The most predictable thing about authoritarian government is that it will eventually exceed our worst expectations. With Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right president of Brazil, we didn't have to wait long. Not only has the Brazilian president failed to protect the Amazon rainforest but he also seems madly determined to destroy that most vital planetary resource.
The only pertinent question now is what the rest of us will do about his ongoing depredations — and about him.
Amid the wave of extremists swept to power in recent years, Bolsonaro was among the most repellent even before this literal firestorm struck. He rose from obscurity by fomenting hatred against Brazil's indigenous minorities, gay Brazilians and feminists. He despises democracy and speaks fondly of the military dictatorships that long oppressed his own country and its neighbors. Indeed, he openly admires their barbaric history of torture and mass murder.
So nobody should be surprised that this deformed character would oversee violent destruction in the Amazon basin. His presidential campaign emphasized the massive development of agribusiness in previously protected lands as well as the breaching of indigenous preserves — all to serve the interests of his rural political base. He threatened repeatedly to pull Brazil out of the Paris climate accord and appointed as foreign minister an eccentric bureaucrat who thinks climate change is a "conspiracy by cultural Marxists" to limit growth.
Bolsonaro's own response to the record number of rainforest fires this year is appalling: He dismissed a space agency official who revealed the extent of the inferno; he repudiated data that proved increased burning as "lies"; and he accused nonprofit organizations of setting the Amazon fires to make him look bad. His record of paranoia and deception has won him the admiration of President Donald Trump, who praises him frequently.
Before Bolsonaro took office, Brazil had notched important achievements in protecting the Amazon, encouraging renewable energy and reducing its carbon emissions. Years of progressive policy initiatives had reduced deforestation by as much as 80 percent, while the Brazilian transportation and energy sectors increasingly relied on wind, solar and ethanol. But the new government appears determined to snuff out all such hopeful signs.
Over the past several months — well before intense conflagration engulfed the Amazon — European governments had sought to discourage Bolsonaro's most destructive impulses by threatening to withhold aid and trade. His response has been defiant; he told the Norwegians to take their aid and "reforest Germany" with it.
That isn't his worst idea — planting tens of billions of trees should be a top priority for every government — but it is also beside the point. Preserving the rainforests that remain is the only way to ensure an inhabitable planet.
With a fascistic thug holding Earth by the throat, it is tempting to imagine more forceful solutions. But a military incursion against Brazil's sovereignty would undoubtedly polarize small and large nations and provoke cries of imperialism. Indeed, Bolsonaro complains incessantly about the "colonialism" supposedly imposed by environmental leaders, even as he invites major U.S. financial outfits like the Blackstone Group to profit from destructive development in the Amazon. Of course, it is the less developed countries that will suffer the most immediate consequences of climate change.
What can be done about this flashpoint of environmental crisis? Nations led by sane politicians — a category that sadly doesn't include the United States today — should exert maximum diplomatic and economic pressure on Bolsonaro's regime. Members of the European Union should continue to use the Mercosur trade agreement, which will include Brazil, to leverage his cooperation on dousing the fires.
Public sentiment in Europe and the United States is powerfully aroused by the footage of burned forest. Brazil can defy global opinion only at significant risk to its economy.
If the fate of future trade agreements is not enough to persuade Bolsonaro, then the threat of an international boycott may yet concentrate his tiny mind. The Brazilian president's agribusiness allies already have confessed a deep fear of consumer action against their companies. They know that activists everywhere are urging people to shun Brazilian products. Now those capitalists should pull his leash very hard to put the fires out immediately and keep them extinguished.
Democratic values and environmental sanity both will be well served by bringing Bolsonaro to heel. He has certainly earned it.
To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
Photo credit: rosinakaiser at Pixabay