Progress on Climate Change Hinges on Populists
If Trump and Bolsonaro return to power, don't expect much progress
Just as with the 2016 U.S. election, the polls were proven off this past week in Brazil, where a populist candidate did better than expected. On October 2, right-wing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro garnered 43.23 percent of the vote to former leftist President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva's 48.4 percent, forcing an October 30 runoff. While he still finished behind in the first round of voting, many polls had predicted Bolsonaro would lose by a much bigger margin. As with Donald Trump and other populists, he did better than predicted because of the "voto envergonhado," or the ashamed vote -- people who were too shy to tell pollsters that they were voting for Bolsonaro. It seems likely that the runoff will be close -- and ugly -- as Bolsonaro and his supporters are ready to take to the streets to protest evidence-free claims of election fraud inspired by Trump.
Brazil's presidential election is also significant for another reason -- climate change. Lula and Bolsonaro hold diametrically opposed positions on the Amazon rainforest, widely regarded by climate scientists as a tipping point in the fight against global warming. Since becoming president in 2019, Bolsonaro, a climate-change denier who has baselessly accused NGOs of setting fire to the Amazon to make him look bad, has slashed enforcement of forestation regulations and promoted colonization of the Amazon for jobs and economic growth. Lula, on the other hand, oversaw a sharp drop in deforestation while in power from 2003 to 2010 and has pledged to preserve the Amazon. The Amazon rainforest holds significant natural carbon stores -- 150-200 metric gigatons of carbon, according to a 2015 Nature paper -- and burning it for pasture or farming would release vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, accelerating climate change. It would also displace indigenuous people. Preserving the rainforest would also allow its significant natural biodiversity to thrive.
In the United States, progress on climate change has also often been determined by close elections. Had Al Gore prevailed in 2000 over George W. Bush, it's likely that he would have made climate change a central priority, and flattening the curve on greenhouse gas emissions would have been an easier lift globally. According to Grist, in around 2000, reductions of approximately 2 percent of carbon dioxide emissions per year would have been required to avoid catastrophic climate change; now, the figure is closer to 8 percent. In 2016, Donald Trump was narrowly elected president. He rolled back over 100 environmental rules and withdrew the United States from the Paris Agreements, stalling progress on climate change from the United States, which is the second largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, and the largest emitter per capita.
The election of Joe Biden and a Democratic Congress changed that. Biden rejoined Paris. In August, he signed a landmark new climate bill into law, encouraging consumers to purchase electric cars through tax credits and electric utilities to switch to lower-emitting sources of power. Scientists estimate that the bill could cut emissions by 31 to 44 percent of 2005 levels by 2030. Those moves were only possible because Biden won the presidency and Democrats prevailed in two U.S. Senate runoff elections in the state of Georgia.
However, analysts say that a carbon price will be necessary to constrain warming to 1.5 C, and thus avoiding the most catastrophic consequences of climate change. A carbon price would only happen with a Democratic president, and very possibly, a wider Democratic majority as Democrats only have 50 votes in the Senate.
The United States and Brazil are two of the biggest democracies worldwide, and for different reasons, each has a disproportionate effect on climate change. In Trump and Bolsonaro, both countries face the specter of narrowly electing populist figures who deny climate change and typically side with industries over environmentalists. Whether or not both of them return to power will significantly determine the trajectory of the fight against global climate change.
Public Sphere is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.