Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Trump and his New Flame are Warming our Climate

The fledgling relationship between US president Donald Trump and Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro has deeply troubling international repercussions for both climate and the environment.

Brazil's newly elected far right president is a fitting paramour for a narcissist like Trump. Bolsonaro, (or Mini-Me as Trump calls him), was warmly received by the White House on March 19th. Trump's new love interest is entirely consistent with the procession of foreign leaders he has courted over the last two years. Trump's fondness for far right leaders was evident when he offered his support for France’s xenophobic presidential contender Marine Le Pen. However, Trump seems to reserve a special place for dictators and despots. He hasn't concealed his envy for leaders who are not constrained by the fetters of democracy. Trump cozied up to dictators like Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoan and he covered for the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman after he murdered Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Another romance that started with immense promise was Trump's brief affair with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. That relationship soured after the two men spent a weekend together in Hanoi. However, no one has Trump's heart more then Vladimir Putin (it is unclear at present whether this love is genuine or inspired by Kompromat). Whatever the reason may be it is clear that Trump shares Putin's fossil fuel agenda and the Russian strongman's contempt for climate action. 

However, few leaders have more in common than Trump and Bolsonaro. They hold contemptuous views of women and they both have a penchant for prostitutes. The parallels between these two men go on an on. In USA Today Steve Bannon, Trump's former political adviser, called the two heads of state the vanguard of a movement to promote nationalism. "They're very similar," Bannon, said.


Trump campaigned with the slogan, "Make America Great Again," while Bolsonaro's catchline was, "Brazil before everything, and God above all." Both men sew divisions by conjuring fears and propagating hate. Bolsonaro was once charged with hate speech and Trump's hate speech is a matter of public record including his support for white supremacists and neo-Nazis. 

Both Trump and Bolsonaro hold anti-immigrant views. While Trump directs much of his vitriol towards Mexicans, Bolsonaro's contempt is directed against Brazil's Indigenous People. The Brazilian president has made no secret of the fact that he admires the genocidal rants of the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964–1985. An ongoing civil suit in Brazil accuses the state of genocide associated with the deaths of hundreds (perhaps thousands) of Waimiri-Atroari tribe members between 1968 and 1977.

Bolsonaro said that he wants to "integrate" the 900,000 Indigenous People who now live in legally designated land much of which is located in the Amazon. Some have called this cultural genocide or ethnocide. Trump has also shown contempt for native people by rolling back policies that protect the rights of Indigenous Peoples and failing to respect legal obligations to Tribal Nations.


Native American lands are under threat from the Trump administration because tribal lands hold about 20 percent of US fossil fuel reserves. Bolsonaro wants access to the lands of Indigenous People for farming, ranching and mining.

Trump allowed access to national monuments including lands of great importance to Native Americans. Bolsonaro has indicated that he wants to open up access to indigenous lands.

Both men serve industry. While Trump is focused on fossil fuels, Bolsonaro is interested in expanding agricultural and mining activities. Just as the Trump administration has removed regulations and opened public lands to exploitation, Bolsonaro is expanding commercial access to the Amazon rainforest.

Both Trump and Bolsonaro have assembled cabinets that favor industry over the environment. In the US the fossil fuel industry buys politicians and political outcomes. In Brazil it is the agricultural lobby that wields power. Just as fossil fuel lobbyists were given key positions in the Trump administration (eg Andrew Wheeler, Ryan Zinke, David Bernhardt, etc) agricultural lobbyist were given key positions in Bolsonaro's government. For example, Bolsonaro's new minister of agriculture is Tereza Cristina and she led the agricultural lobby in the Brazilian congress. Bolsonaro signed an executive order giving Cristina responsibility for certifying indigenous lands as protected territories. Scott Pruitt, Trump's former Administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) gave industry free reign.

Brazil's Foreign Minister, Ernesto Araújo is a climate denier who has called efforts to combat climate change a conspiratorial power grab by the global left. Pruitt is also a climate denier who has called climate science "speculative guesswork". He succeeded in dismantling a raft of environmental regulations before being forced to resign in disgrace. His successor Andrew Wheeler continues to advocate for industry. Like Pruitt and now Wheeler, Brazil's new agricultural minister has indicated she does not want to penalize companies for environmental infractions.

Trump tapped Ryan Zinke to head the Department of the Interior. Before he was forced to resign over ethics violations Zinke redrew maps to favor natural resource extraction. Zinke shares this in common with Bolsonaro's environment minister Ricardo Salles who was found guilty of altering maps to benefit mining companies while he was environment secretary for Sao Paulo state, in 2016. Zinke expanded fossil fuel extraction across the US and his replacement David Bernhardt continues to advance the interests of industry at the expense of the environment.


Both men have shown their propensity to invoke executive powers, flout democratic checks and balances and ignore constitutional limitations. Like Trump's use of Executive Orders, Bolsonaro will rule by presidential decree. He is expected to issue orders that would allow agribusiness and mining companies to access land belonging to Indigenous People.

Both men want to keep a lid on information and control access to the facts. Bolsanaro has fired his communication chief and instructed members of his cabinet to ignore media requests for environmental information. Trump has also fired a slew of communications secretaries and he endlessly tries to seize control of the narrative.

As a sure sign of their authoritarian tendencies both men love to attack the press and dismiss unfavorable reporting as "fake news". They are both resistant to science. Trump's rejection of science is now well known and Bolsanaro has given scientists reason to worry.  Bolsonaro's early moves have Brazilian scientists concerned that, like Trump, he will abandon climate and environmental science. Some researchers have warned that Brazil is heading for a very dark period.

Climate and the environment

Both Brazil and the US were once leaders in climate change policy and environmental diplomacy. But no more. Trump's most recent budget is a reiteration of his climate denial and blatant disregard for the environment. During more than two years in office Trump has laid waste to the climate action his predecessor Barack Obama and the almost 50 year history of the EPA. In the short amount of time Bolsonaro has been in power he has already undermined environmental protections in Brazil reversing 30 years of progress. Both men have worked to weaken or defund government agencies that oversee environmental protections and they have given those responsibilities to industry.

Both men are averse to climate action. This is evidenced by their resistance to UN action on climate change, specifically the Paris Climate Agreement. Trump has withdrawn from the Paris Accord and it is not clear at this point if Brazil will follow suit, however, Bolsanaro has withdrawn his country's offer to host the 2019 UN Climate Change Conference.

The actions of both men have serious consequences for global efforts to address climate change. The Trump administration is a climate threat because of their support for fossil fuels. The Bolsanaro government is a climate threat because of the impact they will have on the Amazon.

The importance of the Amazon cannot be overstated. It is an ecological wonder of unparalleled diversity, a rich ecosystem that comprises around 10 percent of all the world's species. The Amazon is also described as the lungs of the planet, that is because the trees release oxygen and absorb CO2, mitigating the effects of climate change. As reported by CNN a University of Leeds study estimated that since 1980, the Amazon has absorbed roughly 430 million tonnes of CO2 per year. The Amazon is also important because it regulates global temperatures.

If Bolsonaro has his way vast swaths of Amazonian rainforest will be cut down. This has catastrophic global implications as it will release stored carbon and decrease the amount of carbon that is removed from the atmosphere.

With Trump as the leader of the free world and Bolsonaro as the custodian of the Amazon the already Herculean struggle to save the planet from climate change has been made that much more difficult.

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