As the world watches the Amazon burn, Fiona Ferguson argues that the September 20 climate strike is more urgent than ever to challenge the global climate crisis.
The Amazon is on fire. The Arctic is on fire. Heatwaves have shocked Europe and parts of India are life-threateningly flooded, while others can’t avoid drought in blistering heat.
Every corner of the world is feeling the impact of the climate crisis. The dangers of these scenarios is not simply that trees will be burned, or that homes will be destroyed, though that should be worrisome enough. The collective impact is potentially devastating on a global scale.
A global scale response from the bottom up will be necessary to quell it.
Amazon on fire
Take the Amazon, commonly referred to as “the lungs of the planet” because it exhales over 20% of the world’s oxygen, and stores centuries of carbon. It is critically important in regulating the climate, but for weeks now, the world has watched as it burns at the hands of Jair Bolsonaro.
Though some have tried to downplay the climate crisis, the sight of the Amazon fires has awoken a deeper sense of panic. There seems to be an innate sense of the threat to humanity that comes from destroying one of the planet’s largest carbon sinks.
That panic isn’t unfounded. Since the beginning of August, some 12,000 new forest fires have started across the country, in the Amazon basin, equalling around a quarter of all forest fires in Brazil in 2018. The level of ‘normal’ forest fire that occurs every year in the Amazon, and indeed in the Arctic, have been long surpassed, and we have crossed into the unprecedented.
Just as it did in the 70s and 80s, this year’s ‘arc of fires’ sweeping destruction through the Amazon “signal the advance of an agribusiness frontier dominated by cattle and soy”. These advances have been stimulated by President Bolsonaro whose reign has seen a 20% increase in deforestation already.
Deforestation doesn’t just make it more likely for forest fires to catch and to grow; the process of deforestation itself (by farmers, loggers, miners, and others hoping to cash in on Bolsonaro’s development plans for the forest) involves actively starting fires to burn off large swathes of vegetation.
His election promise was to allow the burning of the forest to make way for ‘development’ and he’s making good on it. Moreover, his congress vows to accelerate deforestation beyond even recent levels, and plans to upend laws and policies which currently protect indigenous lands, and environmental aspects of the forest to enable it.
Captains of beef industry
Bolsonaro’s commitment to tearing up the forest for profit and to take land off indigenous tribes will primarily bolster the $4 billion cattle industry—the single greatest driver of deforestation in the Amazon.
Efforts to clear the forest for cattle production have been no doubt encouraged by the incoming EU-Mercosur trade deal, which would see 99,000 tonnes of beef flooding the EU market from South America every year.
The deal has been criticised by small farmers in European countries and indigenous people of the Amazon alike. The latter can foresee climate chaos from the forest destruction that came with increased agribusiness decades ago, and the former are predicted to be squeezed and priced out of the new EU market.
It is in the Mercosur deal that we can see how political hypocrisy has allowed the climate crisis to reach this point. Despite decades of warnings, damning report after damning report from the IPCC, world leaders have failed to take seriously the dangers of the climate crisis, and crucially, have failed to challenge the source of the vast majority of carbon emissions: industry under capitalism. Rather, they have become further wedded to it.
It is the reason that, for example, the Irish, the Canadian, and the French governments—despite having leaders in Varadkar, Trudeau and Macron who spend a good deal of time talking about climate change—haven’t made any credible challenges to the emissions of multinational corporations – because they are firmly wedded to the system which survives and thrives on economic growth at all costs.
It is the reason why all three have trumpeted carbon taxes for ordinary people, punishing those who have very little and allowing the companies responsible for the majority of carbon emissions off scot-free.
Take Varadkar in particular. Just days after Ireland declared a climate crisis, and he soaked up the good news headlines, his government issued new licences to drill for fossil fuels and he continued to use parliamentary trickery to block Bríd Smith’s Climate Emergency Bill which would stop any future licences being issued.
When public outrage forced Leo to respond to Bolsonaro because of the Amazon forest fires, that response wasn’t to condemn the brutal nature of a system which places the profits of the beef industry over the lives of indigenous people, and the fate of the planet. Varadkar’s response was to threaten Bolsonaro with exclusion from the Mercosur deal—a deal which actively promotes the South American beef industry, and contributes to the profit behind it—despite the now well know impact on the environment.
Likewise, when Macron, Trudeau and the rest of the G7 leaders met last week to talk about the Amazon crisis, the main solution wasn’t to encourage the EU to rip up the Mercosur deal, but rather to provide $20 million in aid to Brazil to put out the fires. A pathetic attempt to quell accusations of inactivity from the environmental activists. Instead of challenging the practices of Bolsonaro, and his profit-driven commitment to destroying the rainforest, world leaders hope to mediate it with a multi-million dollar handout. A payoff for Bolsonaro’s burning of the earth’s lungs.
And just as paying to mediate the blaze in the Amazon won’t stop Bolsonaro’s Brazil from sparking more fires, attempts by establishment politicians to simply mediate the climate destroying effects of capitalism are futile.
Capitalism relies on profit generation and growth to excess. It cannot survive without it. And so there is no room in the market for ecosolutions, unless they are profit driven, and as the exposing of the fossil fuel run biofuel industry has proven: profit driven solutions will only drive profit, not climate saving measures.
If we are to stand any chance of tackling the climate crisis before it’s too late, we must challenge the system which creates the crisis itself. This has been the mantra of ecosocialists for decades and it is quickly interrupting the mainstream view, thanks to the platform of ecosocialists like George Monbiot.
Even a recent UN report seemed to be reading from the ‘system change’ hymn sheet. The landmark document on biodiversity, produced by experts, concluded that only “transformative economic change” could prevent the looming extinction of one million plant and animal species. And the calls for change weren’t just appeals to somehow ‘green up’ the endless growth that is programmed into capitalism, but “a fundamental, system-wide reorganisation across economic and social factors…” according to Robert Watson, the British atmospheric chemist who chaired the U.N. panel.
All out September 20
We need no less than such system-wide reorganisation. But what is clear is that world leaders aren’t going to join us in that fight, regardless of their rhetoric. Any real challenge to the climate crisis will come from a mass movement around the world, the beginnings of which we can see already. Greta Thunberg has inspired thousands of school students to ‘stand up, fight back!’, and protests for change are growing globally. Now they have organised an international strike against climate crisis inaction on September 20.
It’s no surprise that young people are leading the way in the climate fightback in many cities across the world. Their generation will pay heavily for the mistakes of decades past if action isn’t urgently taken to undo them.
On September 20, we should take an important lesson from the indigenous people of Brazil. When they were faced with the burning of the Amazon in the 70s, 80s and 90s, they fought back and resisted. They faced down the federal government, the state government, the judiciary, state forces, and they won through people power and solidarity. Their fight is a model for the kind of world wide movements necessary now to win that fight again, and to win it on a larger scale.
We have an opportunity to stand in our hundreds of thousands across the world and demand the change needed to save the planet; to stand in solidarity with the hundreds of indigenous tribes resisting Bolsonaro today, to defend the Amazon and all of our lives; and to stand shoulder to shoulder with the school students who are fighting for their future. Amid mockery and condescension from establishment politicians and elements of the mainstream media, the young climate strikers have shown phenomenal courage and initiative in getting organised and presenting a strong challenge to the status quo. They deserve our support.
On September 20, we can send a message that skirting around the edges of this crisis is no longer an option; we must tackle it head on, through truly transformative societal change which protects those most vulnerable to climate change and does not exclude those at the edges of society.