Much of President Joe Biden’s ambitions to save the planet comes down to a delicate dance: Can he cut a deal with the Brazilian leader whose allies are slashing and burning the Amazon?
Biden may have little choice but to try — despite warnings from U.S. allies and activists inside and outside of Brazil that he cannot trust the “Trump of the tropics.”
So Biden and his climate envoy, John Kerry, have dived headlong into talks with Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, a populist who has scoffed at the dangers of climate change even as vast swaths of the Amazon rainforest disappear on his watch.
Bolsonaro, who has often drawn comparisons to the former U.S. president, has even asked the U.S. for a $1 billion-a-year pay-off in return for pledges to stop the deforestation, while refusing demands for accountability. That proposal has fallen flat with the United States.
Cutting a climate bargain with Bolsonaro is a politically and ethically fraught bargain for any American president to contemplate. Still, Bolsonaro holds the keys to 60 percent of the Amazon, a crucial resource that absorbs 5 percent of the world’s annual carbon dioxide emissions. Unless Kerry can find a way to save the Amazon, whose forests shrank 4,000 square miles between August 2019 and July 2020 in Brazil alone, there may be little chance that the world will reach the targets set out in the Paris Climate Agreement and avoid disaster.
In an interview with POLITICO, Brazilian Environment Minister Ricardo Salles rebuked the skeptics he accused of trying to derail the U.S.-Brazil talks.
“The narrative has been absolutely wrong. People said we wouldn’t have a dialogue, but all the conditions are in place for achieving something positive,” he said. “They said this dialogue would never occur, and now that they realized it’s going well, they say: Don’t trust him! Don’t talk to him! But who are they supposed to talk to? We’re the government!”
People in Kerry’s orbit say the urgency of the climate crisis calls for engaging with the leaders who are running Brazil today, not just hoping for a more congenial government to win the 2022 elections.
“The risk of talking to him and exploring with him is outweighed by the risk of doing nothing and just letting the forest disappear,” said a person directly familiar with Kerry’s team’s thinking. “In other words, saying we really can’t afford to just wait for the next guy.”
Money may be the only way to persuade Bolsonaro. Since taking office in January 2019, his nationalist government’s policies have backed farmers and ranchers who are chopping down the rain forest, ignoring the rising global pleas to protect the Amazon. And like Trump, he’s mocked concerns about climate change, once suggesting to a journalist that people could eat less and “poop every other day” to save the planet.
But the importance of the Amazon has made the talks with Bolsonaro, along with the equally controversial Salles, a focal point of the former U.S. secretary of State’s diplomacy. Members of Kerry’s and Salles’ teams speak weekly — including a scheduled conversation Friday — and Kerry has praised Salles on Twitter, while Salles has posted his photos with American diplomats on his Instagram account.
Both sides stress that their discussions are serious. Besides the $1 billion a year to combat deforestation, which is unlikely to happen under the terms Bolsonaro has floated, people familiar with the talks say the two sides are also discussing pilot projects to promote sustainable economic development in the Amazon, as well as a side deal the U.S. could make with the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, which has already substantially reduced deforestation. The talks have also envisioned a multilateral carbon market that would allow Brazil and other Amazon nations to sell carbon credits to oil companies and other corporations to offset their greenhouse gas emissions.
But it’s a ticklish exercise for Kerry and his deputies, chiefly Jonathan Pershing, the point person for the talks. Many of the critics of the government in Brazil, from indigenous groups and former environment ministers to even current officials within the government, say Bolsonaro cannot be trusted.
“Bolsonaro is a bulldozer, and Salles is a chainsaw. You won’t stop them by treating them with money,” said Carlos Rittl, a senior fellow at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, Germany, who until February 2020 led a Sao Paulo-based environmental coalition, the Climate Observatory.
Brazilian officials say criticism of the bilateral talks are simply aimed at undermining what they contend are honest efforts by Bolsonaro’s government to fight climate change.
“There are people in Brazil and the U.S. who are doing everything they can do to destroy this ongoing cooperation, telling Biden ‘don’t trust those guys, they won’t keep their promises.’ But that’s ridiculous,” an official in the Bolsonaro administration told POLITICO. “How else can you improve the situation? The radical approach won’t work, and we’re glad the Biden administration is being pragmatic.”
People close to the Kerry team say the U.S. officials leading negotiations with Bolsonaro have never viewed him as a reliable partner, but protecting the Amazon is simply too important to climate change to ignore. Their effort amounts to keeping Bolsonaro in their diplomatic orbit, providing him domestic public cover on the Amazon and hoping his regime won’t let the forest burn to the ground.
The U.S. strategy could be summarized as engagement and containment, a term those familiar with the talks used to describe Kerry’s attempts to temper a Bolsonaro economic agenda that depends significantly on expanding forest-clearing for agricultural allies.
Both Bolsonaro and Salles are reeling from domestic criticism amid the nation’s runaway coronavirus infections, and Salles is facing a federal investigation for allegedly aiding illegal loggers. And both face tough reelection odds in 2022.
The scrutiny of the talks between the U.S. and Brazil has led to an uproar from activists in both countries, with 200 non-governmental organizations and 15 Democratic senators cautioning President Joe Biden on making pacts with Bolsonaro. The risk, they say, is that a politically weakened Bolsonaro might promise anything to the U.S. to try bolster his domestic appeal — and Biden’s Leaders Summit on Climate last month presented just such an opportunity.
At that virtual event, Bolsonaro vowed that Brazil would be carbon-neutral by 2050, recommitted to “net-zero” deforestation by 2030 and pledged to double the country’s environmental enforcement budget. But his critics said those promises are distant and carry no accountability mechanisms. That Bolsonaro’s domestic budget the next day called for slashing funding for IBAMA, the government arm that combats deforestation, underscored those complaints — though a source in the Brazilian government said that funding is being restored.
“The government will just try to postpone the problem. And that’s it,” a person in the Brazilian government who is aware of the conversations with the U.S. told POLITICO, and who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak with the media. “We may at some point be unable to keep procrastinating forever, and then we may clash with the Americans. I can’t imagine any serious agreement, unless the Americans want to pretend they’re naive and accept some false promises.
“The best we can do is try to contain Bolsonaro to some extent,” the person added.
Bolsanaro’s request for the $1 billion-a-year payment comes down to this: Rain forest covers nearly 60 percent of Brazil’s land mass, but the industrialized nations that long ago bowled over their own forests to develop their economies expect Brazil to make a disproportionate economic sacrifice in the name of climate change.
“You’re asking us to solve a problem that you created and are continuing to aggravate. We want you to help solve our problems with lack of prosperity and economic opportunity in the Amazon region,” Salles said, noting the U.S. is responsible for nearly three times more global greenhouse gas emissions than Brazil.
Some countries have recognized those arguments and previously tried to compensate Brazil, but Bolsonaro has largely rejected the terms. Germany and Norway protested his handling of the $1.2 billion Amazon Fund that pays for forest protection projects, with both nations in 2019 suspending additional funding and Norway freezing the nearly $600 million it contributed to the program. Salles, meanwhile, called for rich nations to pay for Amazon maintenance before 2019 climate talks in Madrid, Spain, a request that was undermined by a sharp spike in wildfires linked to Bolsonaro’s agricultural allies who use fire to clear forest land.
That history is why environmentalists were aghast when Kerry seemed willing to entertain Bolsonaro’s pitch last month for the U.S. to pay Brazil an annual $1 billion for Amazon protection. To them, it was akin to ransom, and the notion that the Biden administration might cut a deal without conditions or consulting indigenous communities that have fought Bolsonaro’s policies brought a furious response.
“At first we had real concerns: Do they know who they’re dealing with? But they are eyes wide open,” said Nat Keohane, senior vice president for climate at the Environmental Defense Fund.
The Biden administration sending Bolsonaro money without proving he can first rein in deforestation is a non-starter, said Jake Schmidt, senior strategic director of international climate for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“We don’t write checks for people who don’t do stuff,” he said.
Financial aid has in the past helped curb deforestation. Rittl noted that other nations raised billions for Brazilian Amazon protection between 2004 to 2012, which coincided with a steep decline in deforestation. Forest destruction has since ticked upward.
“Many details are yet to be resolved, and it is fair to ask all countries — the United States, Brazil and others — how we are going to reach our ambitious goals,” a State Department spokesperson said in an email.
“Achieving ambitious goals requires resources, and we are committed to partnering with Brazilians in that effort,” the spokesperson added, noting that Bolsonaro “struck a positive and constructive tone” at Biden’s summit.
The talks between the two nations began in February, when Kerry reached out to Salles and Brazil’s foreign minister to establish regular communication about deforestation issues in the country.
The conversations have continued apace as Kerry races to line up sizable new pledges from other countries ahead of November’s international climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland. On the table are measures to increase enforcement to slow deforestation, improving monitoring of the rain forest and creating new incentives to finance forest protection. Schmidt said some ideas discussed include enhanced collaboration with NASA or the Justice Department to crack down on illegal deforestation.
One new wrinkle is an emerging $1 billion public-private partnership endeavor called the Lowering Emissions by Accelerating Forest finance, or LEAF, Coalition. The effort announced at Biden’s climate summit would have major companies, like Amazon, Salesforce and GlaxoSmithKline, purchase emissions reductions credits from forestry projects in countries around the world.
The Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, which is home to both major agricultural operations and vast areas of rain forest, is interested in participating, according to people familiar with the government’s plan. Five Brazilian states already have programs that meet the emissions monitoring and verification standard the LEAF Coalition is using, said Eron Bloomgarden, executive director with environmental group Emergent, which administers the program.
But it is unclear whether Bolsonaro would allow states to act without federal approval, former Brazilian Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira said in an email. And Bolsonaro has put Salles in charge of Brazil’s environmental agenda, so Kerry could risk a diplomatic breach if he cuts deals with the states.
“They’re very sensitive about that not being a diplomatic thing to do right now,” said the person aware of Kerry’s team’s thinking.
Yet the Bolsonaro administration official said it is aware of those discussions between the U.S. and Mato Grosso adding, “I don’t think the federal government would oppose anything that brings resources into the country.”
Some leverage may exist with Salles’ domestic political need to generate some positive press to help alleviate legal and political turmoil, Teixeira said. Salles has expressed interest in establishing a voluntary carbon market, though she added that issues like protecting the Amazon carry little importance for Bolsonaro’s political base.