When Jair Bolosonaro won Brazil’s presidential election last year, having run on a platform of deforestation, David Wallace-Wells asked, “How much damage can one person do to the planet?” Bolsonaro didn’t pour lighter fluid to ignite the flames now ravishing the Amazon, but with his policies and rhetoric, he might as well have. The destruction he inspired—and allowed to rage with his days of stubborn unwillingness to douse the flames—has placed the planet at a hinge moment in its ecological history. Unfortunately, the planet doesn’t have a clue about how it should respond.
In part, the problem is that so much of the world is now governed by leaders who share Bolsonaro’s sensibility. Even before Bolsonaro presided over the incineration of the world’s storehouse of oxygen, he led a dubious regime. His path to power began with the corrupt impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, followed by the arrest of his higher-polling electoral rival.
In part, the problem is the dismal state of international institutions, which haven’t been so tattered since World War II. In the face of global critics begging Bolsonaro to stop the destruction of the Amazon, he shouts about the threats to Brazil’s sovereignty. For that complaint to land, he would need democratic legitimacy, and this revanchist has none; yet those critics do nothing more than sputter inconsequential rage.
If a country obtains chemical or biological weapons, the rest of the world tends to react with fury—or at least it did in the not-so-distant past. Sanctions rained down on the proliferators, who were then ostracized from the global community. And in rare ( sometimes disastrously misguided) cases, the world decided that the threat justified a military response. The destruction of the Amazon is arguably far more dangerous than the weapons of mass destruction that have triggered a robust response. The consequences of the unfolding disaster—which will extinguish species and hasten a worst-case climate crisis—extend for eternity. To lose a fifth of the Amazon to deforestation would trigger a process known as “dieback,” releasing what The Intercept calls a “doomsday bomb of stored carbon.”
It is commonplace to describe the Amazon as the “world’s lungs.” Embedded in the metaphor is the sense that inherited ideas about the sovereignty of states no longer hold in the face of climate change. If the smoke clouds drifted only so far as the skies of São Paulo, other nations might be able to shrug off the problem as belonging to someone else. But one person shouldn’t have the power to set policies that doom the rest of humanity’s shot at mitigating rising temperatures. [Continue reading…]