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The Amazon and You

Sovereignty entails obligations as well as rights, and where compliance cannot be induced, pressure must be applied. And though positive incentives to encourage and enable compliance would be preferable, Brazil's government is showing that there must be sticks where carrots are not enough.

NEW YORK – Nearly everyone has seen the dramatic images of the Amazon ablaze. Tens of thousands of fires – intentionally started or caused by logging, farming, mining, and other human activities – have broken out over the past year alone.

This matters a great deal, because forests absorb gases that increase global warming if released into the atmosphere. Reduction of the Amazon rainforest by fire adds to the problem of climate change in two ways: the fires themselves release gases and particles that accelerate the earth’s warming, and the elimination of the trees by definition means they cannot absorb carbon dioxide.

The issue gripped last month’s G7 meeting in France. The leaders of many of the world’s wealthiest countries pledged just over $22 million to help Brazil, home to the bulk of the Amazon rainforest and nearly half of the world’s tropical forests, combat the fires. Brazil angrily rejected the offer.

Brazil’s populist president, Jair Bolsonaro, stated that his country would not allow the G7 countries to treat it as if it were a colony. “Our sovereignty is nonnegotiable,” the government spokesman declared. In the end, Brazil did accept some $12 million in assistance from the United Kingdom, but it did not reach a compromise with the G7 or with France, which hosted the meeting.

What is going on in Brazil highlights a fundamental tension in the world. Brazil’s government holds to the view that what happens inside the country’s borders falls within its purview alone. This is the traditional notion of sovereignty, one largely shared by most of the world’s governments, including the United States, China, Russia, India, and others.

But it is an increasingly inadequate, if not obsolete, notion in today’s globalized world, where just about anyone and anything can reach almost anywhere. As a result, what happens within a country can no longer automatically and unconditionally be considered its concern alone.

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Consider terrorism. In the late 1990s, the Taliban government then controlling Afghanistan allowed al-Qaeda to operate freely from Afghan territory. Al-Qaeda did just that, mounting an operation that led to the deaths of nearly 3,000 innocent men, women, and children in the US on September 11, 2001.

The US, then led by President George W. Bush and backed by much of the world, delivered an ultimatum to the Taliban government: hand over al-Qaeda’s leaders and deny it future use of Afghanistan to promote terrorism or face removal from power. Put differently, the government was told that the benefits and protections of sovereignty obliged it not to provide sanctuary and support to terrorists. The Taliban refused to accept this demand; within weeks, a US-led international coalition forcibly removed the group from power.

The lesson for Brazil is clear: what its government chooses to do and not to do vis-à-vis the rainforest has consequences for the entire world. If the issue were “merely” one of local environmental degradation and pollution, it would be solely a Brazilian matter, as bad as that might be. But as soon as the effects of deforestation spill across borders, what happens in Brazil becomes a legitimate concern of others. Pollution is mostly about local results of local activities; climate change is about the global results of local activities.

And we know that the results of climate change are costly: more frequent and severe storms, floods, droughts, and other extreme weather. More people are being internally displaced and turned into refugees as a consequence. Significant swaths of the globe may soon be uninhabitable. Climate change, like terrorism, has become everyone’s business. Brazil should be viewed as the Amazon’s custodian, not its owner.

So what is to be done? One approach is to create incentives for countries like Brazil to act more responsibly. This was behind the G7’s offer to help Brazil, and it underpins long-standing EU aid programs designed to curb forest destruction and promote planting new ones.

But it is clear that Brazil’s government is not responding the way it should. Removal of legal barriers to deforestation has added to the problem, as has a dearth of government resources to enforce the law and stop those who are illegally clearing trees and starting fires.

Again, sovereignty entails obligations as well as rights. And where compliance cannot be induced, pressure must be applied. The time has come to consider penalties against a government such as Brazil’s if it refuses to meet its obligations to the world. Penalties could include tourism boycotts, sanctions, and tariffs. Obviously, positive incentives to encourage and enable desired actions would be preferable. But there must be sticks where carrots are not enough.

Many governments take this approach to deterring or responding to genocide, terrorism, and weapons proliferation. Brazil’s behavior has raised the question of whether those who fan climate change ought to be treated similarly.

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