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Brazil backtracks on climate leadership with Bolsonaro set to take power

Deforestation is up, activists are in danger, and now Brazil will no no longer host a key 2019 U.N. climate conference.

Drone view from the float where the scientists stay during their research on river dolphins, at Mamiraua Sustainable Development Reserve in Amazonas state, Brazil, on June 30, 2018. CREDIT: MAURO PIMENTEL/AFP/Getty Images
Drone view from the float where the scientists stay during their research on river dolphins, at Mamiraua Sustainable Development Reserve in Amazonas state, Brazil, on June 30, 2018. CREDIT: MAURO PIMENTEL/AFP/Getty Images

Environmentalists are concerned that a feared rollback of climate stewardship is already underway in Brazil a month after the country’s presidential election. President-elect Jair Bolsonaro reneged this week on hosting major U.N. climate talks next year, even as deforestation rises in the Amazon and indigenous activists come under threat.

Bolsonaro, Brazil’s deeply conservative new president is set to take office on January 1. On Wednesday, he told reporters that he took part in the decision for Brazil to no longer host COP25, the round of U.N. climate talks scheduled for 2019. Brazil’s foreign ministry had initially attributed the decision, announced earlier this week, to financial reasons, but Bolsonaro clarified that he had told his future foreign minister, Ernesto Araujo, “to avoid hosting this event here in Brazil.” Araujo himself has previously described climate change as a “Marxist plot.”

Prior to Bolsonaro’s election, Brazil had pushed to host the conference, in an effort to cement its status as a key player in climate talks. But Bolsonaro, who has repeatedly threatened to relax environmental protections in Brazil, appears set to make good on his campaign trail promises.

That’s not going over well with the country’s green groups.

“Going back on the decision to host the COP is not only a loss of opportunity to affirm Brazil as an important leader on climate change,” said Fabiana Alves, climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace Brazil in a statement. “The gesture is a clear demonstration of the environmental policy vision advocated by the new president, Jair Bolsonaro, who had already told Brazilians during the election campaign that, in his government, the environment is not welcome.”

The Climate Observatory, a Brazilian NGO, similarly blasted the move. “By ignoring the climate agenda, the federal government also fails to protect the population, hit by a growing number of extreme weather events. These, unfortunately, do not cease to occur just because some doubt their causes,” the group said.

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Bolsonaro has made headlines for his rhetoric targeting immigrants, people of color, and LGBTQ Brazilians, among others. His comments on environmental issues have also greatly alarmed activists, leaving many afraid that Brazil may be set to largely abandon its green efforts.

As the chief protector of the Amazon, Brazil is tasked with safeguarding one of the world’s most important natural resources. Climate scientists say that the Amazon acts as a giant carbon “sink,” absorbing greenhouse gases and protecting against global warming. The area is also teeming with biodiversity and unique, fragile ecosystems.

But Bolsonaro has threatened to open the Amazon up to mining, logging, and other harmful industries, in addition to gutting Brazil’s environmental ministry. The president-elect has also said he will follow the example of U.S. President Donald Trump and exit the Paris climate agreement, a pledge he has since backed away from. He has moreover showed favoritism to agribusiness and threatened to unravel indigenous land protections.

Brazil still has a month before Bolsonaro takes power, but, for many, the COP25 decision is a harbinger of things to come. The move also comes at a bleak time for Brazil’s environmentalists.

Between 2004 and 2011, Brazil reduced its devastating deforestation levels by 70 percent, in an effort to tackle its own contributions to a phenomenon responsible for around 10 to 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. But those efforts have slowed recently, as environmental protections have relaxed. Meanwhile, clashes have risen between activists and loggers, poachers, and miners, resulting in dozens of recorded deaths of environmentalists.

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That trend only seems to be worsening. According to a report released Thursday, the murders of indigenous people fighting to protect Brazil’s forests are spiking. The country is the deadliest in the world for forest and land defenders, according to NYDF Assessment Partners, the network of civil society and research institutions that authored the report.

And according to government data, Amazon rainforest deforestation has also hit its highest rate in 10 years. Between August 2017 and July 2018, around 3,050 square miles of forest was cleared in the area — a 13.7 percent jump over the same period the prior year.

Brazil’s current environment minister, Edson Duarte, blamed that increase on illegal logging and called for a crackdown on such activities. But climate activists are worried that with Bolsonaro in charge, the situation will only worsen — a concern now compounded by the COP25 decision.

“Climate change is already reaching thousands of people around the world. By turning its back on this problem, the Brazilian government is, first and foremost, turning its back on the poorest people, who will first feel the effects of a warmer planet with serious consequences, such as water shortages and difficulties in food production,” said Alves.

Brazil’s announcement about COP25 comes days before the kickoff for COP24, this year’s round of climate talks, held in Katowice, Poland. The conference has already come under scrutiny after a number of coal-sector companies were announced as sponsors.

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Meanwhile, the Trump administration has reportedly planned a side-event promoting fossil fuels at COP24, drawing the ire of green groups. That decision comes following the publication of a sweeping congressionally-mandated National Climate Assessment last week which found that climate change is already severely impacting the United States.