Forty world leaders will attend a virtual climate summit hosted by the United States on Thursday and Friday, but the majority of the focus may fall on just one: Jair Bolsonaro, the climate-change-denying president of Brazil.
Bolsonaro has become an international pariah as he has presided over record levels of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest since taking office in 2019, and his reputation has only worsened due to his disastrous response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It may seem odd to focus on the one outlier at a conference intended to boost climate ambitions ahead of a larger United Nations climate summit in November. But instead of snubbing Bolsonaro, President Joe Biden has used his first few months in the White House to urge Bolsonaro to reclaim Brazil’s former mantle as a global leader in the fight against climate change.
Since February, the U.S. and Brazil have engaged in a series of diplomatic discussions about a potential agreement that could eventually resemble a plan Biden proposed during his campaign to create an international $20 billion fund to incentivize protecting the Amazon. (A similar program, the Amazon Fund, was established in 2008 to allow other countries to support projects that limit deforestation in Brazil, though its major European supporters halted donations in 2019 over Bolsonaro’s environmental policies.) And while that deal almost assuredly won’t materialize this week, Bolsonaro’s approach to the summit could determine whether or not the two leaders reach an agreement both say they want.
Biden and former Secretary of State John Kerry, the U.S. special envoy for climate, “really want to find a way to keep Brazil actively engaged in these climate talks,” said Thomas Shannon, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Brazil from 2010 to 2013. “So they’re making great efforts to make sure that the Brazilians come along with them. But at the same time they’re trying to make it very clear that this is not a moment for half-measures, and that what Brazil has been proposing is insufficient.”
There’s a clear logic behind Biden’s climate entreaties to Brazil. Few countries are more important in the battle to curb carbon emissions, and any attempt to stem the effects of climate change is harder ― perhaps even impossible ― without South America’s largest nation at the table.
Biden has already made some progress with China. If the U.S, a country that abandoned its own environmental role under President Donald Trump, can succeed in bringing Brazil back into the fold, it won’t just kickstart a more aggressive global climate movement, it will increase Biden’s — and the United States’ — reputation as a climate leader.
That goal, however, still faces one major roadblock: Bolsonaro.
‘An Uphill Battle’
Bolsonaro ran for president in 2018 on a plan to industrialize the Amazon, roll back environmental restrictions and eliminate many of Brazil’s protections on rainforest lands. He has vigorously pursued that agenda as president, bulldozing past objections from environmental organizations (which he asserts are part of an internationalist plot to undermine him) and Indigenous tribes, who have accused him of promoting genocide against them.
Bolsonaro has cut the budgets of Brazil’s environmental agencies, fired public officials for publishing official deforestation data he doesn’t like, and scaled back government protection of Indigenous lands, a policy that has led to spikes in illegal land invasions and killings of Indigenous peoples.
Deforestation of the Amazon hit a 12-year peak in 2020, and the forest that has long been a vital carbon sink may now emit as much as it absorbs, according to a recent study. The Amazon is also nearing the point, scientists have warned, past which large swaths of it are no longer recoverable.
Amid international scorn, Bolsonaro found refuge in the U.S. during the Trump years. Biden’s victory forced a slight change in tune in Brazil: Bolsonaro fired his foreign minister, who had described climate change as a Marxist plot. But in discussions with the U.S., the Brazilians have continued to draw a hard line on funding to help limit deforestation, and when Brazil should receive it.
Brazil knows how to curb deforestation ― they’ve done it before. It’s less a question of resources than it is of political will. Anya Prusa, Brazil Institute
The Bolsonaro government, through Environmental Minister Ricardo Salles, has insisted that the country needs money upfront to change its approach, and it has told the U.S. and other countries that a $1 billion aid commitment this year will help it cut deforestation by 40%. The U.S., however, has repeatedly told the Brazilians that any funding it may provide is contingent on significant and immediate progress in curbing deforestation, a goal State Department officials have said they believe is possible to achieve by the end of this year. Given Bolsonaro’s lack of credibility, the U.S. seems unlikely to budge.
“The Bolsonaro government is facing an uphill battle trying to convince the United States and Europe that it is ready to sit down and take this seriously,” said Anya Prusa, a senior associate in the Brazil Institute at The Wilson Center, a Washington-based think tank. “There’s great skepticism that if international funders give the money first, it will be actually followed with real action.”
The other signals Bolsonaro has sent so far are less than promising, even if he has for now abandoned the sort of fiery rhetoric he used to deny the severity of the fires that engulfed the Amazon two years ago.
Last week, Bolsonaro promised that Brazil would commit to ending illegal deforestation by 2030 and suggested to ministers within his government that he could consider increasing the Environmental Ministry’s budget, the newspaper Folha de S.Paulo reported.
But the 2030 pledge is not as ambitious as it may sound; it merely matches a commitment Brazil already made as part of the Paris Agreement in 2015. And devoting more money to environmental enforcement won’t do much if the government refuses to spend it: Over the first 10 months of 2020, a year in which record fires again hit the Amazon and the Pantanal wetland region, Brazil’s main environmental agency spent just 40% of the funds it earmarked for fire prevention and control.
“Brazil knows how to curb deforestation ― they’ve done it before,” Prusa said. “It’s less a question of resources than it is of political will.”
‘He Will Not Change’
American officials have continued to strike a positive tone about the negotiations with Brazil, but they have also stressed that Biden is not willing to ease demands solely to get a deal. A senior administration official told reporters on Wednesday that the U.S. is not singling out countries like Brazil or telling them to outline more ambitious climate change and emissions reductions policies “on their own;” it is looking for ambitious partners.
“It’s a question of saying, ‘How do we collaborate and cooperate to move more quickly?’” the official said. “But ultimately, for many countries, if they’re not acting on their own and moving forward on their own, it’s very hard for the global community to engage.”
It’s unlikely that anything that happens this week or in the immediate future could cause talks between the U.S. and Brazil to fall apart completely. But officials close to Biden have previously indicated that he won’t wait around for Bolsonaro forever: Juan Gonzalez, who now serves as the White House’s chief Latin America adviser on the National Security Council, told HuffPost last fall that any leader “who thinks they can advance an ambitious relationship with the United States while ignoring important issues like climate change, democracy and human rights clearly hasn’t been listening.”
Biden is also under growing pressure to avoid making a deal with Brazil just to keep up appearances. Last week, 15 Democratic senators called on Biden to avoid any agreement with Bolsonaro that doesn’t include solid commitments. And Brazil’s Indigenous tribes, lawmakers and environmental organizations have all similarly warned against a deal that is too lenient, cautioning that Bolsonaro is solely interested in a symbolic political win.
“He will not change,” Marcio Astrini, a researcher at the São Paulo-based Climate Observatory, told HuffPost. The U.S. and Europe, he suggested, should instead seek to work with Brazilian governors and organizations that are already committed to limiting deforestation.
Brazilian companies and financial institutions are also increasing their demands that the government take aggressive steps to limit deforestation, fearing that a continued refusal to do so will hurt their international reputations and limit the country’s ability to attract foreign investment.
European nations that had previously financed the Amazon Fund have become increasingly hesitant to continue contributing. Norway, which gave $1.2 billion to the fund between 2008 and 2018, said last week that it would not end its freeze on future contributions until Brazil began reducing deforestation again.
If he manages to alienate the U.S., too, Bolsonaro would likely find himself completely isolated.
“It would be a shame, but also the Brazilians would be putting at risk probably their most important partner on these issues,” Shannon said. “If they can’t get along with us, they can’t get along with anybody.”