Life threatened

Image: Izabella Árvai


From environmental destruction to ecosocialism

Well before the climate catastrophe in Rio Grande do Sul, the denunciation of environmental degradation in Brazil and around the world was already known and widely publicized. In 2022, around 40.000 km2 of tropical forests were devastated in the Amazon. Every day, 1,5 million trees were felled. Jair Bolsonaro's government encouraged deforestation and illegal mining that pollutes the large rivers of the Amazon with mercury. Invasions of indigenous lands tripled between 2019 and 2021. In 2022, deforestation broke new records: 74 fires were recorded in the Amazon, 51% more than in 2021.

In the Cerrado, the deforestation rate exploded by 34% in three years. The Pantanal was devastated by gigantic fires in 2020. 1.700 new pesticides were authorized, many of which were banned from the European market. According to several scientists and civil society organizations, almost a fifth of the Amazon forest has already been destroyed. It is approaching its point of “no return” which would result in the transformation of entire tracts of jungle into savannah.

According to MapBiomas' Annual Report on Deforestation in Brazil (RAD), released on May 28, 2024, Brazil lost 8,5 million hectares of native vegetation in the last five years, equivalent to twice the State of Rio of January. Agriculture was the vector behind 97% of this expansion in the period. The Cerrado surpasses the Amazon as the most deforested biome in the country in 2023, equivalent to 61% of the vegetation suppressed in the country last year. The value represents an increase in deforestation in the biome of 68% compared to 2022.

In the opposite direction, deforestation in the Amazon showed a reduction of 62% in the period. In the Cerrado, the deforested area in 2023 was 1,11 million hectares and in the Amazon, 454 thousand hectares. The rules of the Forest Code, which allows much greater suppression on properties in the Cerrado than in the Amazon, make inspection and repression difficult. It should be noted that, in national terms, there was an 11,6% drop in the deforested area in the country last year, compared to 2022.

The 2023 International Report of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a UN body) confirmed previous warnings about the serious consequences if the global temperature exceeds 1,5º C. Before the climate catastrophe in Rio Grande do Sul, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Climate Change IPCC released on February 28, 2022, its Sixth Assessment Report. According to the Report, with regard to Brazil, the predictable consequences are as follows, according to the website weather info:

(i) Heat and humidity will exceed the limits of survival if humanity does not make the necessary reduction in Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions. (ii) Droughts and floods will devastate homes and livelihoods in Brazil if governments and companies do not radically cut GHG emissions. (iii) Food production will be affected by climate change. Brazil will face major economic losses if national and global emissions are not reduced quickly. (iv) Brazil will be hit by the effects of extreme events that happen elsewhere.

 All productive activities have an environmental impact. Globally, 73% of GHG emissions come from burning fossil fuels. In Brazil, agriculture is responsible for 75% of emissions. Most of it comes from land use change, which is the destruction of biomes to make way for pastures and plantations. As trees capture GHGs, deforestation releases these greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming.

Despite all the climate catastrophe in Rio Grande do Sul, the herd continues to pass through Congress. PEC 03/2022 abolishes the Marinha area, opens the door to the privatization of beaches, handing over the entire coastline to real estate speculation. Instead of a beach, we will have buildings and sewage. The marriage of greed and ignorance will lead to major environmental disasters.

The climate crisis leads to the destruction of natural resources and threatens the survival of humanity on the planet. It turns out that, in Brazil, the economic policies that traditionally alternated in power, neoliberalism and developmentalism, neglected both the environmental issue. The environment as a political issue did not exist in the utopias of liberalism and socialism. Liberalism in Brazil still supports the myth of the “invisible hand of the market” formulated by Adam Smith in the 19th century, and defends, with the support of the media, the Minimum State.

On the other hand, many left-wing developmentalists said that “the environment is an obstacle to development”. To this day, for many politicians, the environment is seen as a secondary issue, a separate box, in the Ministry of the Environment, ignored and sometimes boycotted by other ministers. Given the severity of the climate crisis and the devastation of biodiversity threatening the destruction of natural resources and the survival of humanity, the environment cannot be treated as a secondary issue. It is a transversal issue that cuts across public policies.

The environmental catastrophe in Rio Grande do Sul brought important lessons for those who do not refuse reality. Firstly, the need to expand and prioritize socio-environmental sustainability policy, always relegated to the background. This presupposes at least the following points: (a) overcoming the neo-extractivist model dependent on predatory agribusiness, supported by the right, (b) overcoming the developmental model, traditionally supported by the left, (c) definitively rejecting the neoliberal model and its dogmas that impede development, such as Minimum State and fiscal austerity, (d) support urban reform and develop a new concept of city with long-term planning and prioritizing citizens' quality of life, (e) assume sustainable development with respect to environmental protection , social justice and cultural diversity.

For decades, many scientists – most funded by oil companies – denied the existence of the climate crisis. But the UN has already hammered home the point: We are at serious risk of exceeding a 1,5ºC temperature increase, leading to extreme weather events with dramatic effects. If the current rate is maintained, we will exceed 2º C, which will have tragic consequences for humanity, ultimately threatening its own survival.

In the case of Brazil, the Brazilian Southeast is not a desert, as is the case in Atacama in Chile, for example, because it benefits from the so-called “flying rivers” that bring moisture from the Amazon forest which, when deforested, threatens the Amazon and the Southeast of desertification. The table below is enlightening and alarming.

Source: USP Institute of Oceanography.

Despite the warnings of scientists and the recommendations of the IPCC Reports, national governments, meeting every year to discuss the climate crisis in the so-called COP (Conference of the Parties), have not taken or implemented concrete decisions to reduce GHG emissions. The world is heading towards a profound civilizational crisis that will require drastic changes in the mode of production and way of life. The current industrial production model, whether capitalist or socialist, is highly polluting. In countries based on neo-extractivism and a primary export-oriented economy, such as Brazil, the predatory methods of agricultural production and extraction of raw materials, such as ores, will have to be modified.

In our country, the highlight is deforestation, the great villain of our GHG emissions that contribute to global warming. Deforestation in the Amazon was mainly responsible for the 9,5% increase in GHGs seen in 2020, according to data from the Climate Observatory. Around 75% of our emissions are linked to one sector of the economy: agribusiness. A study published on 7/3/2022 in the journal Nature Climate Change states that the Amazon is approaching a point where the devastation will be irreversible, that is, a “point of no return”.

According to United Nations projections, we will have 200 million climate refugees by 2050. Other estimates are even more pessimistic: 1 billion vulnerable poor people with no means of survival. Extreme heat, submerged cities, lack of food, if global warming exceeds the 1,5°C target. Experts predict a “semi-dystopian” future, with hunger, conflicts and mass migrations.

O Paris Agreement, signed in 2015, aimed to limit the increase in global temperature to 1,5ºC. But hundreds of the world's leading climate scientists believe global temperatures could rise to even 2,5°C above pre-industrial levels this century, causing catastrophic consequences for humanity and the planet. The World Meteorological Organization's State of the Global Climate 2023 report shows that records have once again been broken, in terms of GHG levels, surface temperatures, ocean heat and acidification, sea level rise, sea ​​ice in Antarctica and glacier retreat. Heat waves, floods, droughts, wildfires and tropical cyclones will rapidly intensify, causing misery and chaos, altering the daily lives of millions of people and causing billions in economic losses (One Planet, 14/5/2024).

China, the USA and India are the three largest GHG emitters, in addition to being the most populous in the world. The three contribute 42,6% of total emissions, while the 100 least populous countries are responsible for just 2,9%, according to the report from World Resources Institute, according to which “the world cannot successfully combat climate change without significant action from the 10 largest emitters”. Brazil is the fifth largest emitter, behind only China, USA, India and Russia. However, an important factor to be considered is the historical volume of emissions.

Despite today emitting more than the USA, China has not yet reached the historic volume emitted by the Americans. Globally, the emissions of the richest 1% are equivalent to the emissions of the poorest 66%. The 20 richest countries in the world (G20) were responsible for 76% of global emissions. Less developed countries were responsible for 3,8% of global emissions.

Fossil fuel civilization threatens human survival on the planet, which is at risk due to the depletion, in the foreseeable future, of raw materials essential to human life, given the abusive use of natural resources that destroy biodiversity and release GHGs, with enormous impact in climate change.

Due to its size and biodiversity, Brazil could take international leadership in the fight against climate change. But this requires awareness of the importance of sustainability, generally ignored by Governments, especially by neoliberal and right-wing and extreme-right denialist governments, committed exclusively to the economic interests of the market, to the detriment of the country's sustainable development.

One of the main tasks for the Lula government would be to assume global leadership in defending socio-environmental sustainability to drastically reduce social inequality and ecological risks that threaten human survival, especially that of the poor. A great opportunity will be the holding of COP 2025 in Belém do Pará in 20, bringing together governments from around the world to discuss the threats of climate change.

But, going against this possible world leadership, which Brazil could have given its extraordinary natural wealth, is the decision to explore oil on the equatorial margin of the Amazon. “We cannot open new oil wells”, warns internationally renowned climatologist Carlos Nobre, who warns: “bills to deforest and further degrade the environment cannot be approved”.

If the penny dropped in Rio Grande do Sul after the climate tragedy of May 2024, in the National Congress the herd continues to pass. Or wanting to go through the ongoing projects to abolish environmental licensing, indigenous reserves, reduce legal reserves in the Amazon and privatize beaches.

Today, human and animal life is threatened by climate change, resulting mainly from the emission of greenhouse gases and, in Brazil, from deforestation caused by predatory agribusiness, supported by denialists and neoliberals, generally with the support of the media. It would be expected that the catastrophe in Rio Grande do Sul would shake traditional opinions and, on the left, contribute to a profound critique not only of neoliberalism and traditional developmentalism that ignores sustainability, but also – and above all – of climate denialism and its dogmas, ostensible on the right and sometimes, although hidden, present on the left.

But this does not seem to be happening, as demonstrated by the Lula Government's decision, with the support or silence of the left, to explore oil in the Equatorial Margin of the Amazon, going against the energy transition.

UN Climate Change Program Coordinator Niklas Hagelberg stated that “from droughts in the Amazon and Northeast to floods in the South, the range of potential disasters requires comprehensive planning and adaptation strategies to mitigate impacts and protect its population and natural resources. ”. He further stated that “cities need to improve flood defenses, deploy nature-based solutions, review building codes, and protect the natural ecosystems that protect against extreme events” (The Globe, 23/5/2024).

For all this to happen, it would be necessary for politicians and businesspeople to be convinced of the seriousness of the climate crisis, which is not happening, even after the catastrophe in Rio Grande do Sul. Decision makers in Brazil have never given priority to the environmental issue, generally considered secondary or dismissed entirely as a false issue. A major national environmental education campaign would be necessary and alert to consider an issue that often has long-term impacts as important as politicians and businesspeople prioritize the short term.

Environmental devastation brings serious consequences in terms of extreme weather events. What we already know is that it is not enough to just discuss the energy transition to reduce and ultimately eliminate fossil fuels in favor of renewable energy. This is a big step, but it will be necessary to face the challenge of an ecological transformation that will require a new way of life and production. The alternative will be the collapse of current civilization, the mass extinction of all living species. The Earth has already been the scene of five mass extinctions before the one that now threatens us.

What is at stake is not the planet, it is the survival of humanity on the planet, threatened by the productivism inherent to the capitalist system. To date, the only proposal that has presented a path to overcoming and salvation has been the utopia of ecosocialism, which criticizes the capitalist market and the bureaucratic and productivist socialist State, both responsible for industrialization that destroys the environment.

While capitalism, especially in its neoliberal version, transforms rights into commodities, aiming for profit, ecosocialism – in the words of Marxist intellectual Michael Lowy – proposes “a democratic, ecological and libertarian project”. It is the great utopia of the 21st century. Either we conquer it, or we will destroy ourselves.

*Liszt scallop is a retired professor of sociology at PUC-Rio. He was a deputy (PT-RJ) and coordinator of the Global Forum of the Rio 92 Conference. Author, among other books, of Democracy reactsGaramond). []

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