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Rainforests May Be Smothered Due To The Newly Elected Brazil President: Scientists

If the rainfall cycle collapses, winter droughts in parts of Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Argentina could devastate agriculture.

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Brazil, rainforests
This photo released by the Brazilian Environmental and Renewable Natural Resources Institute (Ibama) shows an illegally deforested area on Pirititi indigenous lands as Ibama agents inspect Roraima state in Brazil's Amazon basin. VOA

Scientists warn that Brazil’s president-elect could push the Amazon rainforest past its tipping point — with severe consequences for global climate and rainfall.

Jair Bolsonaro, who takes office Jan. 1, claims a mandate to convert land for cattle pastures and soybean farms, calling Brazil’s rainforest protections an economic obstacle.

Brazilians on Oct. 28 elected Bolsonaro, a far-right candidate who channeled outrage at the corruption scandals of the former government and support from agribusiness groups.

Next week global leaders will meet in Poland for an international climate conference to discuss how to curb climate change, and questions about Brazil’s role in shaping the future of the Amazon rainforest after Bolsonaro’s election loom large. New Brazilian government data show the rate of deforestation — a major factor in global warming — has already increased over the past year.

Climate change, carbon
The Amazon Tall Tower Observatory stands in Sebastiao do Uatuma located in the Amazon rain forest in Brazil’s Amazonas state, Aug. 22, 2015. The tower, built by Brazilian and German governments, collects data on greenhouse gases. VOA

Brazil contains about 60 percent of the Amazon rainforest, and scientists are worried.

It’s nearly impossible to overstate the importance of the Amazon rainforest to the planet’s living systems, said Carlos Nobre, a climate scientist at the University of Sao Paulo.

Each tree stores carbon absorbed from the atmosphere. The Amazon takes in as much as 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year and releases 20 percent of the planet’s oxygen, earning it the nickname “the lungs of the planet.”

It’s also a global weather-maker.

Stretching 10 times the size of Texas, the Amazon is the world’s largest rainforest. Billions of trees suck up water through deep roots and bring it up to their leaves, which release water vapor that forms a thick mist over the rainforest canopy.

This mist ascends into clouds and eventually becomes rainfall — a cycle that shapes seasons in South America and far beyond.

Brazil President, rainforest
Brazil’s President-elect Jair Bolsonaro arrives for a meeting in Brasilia. VOA

By one estimate, the Amazon creates 30 to 50 percent of its own rainfall.

Now the integrity of all of three functions — as a carbon sink, the Earth’s lungs, and a rainmaker — hangs in the balance.

On the campaign trail, Bolsonaro promised to loosen protections for areas of the Brazilian Amazon designated as indigenous lands and nature reserves, calling them impediments to economic growth. “All these reserves cause problems to development,” he told supporters.

He has also repeatedly talked about gutting the power of the environmental ministry to enforce existing green laws.

“If Bolsonaro keeps his campaign promises, deforestation of the Amazon will probably increase quickly — and the effects will be felt everywhere on the planet,” said Paulo Artaxo, a professor of environmental physics at the University of Sao Paulo.

Bolsonaro’s transition team did not respond to an interview request from the Associated Press.

Rainforest
In this May 4, 2018 photo released by Ibama, the Brazilian Environmental and Renewable Natural Resources Institute, members of a specialized inspection group of Ibama walk with their weapons up through an area affected by illegal mining, after landing in helicopters in Munduruku indigenous lands in Para state in Brazil’s Amazon basin. VOA

Brazil was once seen as a global environmental success story. Between 2004 and 2014, stricter enforcement of laws to safeguard the rainforest — aided by regular satellite monitoring and protections for lands designated reserves for indigenous peoples — sharply curbed the rate of deforestation, which peaked in the early 2000s at about 9,650 square miles a year (25,000 square kilometers).

 

After a political crisis engulfed Brazil, leading to the 2016 impeachment of president Dilma Rousseff, enforcement faltered. Ranchers and farmers began to convert more rainforest to pastureland and cropland. Between 2014 and 2017, annual deforestation doubled to about 3,090 square miles (8,000 square kilometers). Most often, the trees and underbrush cut down are simply burned, directly releasing carbon dioxide, said Artaxo.

“In the Brazilian Amazon, far and away the largest source of deforestation is industrial agriculture and cattle ranching,” said Emilio Bruna, an ecologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Now observers are parsing Bolsonaro’s campaign statements and positions as a congressman to anticipate what’s next for the Amazon.

Bolsonaro — who some call “tropical Trump” because of some similarities to U.S. President Donald Trump — is a former army captain with a knack for channeling outrage and generating headlines. As a federal congressman for 27 years, he led legislative campaigns to unravel land protections for indigenous people and to promote agribusiness. He also made derogatory comments about minorities, women, and LGBT people.

Brazil, cuban doctors, rainforest
Brazil’s President-elect Jair Bolsonaro talks to the media, in Brasilia, Brazil. VOA

Much of his support comes from business and farming interests.

“These farmers are not invaders, they are producers,” said congressman and senator-elect Luiz Carlos Heinze, a farmer and close ally of Bolsonaro. He blamed past “leftist administrations” for promoting indigenous rights at the expense of farmers and ranchers.

“Brazil will be the biggest farming nation on Earth during Bolsonaro’s years,” said Heinze.

Indigenous-rights advocates are worried about the new direction signaled. “Bolsonaro has repeatedly said that indigenous territories in the Amazon should be opened up for mining and agribusiness, which goes completely in the opposite direction of our Constitution,” said Adriana Ramos, public policy coordinator at Social Environmental Institute in Brasilia, a non-governmental group.

In a Nov. 1 postelection interview with Catholic TV, Bolsonaro said, “We intend to protect the environment, but without creating difficulties for our progress.”

Bolsonaro has repeatedly said that Brazil should withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord, a treaty his predecessor signed in 2016 committing to reduce carbon emissions 37 percent over 2005 levels by 2030. After the election, he has publicly wavered.

Meanwhile he has named a climate-change denier, Ernesto Araujo, to become the next foreign minister.

 

Amazon, Climate, carbon, rainforests
This Sept. 15, 2009 file photo shows a deforested area near Novo Progresso in Brazil’s northern state of Para.. VOA

Nelson Ananias Filho, sustainability coordinator at Brazil’s National Agriculture and Cattle Raising Confederation, which backed Bolsonaro’s campaign, said, “Brazil’s agribusiness will adapt to whatever circumstances come.”

Whether or not Brazil formally remains in the Paris Climate Accord, the only way for the country to make its emission targets is to completely stop deforestation by 2030 and to reduce agricultural emissions, said Nobre, the climate scientist. “If Bolsonaro keeps moving in the current direction, that’s basically impossible.”

There’s another danger lurking in deforestation.

Aside from the oceans, tropical forests are the most important regions on the planet for putting water vapor in the air, which eventually becomes rainfall. “It’s why we have rain in the American Midwest and other inland areas — it’s not just the Amazon, but it’s the largest tropical rainforest,” said Bill Laurance, a tropical ecologist at James Cook University in Cairns, Australia.

Also Read: Brazillians at a Disadvantage Due To Loss Of Cuban Doctors

Carlos Nobre and Thomas Lovejoy, an environmental scientist at George Mason University, have estimated that the “tipping point for the Amazon system” is 20 to 25 percent deforestation.

Without enough trees to sustain the rainfall, the longer and more pronounced dry season could turn more than half the rainforest into a tropical savannah, they wrote in February in the journal Science Advances.

If the rainfall cycle collapses, winter droughts in parts of Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Argentina could devastate agriculture, they wrote. The impacts may even be felt as far away as the American Midwest, said Laurance.

Bolsonaro’s rhetoric about potentially dismantling the environmental ministry and rolling back indigenous rights worries Nobre who says, “I am a scientist, but I am also a Brazilian citizen, and a citizen of the planet.” (VOA)

Next Story

Solar Installation in Massachusetts to Fight Climate Change

Ed Martell is on the job, helping build an 8,000-panel solar farm outside the town of Wales, 110 kilometers southwest of Boston

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Does Fighting Climate Change Mean Wrecking the Economy? VOA

It’s minus eight degrees Celsius on a late winter morning in western Massachusetts. But electrician Ed Martell is on the job, helping build an 8,000-panel solar farm outside the town of Wales, 110 kilometers southwest of Boston.

Martell says solar installations have been going nonstop for the past several years.

“I thought it was going to be a flash in the pan a couple years ago,” he told VOA. “I’ve seen solar keep going and going and going.”

Although sunshine is not the first image that comes to mind in connection with Massachusetts, policy decisions have propelled the state to third place nationwide in solar jobs, behind sunny California and Florida, which is known as the Sunshine State.

Martell says the industry has been growing at a time when there has not been much other work for electricians.

“If it wasn’t for solar, there would have been a two-year period when I wouldn’t have worked at all,” he added. “So, yes, it’s very good for us.”

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FILE – This undated handout image provided by NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Michigan, shows the Four Corners area, in red, left, the major U.S. hot spot for methane emissions in this digital map, showing how much emissions varied from average background concentrations from 2003-2009. Dark colors are lower than average; lighter colors are higher. VOA

Greenhouse gases

As the planet heats up, experts say the world needs to stop burning the fossil fuels that have powered civilization for centuries and switch to energy sources that do not release greenhouse gases that drive up the Earth’s temperature and produce weather extremes.

The transition will not be easy. There will be winners and losers, economists say.

The smokestack and the rusting remains of the 1960s-turquoise turbine are the last identifiable remains of the Mount Tom Station coal-fired power plant located 145 kilometers west of Boston in Holyoke, Mass.

Former maintenance engineer Clancy Kaye kept the plant running for more than 30 years.

But between expensive environmental upgrades, the plunging price of natural gas, and concerns from neighborhood groups about climate change and air pollution, the plant’s owners pulled the plug in 2014.

They then built one of the largest solar farms with battery storage in New England just down the street.

Eighty people worked at Mount Tom at its peak. When it finally closed in 2014, the number was down to 28. Some of them retired. The company offered a generous severance package, Kaye said. But about a dozen employees had to take other jobs with 30 percent to 50 percent pay cuts and fewer benefits.

“It’s been really a very rude awakening for many people who used to make some very good money. And some very highly skilled people,” Kaye said.

As coal-fired plants close across the country, he added, “the good jobs — and I mean good paying, good benefits, good pension — those jobs are virtually all going away for your average middle-class person.”

More than half of the 530 coal-fired power plants that were running in 2010 have shut down or plan to by 2030, according to the Sierra Club, an Oakland, California-based environmental group.

There have been losses in Massachusetts.

Winners in state policy

But experts say the state’s policies to fight climate change have created more winners.

While Congress and the White House have feuded for years about what, if anything, to do, Republican and Democratic leaders in the Bay State have taken innovative steps to reduce greenhouse gases.

In 2008, Massachusetts was among the first U.S. states to set a greenhouse gas reduction target. By mid-century, the state aims to have cut emissions by 80 percent below 1990 levels.

Accompanying legislation requires utilities to buy increasing amounts of renewable energy and charges power companies for carbon pollution. The state created aggressive programs to promote energy efficiency.

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U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry is silhouetted near the words “Clean Energy” during a photo session after the opening ceremony of an international clean energy conference in Beijing. VOA

“Some detractors did say that this is going to turn the economy upside down, this is going to cost people more,” said Mark Sylvia, former Massachusetts energy resources commissioner.

“But in fact,” he said, “it did the exact opposite.”

With a clear signal from the government, the market responded. Clean energy is now a $13 billion industry in Massachusetts. Its workforce has grown 84 percent since 2010. The sector now employs more than 110,000 workers, three percent of the state’s workforce.

In Washington, the climate debate is polarized between Democrats calling for an end to fossil fuels and Republicans saying these proposals will destroy jobs, when they acknowledge the problem at all. Only recently did Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky acknowledge that human activities are responsible for climate change.

Climate policy

But Massachusetts’ Republican Gov. Charlie Baker took over from a Democrat, Deval Patrick, and held firm on climate policy.

“In Massachusetts, climate change is not a partisan issue,” Baker told the House of Representatives Committee on Natural Resources in February.

“While we sometimes disagree on specific policies,” he added, “we understand the science and know the impacts are real because we’re experiencing them firsthand.”

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North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, left, watches as Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker speaks while they testify before the House Natural Resources Committee hearing on climate change, on Capitol Hill in Washington. VOA

Baker noted that since he took office in 2015, the state has suffered damage from record snowfall, record storm flooding and record drought. Rising temperatures have hurt the state’s winter sports industry and fisheries.

“While many of these challenges are not new, they are more frequent and more damaging than ever,” he said.

Baker’s position on climate change has evolved since his unsuccessful 2010 run for governor. At that time, he told The Boston Globe newspaper he was “not smart enough to believe that I know” whether humans were responsible for global warming.

But in his testimony, he called for a federal target for greenhouse gas emission reductions, a proposal congressional Republicans have repeatedly rejected.

He noted that since the state set its target in 2008, “far from being an economic burden, we have seen close to a 70 percent increase over 1990 levels” in the state economy.

Baker recently rolled out an updated incentive program for solar power and is planning major offshore wind installations that are expected to create 3,600 local jobs.

And to pursue the jobs of the future, the state has provided more than $2 million in loans and grants to Greentown Labs, a business incubator for startups working on clean technologies.

The growth will not help everyone, however.

In the power generation business, “if you want to know where the jobs are, take an aerial view of the parking lot,” said Donnie Colston, head of the utility department at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

A coal plant may have 150 to 200 cars in the lot, Colston said.