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The Amazon burned – and put fire in the belly of Europe’s climate crusade

‘Solving the climate crisis could be Europe’s next heroic act, one that will be admired and praised by future generations,’ says Finnish leader

Kim Sengupta
Wednesday 04 September 2019 17:32 BST
Fire consumes brush at the Nova Fronteira region in Novo Progresso, Brazil
Fire consumes brush at the Nova Fronteira region in Novo Progresso, Brazil (AP)

The confrontation between the Bolsonaro government and the EU over the devastating Amazon fires has escalated – with France, Ireland and Finland threatening to scrap a trade agreement with Brazil, and Germany and Norway stopping contributions to an aid fund for the country.

There are now proposals that the EU should consider immediately banning the import of Brazilian beef and soya beans as a punitive measure. The tough measures, advocated by Mika Lintila, the Finnish finance minister, are gathering support from a number of other member states. Critics say that the administration in Brasilia is not doing enough to stop the fires, suspected of being started deliberately for commercial interest.

President Jair Bolsonaro, who had sought to blame NGOs for the blaze, withdrew from a regional meeting of the Latin American states to discuss the emergency, citing medical reasons.

The hard-right leader has been emboldened, according to diplomatic sources, by what he sees as approval of his aggressive stance by Donald Trump, a fellow climate change sceptic. The US president tweeted that “future trade prospects” between America and Brazil “are very exciting”.

The UK, meanwhile, maintains that the EU threat not to sign a trade agreement with Brazil was an “inappropriate” response to the Amazon wildfires. But, with Brexit looming, London’s position on the matter is viewed as largely irrelevant by other member countries.

It is not a matter of surprise that Finland is taking a combative stance on the rainforest devastation. The Nordic state declared that climate action would be a “key priority” when it took over the presidency of the European Council in July.

“Solving the climate crisis could be Europe’s next heroic act, one that will be admired and praised by future generations,” declared prime minister Antti Rinne.

Last week’s summit of EU foreign and defence ministers in Helsinki was the first one in which climate change was a major topic. Its effects on diplomatic and security issues were widely discussed and the subject will remain on the agenda in future meetings.

Among European leaders, Emmanuel Macron has been the foremost critic of the Brazilian government over the Amazon fires, and the relationship between him and Mr Bolsonaro has become increasingly toxic as a consequence, with a series of several very public clashes.

The verbal sparring between the two leaders was followed by a supporter on Mr Bolsonaro’s Facebook page posting sexist insults about Mr Macron’s 66-year-old wife, Brigitte, comparing her looks to that of the Brazilian president’s wife Michelle – claiming that the French president was jealous. Mr Bolsonaro “liked” the post and wrote: “Don’t humiliate the guy... ha ha.”

Since then, a Bolsonaro lieutenant, Brazil’s tourism ambassador Renzo Gracie, has waded in. He threatened to strangle the French president, along with further abuse about Ms Macron’s age and appearance. Mr Gracie also complained that tourism was declining because of the reports of the fires and insisted the burning of the rainforest was at “normal levels”.

Finnish government officials said they did not want to dignify the remarks of the Bolsonaro supporters by commenting on them.

The foreign minister, Pekka Haavisto, of the Green Party, the only Green to hold that post in a western government, wanted to point out that while Mr Trump may have pulled out of the Paris climate pact, European Union members remain signatories.

And the pact’s impact on trade means that using the Mercosur trade agreement for pressure is entirely justified, he said.

“We have responsibilities in our trade relations to take care of our environment and our climate ... we raised the matter at the ministers’ meeting, we need strong EU action,” he added.

The links between the environment and defence were also addressed at Helsinki, with a focus on how the militaries of European Union states can become more green.

Aerial footage shows Amazon wildfires burning and devastation left behind

The European Union’s foreign affairs commissioner, Federica Mogherini, said: “We discussed how to make sure that the militaries contribute to address climate change issues, in particular reducing the energy dependency and its carbon footprint and in this way contributing to address climate change effects.

“We discussed the effect of climate change on conflicts that can affect the ways in which militaries could be deployed in these theatres.

“You can already see the connection present in some areas, in the Sahel for instance, where the militaries deployed have to face a situation on the ground that is evolving in terms of climate change conditions. We need to adapt our capacity to operate in these theatres.”

Among the aims of the Finnish armed forces is to decrease emissions from buildings and barracks by 75 per cent by 2025 through ending the use of fossil fuel and the possible use of biofuels in army, navy and air force operations in the future.

Environmental protection is a key aspect of every Finnish government department after the centre-left coalition came to power in the country in last April’s election. The right-wing Finns Party had attempted during the campaign to portray measures against climate change as a fad of the urban elite which would harm the working class without success.

Matti Putkonen, a Finns Party politician, had claimed that the measures will “take the sausage from the mouths of labourers” and that pet food would increase hugely in price. He said: “What are you going to say to the little girl or boy who cries when mum and dad say they can’t afford [food] any longer? And take the lovable pet to be put down?”

Environmental measures have been similarly targeted by other right-wing parties and politicians internationally, including Alternative for Germany, Donald Trump and his Republican supporters and the Bolsanaro administration in Brazil.

“The march of the right wing we have seen in many countries in Europe stopped in Finland with the moderate parties treating climate as an important issue with the electorate,” said Robert Emerson, a security and political analyst.

“Bolsonaro is among the politicians who have attacked environmental safeguards and used it to try and whip up populism. So we are looking at two fundamentally opposing positions here and it’s fitting that climate became such an issue at the Helsinki meeting and Finland has become a key player in the measures being proposed over the Amazon.”

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