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Brazil, the Amazon, and Global Warming

Photograph Source: Neil Palmer/CIAT – Flickr – CC BY-SA 2.0

Brazil has gotten a huge amount of bad press with the fires in the Amazon with the emphasis on the harm its development policies are doing to efforts to limit global warming. While the policies of Brazil’s right-wing president, Jair Bolsonaro, are disastrous, there is an important part of the story that is being left out of most discussions.

The reason that we are worried about global warming is because rich countries, most importantly the United States, have been spewing huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere for well over a century, while destroying the native forests on their lands. They also have paid to have forests in other countries destroyed in order to meet their resource needs.

This is the context in which the destruction of the Amazon is a worldwide problem of enormous proportions. (The Amazon is treasure which should be preserved even if global warming was not a crisis, but that is a different matter.)

The blame Brazil story is one where a group of rich boys are sitting around in their mansion eating a huge plate of cookies. Meanwhile, they send the housekeeper from room to make the beds and clean up. After the housekeeper finishes, she sees the last cookie on the plate and begins to reach for it. The rich boys then all yell at her for being greedy for wanting to take the last cookie.

The rich countries lack of concern for the environment made it cheaper for them to develop. Now poorer countries, who are struggling to develop, are being told that they need to respect the environment for the good of the planet.

In fact, they do need to respect the environment, but we (the rich countries) have to pay them to do it. After all, it is a problem we created. That may not be a politically popular position here, but it is a politically serious one on a world basis and the only plausible way to limit global warming.

This article first appeared on Dean Baker’s Beat the Press blog.

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Dean Baker is the senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC. 

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