Chart of the Day: The Amazon Is Burning, But Not Everyone Cares

The Amazon is burning and everyone is appalled. Almost everyone, anyway. Jeffrey Hoelle, who has done field research in the Amazon, says the residents of the rainforest often have a very different view:

A cattle rancher put it to me bluntly a few years ago: “You all tell me not to deforest. It’s easy, isn’t it? Mix a drink there [in the U.S. or Europe], and talk. Now why do we have to stop deforesting? I agree that we should not deforest more, but we have a lot of people here. How will they live? What is the average income in the USA? Give that much to every person here. Then we can all sit around and watch the little birds fly.”

This is the dynamic I was talking about yesterday. Everyone wants to halt climate change but no one wants to give up whichever part of it they depend on. The coal miners want to keep mining coal. The Germans want to get rid of their nukes. Fossil fuel companies want to keep drilling for oil. Drivers don’t want a big gas tax. And people who depend on the Amazon for their living don’t want to give up their clearcutting.

The saddest part of this is that for many years we were making substantial progress in the Amazon. Then Jair Bolsonaro, the Brazilian Donald Trump, took office:

We are not yet back up to the bad old days of the ’90s, but Bolsonaro has been in office less than a year. Give him time.

But Bolsonaro aside, that cattle rancher represents billions of people who live in poor countries. Sure, global warming is bad. But we live in shacks. Call us back when you’re willing to cut your carbon emissions back to the level of a rural Chinese farmer.

This is a hard argument to refute. Clearly the global West is not going to collectively agree to live like Chinese peasants. Just as clearly, the Chinese peasants aren’t willing to live in shacks while we sit around watching football on 60-inch TV screens in our air-conditioned houses while we lecture them about climate change. This is the hinge point on which the future of climate change depends. Even if we magically decarbonized the entire economies of America and Europe, it would have little effect unless developing countries also agree to rein in their carbon emissions at their current very low levels.

There’s no simple answer to this. But it has to be answered by any climate plan worth the name.

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