Hurricane Dorian has departed the Caribbean and like its predecessor, Maria, has left a legacy of death and destruction. Dorian hit Abaco Islands of the Bahamas as a Category 5 storm with 185 mph winds, tying it for the strongest landfall of any storm on record.
Indeed, Dorian is tied for being the second-strongest hurricane (in terms of wind speed) ever recorded in the Atlantic. What distinguished Dorian was the manner in which it stalled over the Bahamas and refused to leave until all had been destroyed in its path.
According to Dr. Marshall Shepherd, Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Sciences, University of Georgia, “I literally feel sick for the people and their families. This will be an epic tragedy once the magnitude of the destruction is ultimately revealed. An area just cannot take such sustained force that long from an essentially stationary major hurricane.”
The debate on climate change has been re-ignited by Dorian but key members of the international community continue to vacillate on the need for action to address a phenomenon that may ultimately prove apocalyptic. In response to the question whether climate change is making hurricanes worse, Tomasz Schafernaker of BBC stated: “Scientists cannot say whether climate change is increasing the number of hurricanes, but the ones that do happen are likely to be more powerful and more destructive because of our warming climate.” An increase in sea surface temperatures strengthens the wind speeds within storms and also raises the amount of precipitation a hurricane will dump.
Yet, the climate change story is a simple one. Greenhouse gas emissions, namely carbon dioxide has increased over the last 150 years as humans have been pumping massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels: coal, oil and natural gas.
A critical mitigating factor is our forested lands. Trees absorb carbon dioxide and due to photosynthesis, release oxygen into the atmosphere. More trees less carbon dioxide. Enter the Amazon forest.
The burning of trees in the short term leads to the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and in the long term, reduces the function of the Amazon as a sink for carbon dioxide.
According to the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies: “The Amazon basin is the largest tropical rainforest in the world, covering a size approximately equal to the lower 48 United States. 6-8 million square kilometres of forest house approximately 10 per cent of the world’s biodiversity and 15 per cent of its freshwater. These “lungs of the world” provide ecological services for the planet, but also a source of livelihood for hundreds of indigenous groups and forest-dependent peoples.”
The international crisis is that the Amazon is burning in Brazil in an unprecedented manner and Brazil is home to approximately 65 per cent of the Amazon basin. The major global political actors have awakened to the threat to the lungs of the planet earth (with the exception of Trump’s America) but Brazil defiantly slumbers. President Jair Messias Bolsonaro, whose right-wing rhetoric provided succour to a Brazilian public tired of left wing scandals has proven to be a perfect candidate for a Latin American Trump. Jair (Hebrew for he shines), Messias (the one who is coming), Bolsonaro (derived from Veneto, Italy with “bolzon” meaning “dart” or “arrow”).
So the world can celebrate the shining arrow that has arrived to pierce the lungs of the earth. Bolsonaro is not just a threat to the Amazon, he is a threat to the planet because he is a threat to the Amazon. In Brazil, there is a call for sedition—according to the laws of Trinidad and Tobago—to confront Bolsonarism. According to Eliane Brum: “Confronted with Bolsonarism’s accelerated forces of destruction, all of us, of all nationalities, must emulate the enslaved Africans who rebelled against their oppressors. (August 23rd, 2019, The Guardian).
When President Emmanuel Macron of France led the international rallying cry for the Amazon in face of massive incineration, Bolsonaro in Rowleyian fashion reduced the issue to one of sovereignty. Refusing foreign aid to combat the fires decimating the Amazon, Bolsanaro stated, “respect for the sovereignty of any country is the least that can be expected in a civilised world.”
In his perverse fantasy world, Bolsonaro’s opinion is that European’s interest in the welfare of the Amazon is its thinly-guised plot to gain a foothold in the region. Stressing the need for the acknowledgement of sovereignty time and again, Bolsanaro colourfully stated: “Brazil is like a virgin that every pervert from the outside lusts for.” He insisted that Europeans “got it into their heads” that Amazon does not belong to Brazil. So Bolsanaro has rejected millions of dollars in aid on the basis that: “These countries that send money here, they don’t send it out of charity. They send it with the aim of interfering with our sovereignty.”
Politicians retreat under the umbrella of sovereignty to avoid decisions that are necessary for maintaining the integrity of the global village. The issue of Venezuela is one of sovereignty. The issue of elections in Guyana is one of sovereignty. This will continue to be the mantra of those that are failing to understand that global boundaries have collapsed and nations can no longer adopt an ostrich-like approach to foreign policy by burying their heads in the sand.
As the lungs of the world collapses and the Bahamas is decimated by Dorian, the fate of the Amazon cannot be sacrificed on the altar of sovereignty and there must be international condemnation and intervention to move humanity from the brink of a global cataclysm.
Professor Rajendra Ramlogan, Commercial and Environment Law, The University of the West Indies. The views expressed are entirely his own.