Who owns the Amazon?

Op-Ed Columnist

 Reprint from the New York Times Tuesday, August 27th, 2019

Op-Ed Columnist

Hello, readers. As a reminder: While I’m taking a short break from writing the newsletter, Quinta Jurecic of Lawfare is taking over this week. As always, you can find links to the full Times Opinion report at the bottom. — David
By Quinta Jurecic
At the Group of 7 summit, aides to President Trump complained that the French president, Emmanuel Macron, was focusing the summit not on the global economy but on “niche issues” — among them climate change. At the same time, fires continued to burn in the Amazon rainforest on a level not seen in nearly a decade.
Mr. Macron sought to present himself as a leader in the effort to quench the Amazon fires. In doing so, he positioned himself as a foil to the far-right president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, whose policies encouraging deforestation of the rainforest have contributed to the blazes. After Mr. Macron threatened to pull support for a major trade deal between the European Union and some South American nations, including Brazil, over Mr. Bolsonaro’s inaction, the Brazilian president seemingly changed course, mobilizing the country’s military to tackle the fires.
The Amazon fires are a test case of sorts for how the climate crisis will strain the usefulness of seemingly simple concepts — like national sovereignty. Before calling up the military, Mr. Bolsonaro accused countries donating money to preserve the rainforest of wanting to “interfere with our sovereignty.” He also declared that the international condemnation he faced spoke to a “colonialist mentality,” criticizing what he saw as Mr. Macron’s encouragement for the G7, which does not include Brazil, to grapple with the problem on its own. These remarks speak to Mr. Bolsonaro’s nationalist politics — he came to power in part by decrying globalism — and they are overly simplified. But it would be a mistake to write them off completely.
The traditional understanding of the nation-state demands that — up to a certain limit — each nation has control over its own affairs. Climate change poses a problem for this framework: The burning Amazon affects not just Brazil but the whole world. (The portion of the Amazon in next-door Bolivia, for example, is also burning.) Does it really make sense, then, to defer to the sovereignty of the Brazilian government in addressing the problem?
One answer, obviously, is no. Mr. Macron’s solution is to exert pressure through the usual ways that states have meddled in one another’s affairs — in this case, economic strong-arming. But as the threat of a changing climate grows more and more dire, the usual tactics may no longer hold. Writing in The Atlantic, Franklin Foer argues that “the battle against climate change demands not only new international cooperation but, perhaps, the weakening of traditional concepts of the nation-state.”
The problem is that, from the perspective of Brazil — and the other countries that may feel the brunt of this logic — this brave new paradigm risks becoming a very familiar story: The more powerful nations muscle their way in over the less powerful.
While the Amazon is burning, Greenland is melting: Temperatures in the Arctic have soared this summer, contributing to troubling decreases in the country’s glaciers. Denmark colonized Greenland centuries ago, and Greenlanders voted as recently as 2008 to move their country in the direction of greater self-government. President Trump and his allies meanwhile continue to dig in on the notion of “acquiring” a country whose long-term future is threatened in part by the Trump administration’s own refusal to admit to the existence of climate change. One of the puzzles of the current age is how nationalist leaders are both struggling with the reality of crises spanning national boundaries and doing their best to double down on the idea of borders in the first place.
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