A question for this moment: If the Earth’s lungs were on fire and the doctor refused to treat it, would there be cause for a third-party intervention?
This is a rhetorical query for now, but it surely nags the conscience of an outraged international community as the Amazon rainforest is ablaze in Brazil and at least two other countries whose boundaries include sections of this crucial ecosystem. Most maddening is Brazil’s at-times lackadaisical attitude toward the inferno — actually a collection of more than 26,000 separate fires.
It isn’t as though Brazil, which contains 60 percent of the Amazon rainforest, or other countries with smaller holdings suffer the impact of such destruction in isolation. This rainforest, the largest in the world, is often called the Earth’s “lungs” in part because it absorbs about 2.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually, thus reducing greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.
What, if anything, should the rest of the world do to save a critical organ in our planet’s body?
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro essentially has stoked the fires now sweeping through his chunk of the river basin. He has done so since taking office in January by cutting budgets and staff in governmental environmental enforcement institutions and by promoting development, logging and agricultural expansion.
Bolsonaro insists that foreign intervention is really aimed at “interfering with our sovereignty.” This defensive posture may look paranoid to some, but it is also at least somewhat understandable in the context of Bolsonaro’s historical orientation. Like President Trump, he has appealed to constituents’ (and voters’) sense of marginalization to juice his ratings. Not surprisingly, Trump tweeted his support for Bolsonaro Tuesday, saying, “He is working very hard on the Amazon fires and ... doing a great job for the people of Brazil — Not easy.”
Other nations, meanwhile, are doubling down. Germany and Norway are withholding millions of dollars in contributions to the Brazil-run Amazon Fund, which collects money to combat deforestation. France has threatened to pull out of the Mercosur free-trade deal between the European Union and four South American countries.
Such reasonable measures are what civilization demands. But as extreme weather incidents increase and other climate change-related conditions worsen, people’s survival sense may demand more direct action and new ways of balancing sovereign interests with global priorities. Earth’s lungs may reside mostly in Brazil, but they belong to the world. There’s no denying that.