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Climate Change Thrust Into the Spotlight as the Amazon Fires Rage

Back in 2019, actor Leonardo DiCaprio stated, “The lungs of the earth are in flames,” in reference to the fires that were blazing in the Amazon. Since that time, fires are still raging, arguably worse than they were two years ago. Given the pivotal role that the rainforest plays in Brazil, where 60% of the Amazon is located, most of the country has had enough and would like to see economic protection become a priority at all costs.

A new survey on climate change perception, which was put together by the Institute of Technology and Society Brazil and the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication in the United States, thrusts climate change into the spotlight, especially from the perspective of the younger generations. Climate change is a top issue for young Brazilians, who fear that the damage being done by global warming poses a threat to their lives today and for the years to come.
The Amazon fires have reportedly been on the rise since President Jair Bolsonaro was elected in 2018. Indeed, according to the INPE, thousands of wildfires have been burning on a monthly basis for the past two years straight, with the number of fires reaching well past the danger zone. In July 2020, the number of fires in the Amazon rose by more than 55% compared to the average for that month in the 2010-2019 period. Last year, the Amazon lost some 5 million acres across nine countries — chief of which was Brazil — due to the destruction from the fires.
President Bolsonaro, however, appears to be in denial, having called the fires in the rainforest a “lie” in the face of the damning evidence. Meanwhile, despite the cries of Brazilians, the elections have not been trending in the opposite direction, as pointed out by Marcello Brito, co-facilitator of the Brazilian Climate, Forests and Agriculture Coalition, which is a movement dedicated to promoting economic development through a “low-carbon economy.” According to Brito cited by Reuters, Brazilians are more focused on short-term issues when they go to the polls, such as healthcare and jobs in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, the Amazon inherently protects against climate change, taking in about 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year while the world emits roughly 40 billion tons of CO2 into the air annually. The destruction from the fires is the product of farming development in the rainforest, which in recent years has been at the urging of President Bolsonaro. The fires are intentionally set to pave the way for agriculture activities including soybean production and cattle grazing systems, but this is fueling deforestation in the Amazon. While sustainable production is on the radar of Brazilian companies, the economic incentives still favor scooping up the land and removing the trees for food production.
One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

There are green shoots of progress. In a move toward greater sustainability, French bank BNP Paribas has committed to ending financing to companies whose business models are dependent on producing beef or soybeans that are grown on land in the Amazon that was either cleared or converted in the past 13 years.

In addition, the bank is urging its clients to avoid doing business with companies producing beef or soy that originates from Brazil’s tropical region, Cerrado. BNP Paribas will only provide financing for those companies that are moving toward the goal of zero deforestation in the next four years, placing the ball in the court of rival banks to follow suit.

On the flipside, three major pension funds — two based in the Netherlands and one in Japan — have allocated a combined USD 500 million to a trio of Brazilian meatpacking companies. While this exposure to grazing flies in the face of the environmental culture at these funds and their respective countries, the pensions believe that they have a chance at influencing these companies and therefore are not selling.

The funds include Algemeen Burgerlijk Pensioenfonds (ABP), Pensioenfonds Zorg en Welzijn (PFZW) and the Government Pension Investment Fund (GPIF), and they are invested in beef producers JBS, Marfrig and Minerva. Their combined investment surpasses that of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, whose investment into the controversial companies is just over USD 400 million.

Climate Change Survey Says

According to the survey, for which 2,600 people were polled over the phone, more than 90% of participants feel that the growing fires are damaging the quality of life in Brazil while also posing a threat to the planet.

They are also worried about Brazil’s reputation, with eight out of 10 individuals polled saying the Amazon fires were hurting the rest of the world’s perception of the country. More than three-quarters of those polled believe that the fallout could result in a weakened trade position for the Latin American country.

Climate change concerns do not discriminate based on allegiances, as they are felt across political parties, the survey, which was actually performed by the Brazilian Institute of Public Opinion and Statistics (IBOPE), revealed.

Close to 90% of the left-leaning participants believe that Brazil should take steps to guard the environment, no matter if it takes a toll on the economy and jobs market. More than 80% of centrists and roughly two-thirds of right-leaning Brazilians are on the same page as the leftists. The stumbling block is that while most Brazilians agree about deforestation in the Amazon being a bad thing, they disagree on the path to ending it, according to Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) senior researcher Paulo Moutinho cited by Reuters.

Meanwhile, the level of education among Brazilians is a factor. More than 80% of people with a high school education or greater are at least a little bit worried about climate change, while slightly more than 50% of those whose education ended at the primary level are concerned, the survey found.

Incidentally, the pandemic only seems to have exacerbated the issue of climate change as it relates to the Amazon. According to the Biological Conservation journal, there has been greater deforestation, more lax controls and fewer fines related to environmental protection in Brazil since the rise of COVID-19, which the authors of the report attribute to the current administration using the pandemic as an excuse to “intensify a pattern of weakening environmental protection in Brazil.”

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