The Slatest

Europe’s Response to the Amazon Fires Shows How to Get Tough on Climate Change Outlaws

Emmanuel Macron and Jair Bolsonaro sitting next to each other.
French President Emmanuel Macron and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro attend a meeting on the digital economy at the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, on June 28.
Jacques Witt/Getty Images

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is now planning to deploy the army to help fight the record number of fires raging in the Amazon rainforest. It would be a stretch to say the climate change–skeptic president is now treating the problem seriously after weeks of official indifference, but he does seem to have noticed the international backlash to that indifference.

“Whatever is within our power we will do,” Bolsonaro told reporters on Friday after a late-night emergency Cabinet meeting on Thursday. That’s at least a change in tone by a president who has previously not considered deforestation a problem and has blamed the fires on NGOs.

The leaders of France and Ireland are now threatening to block a landmark trade deal between the EU and the South American trading bloc Mercosur unless Brazil shows a commitment to protecting the environment. This is a significant threat: The deal, which would be the biggest trade deal in EU history, was finally sealed this year after two decades of negotiations, but it has not yet been ratified. French President Emmanuel Macron has been particularly outspoken this week, accusing Bolsonaro of having lied to him about his intent to uphold Brazil’s commitments to combat climate change. Bolsonaro shot back, accusing Macron of a “colonialist mentality.”

The Amazon rainforest is the source of 20 percent of the world’s oxygen and a major sink for global carbon emissions, and its destruction has the potential to rapidly accelerate climate change. It’s unclear to what degree Bolsonaro will respond to the pressure, but the move by European governments suggests we may be entering a world in which countries use economic pressure to induce each other to take action on reducing emissions. The 2015 Paris climate agreement notably doesn’t include any sort of enforcement mechanism. It’s a nonbinding agreement that relies on moral suasion and mutual cooperation to induce countries to take meaningful action to cut emissions. This was the best strategy available; a binding treaty was never an option—for one thing, the U.S. Congress would never have ratified it—and at the time, the leaders of major emitters were on board with the agreement’s goals. The past four years, which have seen newly elected governments in the U.S., Brazil, and other countries walk away from their commitments under the agreement, have revealed the limitations of such a strategy, and harder-edged tactics may soon become the norm as the climate crisis worsens.

Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren have all proposed imposing fees on goods imported into the U.S. from countries that fail to meet their carbon adjustment goals. As Neil Bhatiya, a fellow in the Energy, Economics, and Security Program at the Center for a New American Security explains, these policies are different from a sanctions model. The latter would entail “blocking or banning trade and financial transactions altogether, which is much more aggressive, as it carries a bunch of potential criminal penalties and enforcement actions.”

In a recent article for Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt imagined a hypothetical scenario in which the U.S. announced military action to punish Brazil for the deforestation of the Amazon. But there are also far more realistic precedents. Countries already use sanctions and other forms of economic pressure to punish countries that support terrorism or violate international norms on nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons. Climate change could potentially become a bigger threat than any of these. The notion of extending economic sanctions to egregious violations of environmental norms doesn’t seem that far-fetched.

One big problem with the idea is that the powerful global economies whose support would be necessary to make a sanctions regime work—the U.S., China, Russia, among others—are themselves the world’s largest carbon emitters. This is where the comparison with threats like nuclear weapons breaks down.

Under the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty, signatories who did not have nuclear weapons committed not to acquire them, while those that already had them committed to work toward eliminating them. Even though progress on the second goal has been slow to nonexistent, nuclear powers have still supported and enforced sanctions on countries that try to acquire weapons. Even if this is hypocritical, it has still helped make the world safer: Since the NPT was signed, no country has used nuclear weapons. And due in part to the threat of sanctions, only a small handful of countries have acquired them.

Climate change doesn’t work that way. If the world’s largest emitters take steps to punish poorer, developing countries for not tackling their own emissions, it won’t only be hypocritical—it will be useless.

Sanctions and economic pressure on emissions outlaws may eventually be part of the toolkit for tackling the climate crisis, but for it to work, the world’s major economies—particularly the U.S.—need to get their own houses in order.