If the Group of Seven summit has a bogeyman, it is Jair Bolsonaro, the Brazilian President who has been dubbed “Captain Chainsaw” for putting commercial interests ahead of protecting the Amazon rain forest.
There is no protection. The rain forest is burning down, partly because farmers want to clear land for cattle and crops. The skies above Sao Paulo, the enormous Brazilian city some 2,500 kilometres from the fires, have turned black with soot. Thanks to satellite monitoring, the fires can’t be hidden, although Mr. Bolsonaro would have you think they are fake news. Tens of thousands of them are burning out of control. The fire tally is up 80 per cent over last year, according to data from Brazil’s own National Institute for Space Research.
Mr. Bolsonaro did not take kindly to the rather inconvenient data. His response was to accuse the agency’s boss, Ricardo Galvao, of “peddling lies.” In a classic case of shooting the messenger, he fired Mr. Galvao earlier this month.
Brazil is not a member of the G7 (it’s part of the Group of Twenty) and you could argue that the G7 has no business telling other countries what to do with their natural resources. Mr. Bolsonaro could legitimately say that the industrial revolutions in the G7 countries came at the expense of the environment, which is true, and that he or she who continues to desecrate land and air with oil sands projects, coal-fired generating plants and millions of gas-slurping SUVs had better look at themselves in the mirror. He has accused his G7 critics of having a “colonialist mentality.”
French President Emmanuel Macron, the host of the G7 summit, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau didn’t reject the hypocrisy argument, nor did they buy it. Instead, they were the first two G7 leaders to pile pressure on Mr. Bolsonaro, to the point the summit evolved quickly into an environmental affair. That, apparently, wasn’t part of Mr. Macron’s original G7 plan. As the Brazilian fires raged, he ditched his carefully crafted playbook – picking a fight with Brazil was not supposed to be on the agenda – even if it meant isolating President Donald Trump. Mr. Trump is a fan of Mr. Bolsonaro, yanked the United States from the 2015 Paris climate accord and is gutting environmental regulations. His goal was to talk about trade and China and the alleged glories of the U.S. economy, not forests and rare jungle creatures turned to cinder.
On Thursday, two days before the start of the summit, Mr. Macron blasted out a Tweet that went viral. “Our house is burning. Literally. The Amazon rain forest – the lungs which produce 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!”
The next day, Mr. Trudeau came out in full support of Mr. Macron’s Tweet, using his own Tweet to say “I couldn’t agree more.” Mr. Macron later accused Mr. Bolsonaro of lying about a pledge that the Brazilian government had made to fight global warming.
It’s not known whether Mr. Macron and Mr. Trudeau actually picked up the phone to urge Mr. Bolsonaro to take Amazon protection seriously, but they may have. Canada also made it known to the Brazilians that it has a few idle water bombers lying around, should they need to borrow them.
The G7 has never concerned itself purely with G7 matters. It considers itself the premier global talking shop and, in spite of decades of relative decline as China and India came on strong, the G7 represents almost a third of global gross domestic product. It is supposed to care about global threats and now considers global heating and deforestation to be existential issues. For decades, the environment has actually been a central issue at G7 summits, even though most observers think it is obsessed merely with economics.
The G7 Research Group, an independent network of analysts based at Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, has tracked all the communiques and pledges made by the G7 and G8 (as the group was known before Russia was expelled in 2014) since the first meeting in 1975. Protecting the Amazon has featured prominently since 1990, when the Houston summit declared that “The destruction of tropical forests has reached alarming proportions.” The communiqué from 1998’s Birmingham summit said that “devastating” fires in southeast Asia and the Amazon were “threatening not only our environment but even economic growth and political stability.”
Mr. Macron and Mr. Trudeau are gaining allies as the Amazon burns. Finland, which holds the European Union’s rotating presidency, has suggested banning Brazilian beef imports. Ireland, along with France, threatened to veto the EU’s trade deal with the Mercosur countries of Latin America, led by Brazil, unless Brazil works hard to douse the Amazon flames (German Chancellor Angela Merkel refused to support this option).
Calls for environmental protection come cheap. Almost every country demands it, but targets and goals are rarely met. Canada, to take one big polluter, has blown through every carbon-reduction pledge it has made at climate summits and is a cheerleader for the Alberta oil sands, one of the continent’s biggest sources of carbon dioxide output.
Against all odds, Mr. Bolsonaro may be listening to his detractors. A couple of days ago, he called in the Brazilian army to fight the fires. “The protection of our forest is a duty,” he declared. While the fires may continue to burn, Mr. Macron and Mr. Trudeau can claim the pressure they exerted on Brazil had some effect. Point for the G7.
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