Carrots and sticks could help fight Amazon fires
16 Sep 2019|

Nearly everyone has seen the dramatic images of the Amazon ablaze. Tens of thousands of fires—intentionally started or caused by logging, farming, mining and other human activities—have broken out over the past year alone.

This matters a great deal, because forests absorb gases that increase global warming if released into the atmosphere. Reduction of the Amazon rainforest by fire adds to the problem of climate change in two ways: the fires themselves release gases and particles that accelerate the earth’s warming, and the elimination of the trees by definition means they can’t absorb carbon dioxide.

The issue gripped last month’s G7 meeting in France. The leaders of many of the world’s wealthiest countries pledged just over US$22 million to help Brazil, home to the bulk of the Amazon rainforest and nearly half of the world’s tropical forests, combat the fires. Brazil angrily rejected the offer.

Brazil’s populist president, Jair Bolsonaro, stated that his country would not allow the G7 countries to treat it as if it were a colony. ‘Our sovereignty is non-negotiable’, the government spokesman declared. In the end, Brazil did accept some US$12 million in assistance from the United Kingdom, but it didn’t reach a compromise with the G7 or with France, which hosted the meeting.

What’s going on in Brazil highlights a fundamental tension in the world. Brazil’s government holds to the view that what happens inside the country’s borders falls within its purview alone. This is the traditional notion of sovereignty, one largely shared by most of the world’s governments, including the United States, China, Russia, India and others.

But it is an increasingly inadequate, if not obsolete, notion in today’s globalised world, where just about anyone and anything can reach almost anywhere. What happens within a country can no longer automatically and unconditionally be considered its concern alone.

Consider terrorism. In the late 1990s, the Taliban government that controlled Afghanistan allowed al-Qaeda to operate freely from Afghan territory. Al-Qaeda did just that, mounting an operation that led to the deaths of nearly 3,000 innocent men, women and children in the US on 11 September 2001.

The US, led by President George W. Bush and backed by much of the world, delivered an ultimatum to the Taliban government: hand over al-Qaeda’s leaders and deny it future use of Afghanistan to promote terrorism or face removal from power. Put differently, the government was told that the benefits and protections of sovereignty obliged it not to provide sanctuary and support to terrorists. The Taliban refused to accept this demand; within weeks, a US-led international coalition forcibly removed the group from power.

The lesson for Brazil is clear: what its government chooses to do and not to do vis-à-vis the rainforest has consequences for the entire world. If the issue were ‘merely’ one of local environmental degradation and pollution, it would be solely a Brazilian matter, as bad as that might be. But as soon as the effects of deforestation spill across borders, what happens in Brazil becomes a legitimate concern of others. Pollution is mostly about local results of local activities; climate change is about the global results of local activities.

And we know that the results of climate change are costly: more frequent and severe storms, floods, droughts and other extreme weather. More people are being internally displaced and turned into refugees as a consequence. Significant swathes of the globe may soon be uninhabitable. Climate change, like terrorism, has become everyone’s business. Brazil should be viewed as the Amazon’s custodian, not its owner.

So what is to be done? One approach is to create incentives for countries like Brazil to act more responsibly. This was behind the G7’s offer to help Brazil, and it underpins long-standing EU aid programs designed to curb forest destruction and promote the planting of new ones.

But it’s clear that Brazil’s government is not responding the way it should. Removal of legal barriers to deforestation has added to the problem, as has a dearth of government resources to enforce the law and stop those who are illegally clearing trees and starting fires.

Again, sovereignty entails obligations as well as rights. And where compliance can’t be induced, pressure must be applied. The time has come to consider penalties against a government such as Brazil’s if it refuses to meet its obligations to the world. Penalties could include tourism boycotts, sanctions and tariffs. Obviously, positive incentives to encourage and enable desired actions would be preferable. But there must be sticks where carrots are not enough.

Many governments take this approach to deterring or responding to genocide, terrorism and weapons proliferation. Brazil’s behaviour has raised the question of whether those who fan climate change ought to be treated similarly.