On January 1, the moment he is sworn in as president of Brazil for a second time, Lula da Silva will become perhaps the most important person in the worldwide effort to confront the climate emergency. Usually, the obstacles to slowing global warming are somewhat dispersed: wasteful electric utilities in rich nations; multiple oil giants, ranging from Chevron to Saudi Arabia’s national producer; even individual consumers who persist in buying gas-guzzling SUVs. No one person or single government can challenge them all at the same time.
But Brazil’s Amazon rain forest is different. Scientific experts warn that if the deforestation continues, the Amazon could soon pass a tipping point, where the trees will never grow back and the vast region will degenerate into a scrubby savannah. The planet will suddenly lose one of its most crucial carbon sinks. The Amazon basin holds 2.8 million square miles of jungle, more than half of the remaining tropical rain forest on Earth. John Miller, a scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Global Monitoring Laboratory and co-author of a major study on the Amazon, concluded that “changes in the capacity of tropical forests to absorb carbon will require downward adjustments of the fossil fuel emissions compatible with limiting global mean temperature increases to less than 2.0 or 1.5 degrees Celsius.” In other words, if the rain forest disappears, planetary warming would accelerate, possibly at catastrophic speed. But President Lula, with help from his Workers Party and Brazil’s impressive environmentalist movement, can slow the burning and silence the chain saws.
Brazil, however, can’t save the Amazon alone. On the table is an innovative new proposal, first drawn up by Eduardo Suplicy, a respected elder statesman in Lula’s party, with support from, among others, Thomas Pogge, a philosophy professor at Yale who specializes in global justice. Suplicy calls for the rich nations to commit significant funds from both public and private sources, which Brazil’s government can use to expand the national guaranteed income plan that is already part of Lula’s program. Pogge told me, “This scheme is attractive to the West, attractive to Lula, and attractive to Brazilians who can get a tangible monthly pay-out in their wallets.”
Lula won the presidential election by only 1.8 percent. The Suplicy guaranteed income plan should expand his support among voters. Otherwise, in 2026 Lula’s predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro, or someone like him, could make an electoral comeback and start burning the Amazon again—and even claim that Brazil’s voters have endorsed the destruction.
Lula promised during his campaign to end the massive deforestation that Bolsonaro had encouraged. Lula’s rain forest conservation record during his previous presidency (2003–11) was good, although not perfect. And this time around he faces even greater opposition. Changes in Brazil’s economy have made protecting the Amazon more difficult. In the early 2000s, Brazil seemed to be climbing toward industrialization, manufacturing higher-value-added products. Since then, though, progress has stalled and even reversed: Ford Motor Company, for instance, ended its century-long presence in Brazil in 2021 after losing $12 billion over the previous decade.
Instead, Brazil increasingly is forced to export basic commodities: iron ore, oil, soybeans, and meat. Some of these primary products come from the Amazon rain forest region. Settlers have also poured into the region, especially during the Bolsonaro years, trying to escape the chronic under- and unemployment elsewhere. They will not be happy if environmentalists shut down what they see as opportunities. In the presidential election’s first round, three of the Amazonian states—Acre, Rondonia, and Roraima—gave Bolsonaro his greatest majorities in the whole country.
What’s more, powerful economic interests promote deforestation and don’t hesitate to use violence. Big cattle ranchers, or fazendeiros, deploy poor settlers, often from other regions of Brazil, to do the initial cutting and burning. The settlers threaten and even murder Indigenous people who try to defend their homes; a stunning new documentary film, The Territory, shows the violence on the Amazon’s frontier in chilling detail. Once the land is cleared, the ranchers cheat or force the original colonists to leave and then put their herds of cattle in place. In one response, the European Union on December 6 agreed on a new law that bans companies from selling products from Brazil (and elsewhere) that are linked to deforestation, including beef, soy, and others—but it’s not clear yet that the new restrictions will be effective.
Mining is also threatening the Amazon. The respected advocacy group Amazon Watch has just issued a report warning that a Canadian company, Belo Sun Mining, is planning a huge open pit gold mine in the Amazonian state of Pará. The group says the mine will have considerable “social, environmental, and legal risks.” Amazon Watch charges that certain big banks and asset managers in the United States and Europe also are complicit in forest destruction
Over the years, there have been well-meaning suggestions that you can save the Amazon and still provide gainful employment (and earn vital foreign exchange) by shifting to sustainable sources of income: Brazil nuts or berries from the açaí palm tree or ecotourism. But it’s hard to see how these niche products can replace the massive soybean, iron, and beef exports. Brazil nuts don’t even break into the country’s top 20 export list.
Meanwhile, the frontline forest guardians who are protecting the Amazon continue to risk their lives. A recent report found that from 2012 to 2021 more than 1,700 environmental activists in the Global South were murdered; Brazil was in first place, with 342 killings. Bolsonaro deliberately weakened the government’s enforcement agencies. Lula’s transition team is already asking for $100 million in new funding, to be used for police operations against illegal miners and loggers, and to pay for more firefighting units.
Lula is also choosing the impressive Marina Silva to again be the minister of the environment. She was raised in the rain forest and is the daughter of rubber tappers. She didn’t get the chance to learn how to read and write until she was 16 years old. During her previous time heading the ministry (2003–08), deforestation declined.
In the US, the right wing is already sneering at the proposals to transfer funds to the Global South to fight climate change as “reparations.” The word is simply not accurate; it implies that all the rich world will get out of the payments is easing our precious consciences. But the frontline forest guardians in places like Brazil already recognize that their struggle has planetary consequences.
The destruction of the Amazon would mean more catastrophic floods in Florida and Manhattan and more hunger and displacement in sub-Saharan Africa. So far, some 17 percent of the rain forest is gone. One estimate is that the tipping point is between 20 and 25 percent. That day is drawing near.