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Brazil Is a Bigger Threat Than Either Iran or China

Anyone who says otherwise isn't taking climate change seriously.

Evaristo Sa/AFP/Getty Images

As the manufactured crisis rumbles along with Iran, now ensnaring the United Kingdom, Washington policymakers are increasingly focused on another long-term threat: China. Last week, The New York Times reported that Democrats and Republicans have united on a new red scare in Washington. Pete Buttigieg has described China producing an “international expansion of authoritarian capitalism.” Elizabeth Warren has said that China has “weaponized its economy.” John Bolton has said that China and the United States’ conflict has elements of “Clash of Civilizations.”

China’s treatment of the Uighur minority in Xinjiang deserves both concern and strong advocacy from the highest rungs of the government. But the current focus on China as an existential threat is mostly notable for how it displaces the true existential threat to the United States and the world, climate change, in guiding our national security framework. And an appropriate level of attention to climate change as an urgent security concern would require the U.S. to reorder its priorities. While China is a top and growing greenhouse-gas emitter, we should be paying more attention to what is happening in our own hemisphere. In particular, that means addressing the more immediate danger that we are facing from a nominal state partner and President Trump ally: Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil, and its accelerating deforestation of the Amazon.

Bolsonaro, who has been referred to as the “Trump of the Tropics” and been celebrated by The Wall Street Journal, is an extreme reactionary who longs for the days of the Brazilian junta. Posing a danger to a fragile democracy and human rights in Brazil cannot be overstated; he has also cheered Wall Street in his choice of economic adviser, Paulo Guedes, a Milton Friedman–tutored University of Chicago graduate. Guedes, it is believed, could help open the a resource-rich but economically protected developing economy to financialization, selling off public assets such as Petrobras, the state oil company, once they purge the company of the past government. Combining this with Foreign Minister Ernesto Araújo, who has called climate change “a plot by cultural Marxists” to stifle growth, and an agricultural minister who is the former head of the agribusiness lobby and intends to open up native land to farming, Bolsonaro’s regime is a direct threat to the Amazon rainforest.

The Amazon is the largest forested area in the world, one of the most biodiverse places on earth, and an enormous carbon sink for the atmosphere. Deforestation for agricultural purposes has been a concern for the last half-century, as an area the size of Texas has been slashed and burned. But what many policymakers may not be aware of is that if another fifth of the Amazon were to be destroyed for farmland or development, it could trigger something called a “dieback” where the forest would collapse in on itself, creating a carbon bomb released in the atmosphere. It would release the equivalent of 140 years of human activity.   

Even the European Union, traditionally more enlightened than the U.S. in terms of incorporating climate change into policy, doesn’t seem to be taking this threat seriously. Last month, the European Union reached a trade deal with the South American trade bloc, Mercosur, that would open up European markets to Brazilian agribusiness. Under the deal, Brazil committed to environmental targets, echoing the previous administrations’ commitments to the Paris climate accord. But it is clear from both satellite data and governmental action that Bolsonaro is ignoring any environmental regulations. Not only should this revelation kill the trade deal ratification, it should caution policymakers that business as usual is no longer an option when dealing with Brazil.        

Despite Wall Street’s excitement at Bolsonaro’s election, Brazil’s economic forecast is gloomy. Unemployment is high, debt load is high, and cuts to pensions and social security loom. The economic situation, combining with a lax view on environmental law enforcement, makes it more likely that deforestation will accelerate. But, the economic vulnerability gives opportunity for foreign policy carrots and potentially sticks to influence behavior.

Policymakers should consider offering direct aid to Brazil to reverse deforestation, similar to how Norway and Germany have through the Amazon Fund. The European Union should not ratify any trade deal until they get concrete and verifiable promises from Bolsonaro’s government. And it’s worth trying to get China involved, given its leverage as a huge buyer of Brazil’s soybeans. Targeted sanctions to Brazilian agribusiness should be attached to measures of direct aid. We can’t make Bolsonaro into a trustworthy politician. But like most people, he will likely respond to clear incentives and disincentives.

Policymakers need to broaden their definition of threats, incorporating climate change into policy decisions. The reality of another financial crisis due to climate change’s effect on insurance companies has motivated central banks around the world to start to look at climate change as something that will fall within their purview, something they need to address. Security and foreign policy strategists need to follow suit.

The Arctic is literally on fire. Paris on Thursday experienced its hottest day in recorded history. New York City had flash floods this last week during a heat wave that knocked out power for thousands. All of these could become repeat occurrences in the near future, as extreme weather events increase.

China’s rise represents a true challenge to the United States on the global stage. But focusing solely on superpowers and geopolitics is a luxury of an earlier century. American policymakers need to start taking climate change as seriously as a national security threat as terrorism, nuclear weapons, or cyber hacking. While we cannot appoint leaders around the world, the American government can leverage its economy, use diplomacy, and offer true incentives for behavior that protects key resources in the fight against global warming. Climate change is a greater threat to the United States and its inhabitants than either Iran or China.