary carbon credits, and eventually compliance credits. This is how wealthier nations can ensure these great forests are preserved to help contain global warming, while still opening doors to improved living standards for host populations. The burden of addressing climate change cannot simply be loaded onto poor countries, since those which benefit most should bear much of the burden.

The new populist president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, has however wound back protection of the forests and Indian lands, and encouraged big landowners and commercial interests to turn forested areas into farms or grazing land, and to open mines. Forest clearing for the year till July 2019 had almost tripled, with more than 40,000 wildfires in Brazil’s legal Amazon so far this year, an increase of 82% over last year. Most of the fires have been deliberately lit, many on an orchestrated ‘day of fire’. A council of Protestant denominations and the Catholic Church, the Ecumenical Forum ACT Brazil, stated on 22 August that Bolsonaro’s policies ‘led to a surge of devastation of the environment’.

Bolsonaro is strongly supported by evangelical and Pentecostal groups which have been significantly silent about climate issues. Some 20% of Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies is made up of evangelicals, who have reportedly held a long alliance with landowners, and began to see environmentalism as a disguise for communism, or foreigners trying to take land from Brazil. Some evangelicals have an ‘apocalyptic worldview’ which interprets ecological problems as a sign that the end of the world is coming.

Pope Francis & the Amazon Synod

Pope Francis had earlier convoked a synod of the bishops of the pan-Amazonian region, which meets in Rome 6-27 October. Extensive consultations were held through the nine countries included in the Amazon region, with the rainforest covering 5.5 million square kilometres. Indians number some three million, made up of 390 different nationalities or peoples. Consultations for the Synod raised the social problems arising from poverty, exploitation, human trafficking, land invasions, and violence perpetrated by mining and commercial or political interests.

The Pope prayed on 25 August that the fires in the Amazon be brought under control quickly. ‘That forest lung is vital for our planet’. The bishops of Latin America also said that what happened in the Amazon affected the whole world. ‘If the Amazon suffers, the world suffers.’ They reiterated Pope Francis’s pleas from 2013 to all who have responsibility in politics, economics, and society to be ‘guardians of creation, of the design of God inscribed in nature, guardians of the other, of the environment’.

Convinced by the overwhelming consensus of climate scientists, Francis had appealed in June to 200 top executives and representatives from leading global energy companies to do everything they can to hold the rise in temperatures to below 1.5℃ or face ‘catastrophic’ consequences. He urged that carbon pricing be introduced to help move to low-carbon economies, while sustaining equitable living standards.

All eyes will now be fixed on the 2019 Climate Action Summit in New York on 23 September. Hosted by the UN Secretary-General António Guterres, the summit aims to accelerate decisive actions to avert disastrous climate change. ‘There is still time…, but it will require an unprecedented effort from all sectors of society’.

One can only hope that the Australian government is not blind to the momentous challenge faced by the whole world at this critical moment.

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