By David Wallace-Wells
How much damage can one person do to the planet?
For that matter, how much can one do to help save it? Unless that person is Xi Jinping — the autocrat-for-life in charge of the world’s most populous country and its rapidly industrializing, state-capitalist economy — the answer is, usually, not very much. Even Donald Trump’s contribution to climate catastrophe is relatively modest: He’s pulled the United States out of the Paris accords and slashed environmental regulations, but, thanks to forces beyond his control, American emissions are nevertheless down since he’s been in office (making the U.S., which accounts for only fourteen percent of global emissions, the only major industrialized nation whose contributions to climate change are actually falling). The problem of global warming is just so big, and so diffuse, that the impact of any single actor, no matter how powerful, is relatively small. This is why global cooperation is so important, and why coordination is so difficult.
But Brazil’s newly elected president just might test the proposition that no individual matters all that much to the climate. Often called the “Trump of the Tropics,” the cartoonish quasi-fascist Jair Bolsonaro is almost certain to be worse on global warming than Trump himself. So bad, in fact, that he is already a horrifying argument for a Great Man Theory of climate change.
In between the election’s first round and the runoff, Bolsonaro — who has called having a daughter a “weakness”, told another legislator he wouldn’t rape her because she was not worthy of it, said he’d rather have his children be drug addicts than gay, and endorsed torture — actually retreated from his promise to withdraw his country from the Paris accords. The international treaty isn’t actually all that important to him; he only cares about what he can do domestically. Bolsonaro wants to do as he’d like in the Amazon, 60 percent of which sits within Brazilian borders. There, he plans to open the rainforest to agricultural development, essentially putting a match to an entire rainforest of stored carbon by inviting rapid deforestation — the industrial-scale felling of trees, which, in dying and decomposing, will release into the atmosphere all the CO2 they have stored inside them.
How bad would that be? For starters, the plan to open up the Amazon would mean Brazil has absolutely no chance of meeting its Paris commitments. A group of Brazilian scientists has estimated that between 2021 and 2030, Bolsonaro’s deforestation would release the equivalent of 13.12 gigatons of carbon. Last year, the United States emitted about five gigatons. This means that this one policy would have between two and three times the annual carbon impact of the entire American economy, with all of its airplanes and automobiles and coal plants. The world’s worst emitter, by far, is China; the country was responsible for 9.1 gigatons of emissions in 2017. This means Bolsonaro’s policy is the equivalent of adding, if just for a year, a whole second China to the planet’s fossil-fuel problem — and, on top of that, a whole second United States. This is not a climate that can tolerate another China; according to the U.N.’s recent IPCC report, we may not even be able to tolerate the one we have for 12 more years. Bolsanaro’s single policy would fully eat up 20 percent of a stable climate’s total remaining carbon budget. As Emily Atkin put it at The New Republic, “The livability of the entire planet is at stake.”
But the problem is bigger than that extra carbon, believe it or not. The Amazon, alone, produces 20 percent of the world’s oxygen. A smaller, degraded rainforest won’t threaten our breathing air — there is just way too much oxygen around for us to ever worry about that. But the figure does signal just how prolific the Amazon is as a photosynthesizing force, which is critical because it produces all that oxygen out of carbon, which it sucks out of the air. And not just a little: The trees of the Amazon take in a quarter of all the carbon absorbed by the planet’s land each year. This is what makes it what scientists call a “carbon sink,” taking in large stores of CO2 that would otherwise be warming the planet even more drastically.
This is the forever problem of deforestation. Every tree cut in Bolsonaro’s denuded Amazon would release its carbon in a one-time burst, but the rainforest left behind would be smaller, which means it would be less capable of absorbing carbon. But the effect doesn’t just zero out; ultimately, it reverses. For years, scientists have worried that the world’s forests would flip from carbon sinks to carbon sources — become net producers of carbon rather than net absorbers. In fact, this is one of the feedback loops they most worry about: the planet’s not just losing one of its largest natural resources in mitigating the extreme possibilities of global warming, but having that resource turn against it, almost like a climate traitor, suddenly working on behalf of the most dire scenarios.