Leaders representing the world’s seven biggest economies struck a deal on Monday to bring badly needed aid to the fire-stricken Amazon, following global uproar over the growing threat to the critical natural resource.
But the announcement will likely do little to fix a deep divide on climate issues between several world powers. While European leaders have expressed ongoing concern about the Amazon’s fires, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s right-wing government has empowered the business interests linked to the fires, prioritizing agriculture over the environment. And Bolsonaro has an ally in President Donald Trump, who himself missed a G7 climate change meeting earlier in the day, citing “scheduled meetings.”
French President Emmanuel Macron said Monday that G7 powers would commit $20 million to assist Brazil and its neighbors in their efforts to protect the Amazon. That group — consisting of France, Canada, the United Kingdom, Italy, Japan, Germany, and the United States — meets annually to discuss global economics and policy. Macron said that the initiative had U.S. support, but noted that Trump missed Monday morning’s climate meeting.
The meeting focused on biodiversity and oceans, as well as climate issues in general. White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham told reporters that Trump had previously scheduled commitments and that “a senior member of the Administration” attended in his stead.
The $20 million commitment marks a victory for Macron, who has fought to make the wildfires a central issue at the summit in Biarritz, France. But it is unclear what impact the aid will have, given the scope of the problem.
Brazil has seen more than 74,000 fires this year, according to the country’s National Institute for Space Research, with 41,000 in the Amazon. Wildfires are a naturally occurring phenomenon that scientists say are growing more common and more devastating as global temperatures increase. But the Amazon’s fires are not an act of nature gone awry. Instead, the blaze was caused by intentional efforts to clear the land for ranching and farming — efforts that have spiraled out of hand. Now, the world is facing a staggering problem.
The Amazon — referred to by some as the “world’s lungs” — is a crucial carbon sink and provides 20% of global oxygen. Without it, fighting climate change will be much harder — and that’s to say nothing of the blow to biodiversity found nowhere else in the world along with the overall cost to humanity. Some three million species of plants and animals are found in the Amazon, where around one million indigenous people also live.
Macron called the situation an “international crisis” and has taken aim at Brazil’s leadership over the fires.
This political dynamic has underscored tense G7 talks. When he took office in January, Bolsonaro almost immediately made good on his campaign promises to support agricultural and mining businesses in the Amazon at the expense of the environment and indigenous communities. While the fires have sparked international concern, Bolsonaro has downplayed the situation and accused his political foes of sabotage.
“On the question of burning in the Amazon, which in my opinion may have been initiated by NGOs because they lost money, what is the intention? To bring problems to Brazil,” the president said earlier this month, a claim for which he later admitted he had no evidence.
But Bolsonaro has risen to power largely by positioning himself in contrast to Western leaders, a distinction he has driven home as the fires have worsened.
Bolsonaro recently accused Macron and the G7 of interfering in Brazil’s affairs and having “a misplaced colonialist mindset.” This came after Macron called for G7 leaders to prioritize the issue during the current summit. “Our house is burning. Literally. The Amazon rain forest – the lungs which produces 20% of our planet’s oxygen – is on fire,” the French leader wrote in a tweet last week.
On Sunday, however, the Brazilian leader bowed to growing international pressure and authorized the military to combat the flames.
Our house is burning. Literally. The Amazon rain forest – the lungs which produces 20% of our planet’s oxygen – is on fire. It is an international crisis. Members of the G7 Summit, let's discuss this emergency first order in two days! #ActForTheAmazon pic.twitter.com/dogOJj9big
— Emmanuel Macron (@EmmanuelMacron) August 22, 2019
On the sidelines of the dispute, meanwhile, is the United States. Like Brazil, the United States has taken an increasing backseat on global climate leadership. Under Trump, the United States is set to exit the Paris climate agreement next year, while bolstering support for fossil fuels and slashing environmental protections.
Trump has also maintained friendly ties with Bolsonaro and has largely supported his Brazilian counterpart as the Amazonian fires have worsened.
Last week, the U.S. president tweeted about an exchange with Bolsonaro and offered Brazil his support. “I told him if the United States can help with the Amazon Rainforest fires, we stand ready to assist!” Trump wrote.
Trump’s absence at the G7 climate meeting, however, further highlights the gap between the United States and many of its allies, as does the president’s rapport with Bolsonaro. This contrast is only set to deepen as climate action becomes a bigger priority for many world leaders. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned Monday that the world is facing “a dramatic climate emergency.”
And in a seeming nod to the United States, Guterres also emphasized that smaller actors, like cities and states, have “the capacity to deliver in relation to climate action.”