Two "Ours" to Climate Disaster

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The fires currently raging in the Amazon rainforest have outraged people and governments around the world and lit a match under a chorus of calls for action. 

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said “the Amazon is ours,” objecting to what he describes as foreign interference in his country’s policies regarding the rainforest in Brazil, and saying that international pressure was an assault on his country’s sovereignty. 

And in May this year, the government of Botswana caused international outrage by lifting the ban on trophy hunting of elephants and using footstools made from elephants’ feet as gifts to foreign leaders. Botswana President Mokgweetsi Masisi, said he didn’t want others making decisions “about our elephants,” and objected to foreign interference in how they manage the relationship between their people and the wild animals who live in their country.

The damage being done to the Amazon, the largest rainforest on earth, and elephants, who are an iconic symbol of wildlife and its rapid decline, are easy targets for our outrage. 

While these two wonders of the natural world exist inside the borders of sovereign nations, how they are managed has a huge impact on the future of the planet. Leaving individual countries to tackle globally significant problems within the narrow perspective of national sovereignty— as a matter of “ours” — is a prescription for disaster, both for conservation efforts and for the climate. 

Rainforests are huge carbon reservoirs, home to half of all species on earth and when they burn, they emit huge amounts of GHGs and destroy crucial habitat for millions of species. Elephants are large canaries in the coal mine of the climate crisis and are emblematic of the sixth mass extinction and the one million species at risk (UN biodiversity report). An estimated 20,000 - 40,000 elephants are killed in Africa each year by poaching for the illegal ivory trade. And global heating contributes to the destruction of their habitat. How these species are managed is key to what life on this planet will look like for future generations.  

Photo: Deirdre Boys/Unsplash

Photo: Deirdre Boys/Unsplash

But are these two issues prompting our outrage a convenient scapegoat for our own inaction on the climate crisis and a large slice of the climate hypocrisy pie? Just because we can visualize the fires and the elephants, does this obscure our own less visible contributions to global heating? Is it easier to chastise leaders in far off continents than to look in the mirror and change our own habits — many of which are contributing to the problem?  

The majority of fires in the Amazon are used to clear the rainforest for cropland for soy and for cattle grazing. Rainforest destruction may even be exacerbated by the huge increase in demand for Brazilian soy from China, looking for a new supplier in the midst of a trade war with the US. Brazil is the largest exporter of beef globally (USDA), and much of the soy and beef from Brazil are exported to those parts of the world now complaining about the Amazon fires. For example, Europe and the UK import 35 million tonnes of Brazilian soy annually, most of which is fed to animals on factory farms. And these imports are set to increase given the new EU-Mercosur trade deal signed in June.  

Most everyone bears some responsibility for the current crisis, for example:

-          Americans and Australians eat the most meat and beef per capita;

-          China is encouraging higher consumption of dairy and meat; and

-          Politicians around the world are unwilling to stop the more than $600 billion in global subsidies to animal agriculture — a major cause of the climate crisis — and redirect incentives to plant-based, climate-friendly foods. 

Greenhouse gas emissions don’t respect international boundaries and all emissions have a global impact. Individual nations should not use sovereignty as a reason not to work with other nations to address climate and conservation issues of global significance.  

And we in the developed world, who have been responsible for the vast majority of cumulative greenhouse emissions since the start of the industrial era, cannot abdicate our responsibilities to address climate and biodiversity issues in our own backyards. It’s ironic that Canada has offered money and water bombers to help fight the Brazilian forest fires and yet Canadians drive the least fuel-efficient vehicles in the world.  

We need international cooperation among global institutions and individual nations, and among the developed and developing world to address these crucial issues. The rainforests, the elephants and the future of the planet are depending on it.

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