The Amazon burns; is New Zealand fiddling?

The Amazon’s on fire. The Brazilian President is blaming environmental groups. That’s how ludicrous things have got.

Of course... it’s the people who are trying to save the rainforest who are setting fire to it!

No way could it be land grabbers burning off the forest to expand the dominion of the Amazonian cattle ranchers. No, not them.

Having just got back from the Amazon – working as I do for environmental NGO Greenpeace – I can’t help but peer at the spectacle of blame-shifting unfurling in Brazilia through outspread fingers.

Flying over the “arc of deforestation” in Southwest Amazonia, seeing the smoking and broken trees along the edge of agricultural/rainforest divide, it’s hard to hear this stuff.

But then, President Jair Bolsonaro is paying the piper, such is the grip of the ruralistas who helped him into power. 

If watching rich agricultural interests try to squirm out of climate obligations is your thing, then Brazil is definitely your country.

And as smoke from burning forest engulfs Sao Paulo, Mr Bolsonaro is using every excuse under the blacked out sun to justify a new wave of cattle ranch deforestation in Amazonia. 

The cognitive dissonance is strong in this one.

His rhetoric reads increasingly like a ten year-old who’s not done his homework - stopping just short of that old favourite: The dog ate my rainforest. (It’s a Labrador. It eats anything) 

Among his other classic climate dodges:

#1 Denial: What deforesting, nothing to see here. Deforestation is a vegan conspiracy (seriously, that’s what he said)

#2 Shooting the messenger: (Not literally.) The civil servants at INPE (the Brazilian space programme) have been using satellites to  document deforestation in the Amazon for three decades. Bolsonaro just sacked the director - alleging his data was fake. There’s been no evidence to back up that claim.

#3 Blame someone else: Why would the Brazilian space programme, a government department, make up fake data? Well Bolsonaro says they’re in the pocket of environmental NGO’s. Bloody foreigners. And now they’re setting fire to our forests.

#4 It’s the economy stupid:...and if we don’t develop the Amazon with cattle ranches Brazil will fall behind and there will be deprivation and suffering. Do you really want that?

Thing is if Mr Bolsonaro destroys the Amazon - we all suffer. It’s a massive carbon sink swallowing 2.2 billion tonnes of carbon every year and restraining climate change. To put it in perspective, New Zealand’s entire greenhouse gas emissions were 80 million carbon equivalents in 2017.

Latest reports have the Amazon disappearing at three football pitches every minute. (It’s not fake by the way, the data comes from four different satellites cross checked by INPE.

Also some scientists now believe, somewhat distressingly, that the rainforest has a tipping point. (Doesn’t everything?) We don’t have to lose all of it to cattle ranching, just another 20 per cent will do, then the whole forest changes vegetation type transforming into Savannah. That’s from Nobel laureate and IPCC writer Paulo Artaxo of Sao Paulo University. Others agree.

Because of its influence on global patterns the whole world, rightly or wrongly feels like it has a personal stake in the rainforest.

Wrongly, according to Mr Bolsonaro. He wants the rest of the world to butt out. The fact that Brazil has a rainforest is a matter of national pride to him and his supporters. You’ve already blazed through your virgin forests, he says to countries putting pressure on him, so #5 stop picking on me. 

Mr Bolsanaro has been threatening to take aid money earmarked for protection of the Amazon and give it to cattle ranchers and soy plantations which feed the animals. In response big donors Germany and Norway are threatening to withhold more than $US 60 million in aid.

The Brazilian president formulated a classic playground response. 

Excuse #6 Those other kids are much worse than me. 

How dare you tell us what to do? Not when the Norwegians hunt whales and the Germans have so many coal fired power stations. 

The last and easiest excuse. #7 don’t believe the greenie hype. Bolsonaro has consistently tried to undermine the accepted science on climate change. He is possibly the biggest climate denier in the Americas after ‘you know who’. 

As an environmentalist with a farming degree it’s perturbing to see a nationalist right-wing president weaponise denial in order to protect the agricultural lobby. 

What’s happening in Brazil is not an isolated example. It appears to be the thick end of the agricultural climate dodging wedge. 

The sort of rhetoric industrial farming lobbyists and politicians captured by those interests are employing worldwide to protect the food production status quo.

That goes for New Zealand too. 

I’m thinking of the Zero Carbon Bill and the resistance of livestock farmers to cut their animal methane emissions. Specifically in the way that vested financial interests are being conflated with public interest and the interests of the nation in order to protect on-farm status quo.

While it would be a bit of a stretch to compare our public discourse with what’s happening in Brazil right now, if you listen carefully are some lesser strains of the Bolsonaro style cognitive dissonance floating about.

Agriculture in New Zealand manages to hold onto two opposite views at the same time. 

Believing that farmers are kaitiaki - caretakers of the land and environment, who care about future generations and the good of the country. I don’t doubt all of those beliefs are honestly held. 

Yet at the same time many farmers are pushing back hard against genuine attempts to guide the sector towards a low carbon/methane/nitrous oxide future, a project which is vital for all of us.

There are some in the ag sector, not many now thank goodness, who cling onto excuse #1 a flat out, flat-earth denial of climate change. #5 Science disbelievers though are more common than outright deniers. Their most common line, that methane emissions really aren’t that bad after all.

This remarkable passage from an agricultural blog the Home Paddock is an interesting insight into that thought process.

“If you leave your car running in the garage and sleep next to it you’ll be dead in the morning. If you put five cows five sheep and five pigs in there wake up warm and alive.”

Until, of course, the floods and storms from climate change sweep your house and barn away.

It is common for farmers to question the deadliness or importance of methane because of its potent (it’s 84 times as potent over a 20 year period) but relatively short-lived effects compared to carbon. This generally comes wrapped up in an argument to bargain down the methane limits and concentrating on carbon.

The short reply is that we need to do both. Reducing methane emissions will absolutely have a cooling effect on the world. If farmers can reduce greenhouse gas warming by cutting methane, be that by shifting away from burping livestock or changing the way they farm, as responsible citizens shouldn’t they do that? Like now.

A frequently held position is the muddied one which sort of accepts the science but describes it as all very complicated and difficult, therefore we should proceed cautiously. What I would call the climate dawdlers.

Caution is not an option. The old school kiwi careful pragmatism will not serve us in a climate crisis. We cannot just take baby steps and wait to see what the rest of the world does. We need to go all out. The world needs to go all out. 

If we proceed sceptically and slowly, and if half the world joins us, we hit four or five degrees warming by the end of the century.

That would mean NZ is one of the only habitable places in the southern Hemisphere and there are two billion climate refugees, no ice sheets in Greenland or Antarctica meaning sea levels rises of up to ten metres plus all those other zombie related outcomes no-one wants to think about.

One of the most popular excuses for not embracing the change to a low emissions industry - #6 Other kids are worse. How often do we hear that our farmers’ climate emissions are not as high as other producers overseas? Therefore we should be pumping out as much of our slightly less damaging milk powder as possible.  Regardless of the effects of fertiliser emissions, animal welfare, deforestation from PKE, coal burnt to dry the milk and other downstream effects. 

From a global point of view - the only way to look at global warming - it’s a flawed argument. Again it’s not an either/or situation. We should all be trying to reduce emissions, here and overseas. If that means NZ makes less milk, we run less cows to meet our climate obligations then so be it. Certainly the rivers will thank us for it.

The economy #4 has always been one of the strongest arguments for climate dodging by the ag lobby. Whilst accusing environmental organisations of scaring people with dystopian visions of the future, Federated Farmers and Dairy NZ have been running their own apocalyptic line: Listen, if we let the Greenies curtail our precious livestock industry then the economy will be ruined and we will all sink into the penniless ocean. 

“ is very difficult to get air time for a common sense, balanced view that takes account of economic and social implications of policy as well as environmental.” 

So says a Farmers Weekly oped.
It seems to me with climate change you can’t separate out those implications as you might have been able to in the past. Society, the economy and the environment are conjoined by the sheer size of the climate challenge we face.

Then there’s the good old urban/rural divide argument. You townies are #5 just picking on us. Conservative Farming leaders like to point the finger at other groups in society who are contributing to the problem. Like when they started talking about urban rivers (two per cent of our waterways)  as they were criticised for dirtying rural streams.

Yes it’s true we must all share environmental responsibility, be it rivers or climate change, but claiming that you’ve been singled out doesn’t give you reason to sit on your hands,.

Instead of trotting out these excuses for inaction which will start to sound increasingly ludicrous as climate change bites, with violent weather events down on the farm, it would be great to imagine everyone stopping whinging and just getting on with it.

There are already zero carbon farms in New Zealand. A small and unheard minority of farmers who are prioritising the environment above levels of production and short term financial gain. They don’t get much airplay, because the dominant voices in the industry are urging people to hold their ground against change.

I was encouraged though, by this from a retiring director of DairyNZ, Ben Allomes.

“The world has changed and we are struggling to adapt. So we feel we have lost our mojo and that the rug has been pulled from under our feet. 

“Are we better farmers than we were five years ago? Absolutely. Better than we were 10 years ago? Yes. Are we good enough farmers now to be fit for purpose in the future? No.”

If we are to meet the challenge, our farmers and everyone else has to be fit for purpose. Well fit. The bottom line is if it can cool the earth in any way be it by reducing our methane, carbon or nitrous oxide emissions then we have to do it.  All of us. Whether that’s changing your pasture, reducing your herd or getting an EV car.

Agriculture represents 48 per cent of our greenhouse emissions. There is great responsibility and great opportunity.

I’m ready and willing for  farmers to be given all the financial and moral support they need to make these changes. What I would hope for, from them, in the name of my unborn grandchildren is a willing spirit for profound change.