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A fire burns a tract of Amazon jungle as it is cleared by loggers and farmers near Porto Velho, Brazil, on August 31, 2019. Image Credit: Reuters

With a potential environmental tragedy unfolding in the Amazon, Jair Bolsonaro blocked G7 aid this week. His petulant behaviour, amid heated words with Emmanuel Macron, reflects the growing way in which climate change has become part of a political culture war between populist and centrist politicians.

The irony here is that 2019 has been a year in which consciousness over climate change has grown with potentially unprecedented speed. This underlines that the issue, perhaps the biggest facing humanity in the 21st century, has the potential to completely reshape politics in a way that few others have.

Yet, for now at least, Bolsonaro’s actions highlight the potency of climate sceptic counter-arguments, however scientifically illiterate and ill-founded. Bolsonaro, sometimes known as the ‘Tropical Trump’, is a noted anti-environmentalist who favours a host of policy positions controversial with many audiences, including nostalgia for the nation’s previous political dictatorship, and relaxing gun laws.

And like other populists around the world, he came to power through campaign tactics such as attacking multinational organisations, so-called fake media, and immigrants. Here it is no surprise that Donald Trump, who didn’t attend the G7 session on climate change on Sunday in France, has wholeheartedly supported Bolsonaro’s position.

Climate change a 'hoax'?

Trump, like Bolsanoro, has argued climate change is a “hoax” and wants to see the Paris deal dismantled. This argument, utterly reckless given the strong scientific consensus on global warming and its potentially calamitous perils, is already proving damaging to overall global attempts to tackle climate change.

Take the current example of the blazing Amazon, a vital carbon store slowing down pace of climate change. Most of its geography is in Brazil and this year’s wildfires have increased 80 per cent, according to the nation’s space agency. It is no coincidence that this significantly increased number of fires coincides with a sharp drop in fines for environmental violations under Bolsonaro’s presidency.

Indeed, it is the very opposite of the argument advanced by populists that is the more credible narrative. This is put forward by climate campaigners who argue that the Paris treaty does not go far enough, and that even the G7 aid of $22 million dollars is a drop in the ocean of what is needed to tackle the current calamity affecting the so-called ‘lungs of the earth’.

The irony of the Amazon tragedy is that it coincides with what appears a growing opportunity to co-create, and follow-through to implement, what could be a foundation of global sustainable development in coming decades for billions across the world.

- Andrew Hammond

While the position of Trump and Bolsonaro will eventually belong to the dustbin of history, the key question now is how fast other key countries across the world can move to ramp up the ambition in the Paris deal. This underlines that while the Paris agreement — reached by more than 190 countries as the successor treaty to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol — was a very welcome shot in the arm for attempts to tackle global warming, it is only the beginning of a longer journey that governments and legislators must now make in the 2020s.

While realising this level of ambition may seem a political long shot, it needs to be remembered that there was significant concern about whether the Paris deal could ever happen in the years leading to its agreement. And the deal was then ratified with remarkable speed by more than 55 countries accounting for a minimum of 55 per cent of global emissions pushing it forward.

The road map for moving forward from here is already clear starting with this month’s UN Climate Action Summit in New York. Here the growing evidence will be showcased that we may be facing into a climate emergency with the UN World Meteorological Organisation reporting that 2015 to 2019 are on track to be the five hottest years ever recorded.

Beyond this, implementation of Paris is now needed as speedily as possible to provide a baseline for future action. This will be most effective through national laws where politically feasible as country ‘commitments’ put forward in Paris will be more credible — and durable beyond the next set of national elections — if they are backed up by legislation, not least because the targets in the deal are not legally binding.

more on amazon fires

Once these domestic legal frameworks are in place, and cemented, they will become crucial building blocks to measure, report, verify and manage greenhouse gas emissions. Specifically, countries are required under the Paris deal to openly and clearly report on emissions and their progress in reaching the goals in their national climate plans submitted to the UN.

Into the 2020s, the ambition must then be that these frameworks are replicated in even more countries, and progressively ratcheted up. There are clear signs of this happening already in numerous states, from Asia-Pacific to the Americas, as countries seek to toughen their response to global warming.

Taken overall, the irony of the Amazon tragedy is that it coincides with what appears a growing opportunity to co-create, and follow-through to implement, what could be a foundation of global sustainable development in coming decades for billions across the world, starting with implementation of Paris. While populist counter arguments will remain potent with many, this narrative will eventually be relegated to the dustbin of history.

— Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics