What Greenland, the Amazon and nuking hurricanes have in common

What Greenland, the Amazon and nuking hurricanes have in common
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The Amazon is on fire and Greenland is for not sale. Such headlines can numb the senses and invite apathy bordering on paralysis. Yet, they all point to a planet imperiled and an inability of governments to forge collective solutions to transnational problems.

The Amazon rainforest, which is two-thirds the size of the continental United States, is considered the “lungs” of the world. Yet, it resides predominantly in Brazil and thus is subject to the whims of that state’s increasingly authoritarian government.

Greenland has recently been a hobbyhorse among some cognoscenti and the Davos crowd given the threat of a warming planet and the vast real estate, to say nothing of its other resources, the territory administered by Denmark possesses. Greenland would presumably be much more inhabitable in a hundred years, as islands in the Indian Ocean and the Florida coast find themselves underseas.

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What both of these news stories possess is a central protagonist (antagonist?) that throws his weight around bluntly rather than seeks a communal response to a growing threat.

In the Greenland case, Trump’s solution was to purchase Greenland. Assuming it was not to install golf courses or Trump hotels along its coastline, but rather to provide the U.S. with a strategic buffer, it still reeks of colonialism.

In the case of the Amazon forest, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro bristled at calls by France and other European powers to put out a series of raging fires of the rainforest. This year alone the Amazon has suffered some 40,000 fires, mostly the result of manmade overlogging and deforestation egged on by the local and national government.

That is problematic for the planet, as the Amazon, given its large size, stores large quantities of carbon dioxide, which warms the planet and produces some 6 percent of Earth’s oxygen. Hence, it is a global issue. Yet, Bolsonaro compared the Europeans’ meddling to a “misplaced colonial mindset.”

Here we have authoritarians both evoking the ghosts of colonialism, preaching a “we know best” gospel mashed up with virulent nationalism, addressing the newfound realities of global warming. In short, these two cases are examples of precisely how not to tackle environmental problems going forward.  

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How would purchasing Greenland save the planet exactly? How does brushing aside the entreaties of outside powers rescue the Amazon rainforest precisely?

Bolsonaro has slashed some $23 million in funds for Brazil’s environmental enforcement agency. Trump, meanwhile, is a climate change skeptic who skipped a meeting on the subject at the recent G-7 meeting.

There is also a brawny military component to both stories. Greenland has hosted a military base for the U.S. going back to World War II. Presumably, the purchase would provide the U.S. with greater security to patrol the Arctic Sea, whose riches could become a 21st century of the Great Game. Brazil has sent in its Army to handle the Amazon blazes, preferring a unilateral military solution to a humanitarian and environmental catastrophe. Almost on cue, Trump followed up his offer to purchase Greenland with a plan for “nuking hurricanes.” No environmental issue cannot be resolved with military might!

Meanwhile, a recent UN report found that the extreme weather events related to climate change — floods, fires, droughts and storms — continue to cripple the world’s food supply.

The heavy-handed response by two far-right politicians of similar temperaments does not augur well for global governance to tackle future threats posed to the planet. These are not gentlemen who have promised to replant trees, call on their citizens to reduce their consumption of cattle — responsible for two-fifths of all greenhouse gas emissions — or create new international institutions to forge a global consensus. 

Instead, they have opted to doubled down on their nationalist rhetoric — and go it alone.

Lionel Beehner, Ph.D., is an International Affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and research director of West Point’s Modern War Institute.