As the chief steward of the world’s largest rainforest, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has been at the center of much of the discussion surrounding the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland. But the headlines are about as close as it got at the international gathering. Like a number of other nationalist leaders, Bolsonaro decided to skip the summit, preferring to embark on a pilgrimage to the northern Italian town where his grandparents were from before returning home.
But Brazil was not totally absent from COP26. In fact, the country’s delegation participated in some of the conference’s banner announcements, including pledges of reduce methane emissions and, perhaps most particularly for Brazil, ending illegal deforestation by 2030. As the homeland of the Amazon, the country has long come under scrutiny for its forest management. tropical, whose deforestation increased under the leadership of Bolsonaro. By signing pledges to protect the Amazon, even in absentia, Bolsonaro seemed to move from his trademark disregard for climate change to, at the very least, a general recognition of Brazil’s role in its struggle.
Yet close observers are rightly skeptical. The kind of multilateral engagement required to tackle the climate crisis is anathema to the nationalist leaders who rule some of the world’s biggest polluters, including Bolsonaro. While the international community may be encouraged by promises to change course, the real test will be what happens after the end of COP26.
In Bolsonaro’s case, there is little reason to be optimistic. The Brazilian president’s climate record ranges from general apathy to outright hostility. As a candidate, he pledged to follow Donald Trump’s example by withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, on the grounds that the agreement threatened Brazil’s sovereignty over the Amazon, a position he then took. overturned. At the time, Brazil was experiencing one of its lowest deforestation rates in decades – a short-lived achievement attributed in large part to better environmental law enforcement and improved monitoring technology. Under Bolsonaro’s leadership, however, measures to protect the Amazon have been reduced and deforestation has peaked in 12 years. As a result, while much of the world has experienced a drop in greenhouse gas emissions during the pandemic, deforestation has seen Brazil increase by 9.5%.
Bolsonaro is not the only nationalist leader who has shown little respect for climate change. Indeed, many others who did not show up at COP26, including Chinese Xi Jinping, Russian Vladimir Putin and Turkish Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, have, in some ways, even worse track records. “The difference is, we have the Amazon,” Ana Toni, director of the Brazilian Institute for Climate and Society and senior member of the Brazilian Center for International Relations, Glasgow, told me. Although the Amazon is often mistakenly referred to as the “lungs of the earth,” it nonetheless acts as a giant natural sink for carbon dioxide emissions around the world and is home to much of the world’s biodiversity. World leaders therefore have an interest in preserving it, which undoubtedly irritates Bolsonaro. He has already called the international interest in the rainforest an “environmental psychosis”, adding that as far as he is concerned, “the Amazon is in Brazil, not yours”.
His apparent about-face on climate could be indicative of a larger trend: As more far-right nationalists recognize the futility of categorically denying climate change, many have taken a different approach, positioning themselves as skeptics and not of the man-made climate. change, but rather solutions proposed by the elite to deal with it. In a regurgitation of far-right talking points over immigration and the pandemic, nationalist leaders such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán now argue that the economic implications of new climate policies should hit the middle class and citizens hardest. ordinary workers. Likewise, the far-right Alternative for Germany, which unlike Orbán’s Fidesz party does not recognize anthropogenic climate change, condemned the “self-proclaimed climate elite” at COP26 for demanding from its citizens sacrifices “that they are not prepared to make on their own.” “
Internal factors are also at play in Brazil. According to a recent survey conducted by PoderData and the Brazilian Institute for Climate and Society, a significant majority of Brazilian voters believe that protecting the Amazon should be one of the top priorities of the presidential election of the next year, with seven in ten agreeing that the country’s development depends on saving the rainforest. When asked to rate Bolsonaro’s protection over the Amazon, 43% said it was “bad or very bad”, compared with just 27% who rated his performance as “excellent or good”. This does not bode well for Bolsonaro, who has already fallen behind former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in opinion polls ahead of the elections.
While Brazilian sentiment towards the Amazon is partly driven by concerns about climate change, Toni said it is also fundamentally about Brazil’s national identity. “When the Amazon rainforest burns, a bit of Brazilian identity as a nation burns,” she said. “Any politician who really wants to have a future in Brazil will have to protect the Amazon, otherwise he will not be elected. It’s reality.
Although the Brazilian delegation made strong commitments at COP26, including promises to halve the country’s carbon emissions by 2030 with the ultimate goal of achieving net zero by 2050, it does not have the kind of credibility that only a leader of a country can provide.
“These are good commitments, and I am happy that the Brazilian government has signed them, but [Bolsonaro] is only one year old, ”Toni said. “There is no implementation plan; there is no money attached… so my hope that something happens next year sucks.
So far, Bolsonaro’s actions have spoken louder than any of the Brazilian delegation’s words. Back in Brazil, he blasted a young representative of Brazil’s indigenous community for going to COP26 only to “attack Brazil”. Surely she should have realized that the easiest way to hurt the country would have been to not attend the summit at all.