By Lisa Friedman
© The New York Times Co.
WASHINGTON » During his presidential campaign, President Joe Biden said the United States should mobilize $20 billion to stop the destruction of the Amazon rainforest and impose “significant economic consequences” if deforestation continues.
Brazil’s conservative nationalist president, Jair Bolsonaro, had an all-caps reply in Portuguese: “OUR SOVEREIGNTY IS NON NEGOTIABLE,” he wrote on Twitter. Brazil’s new leadership “no longer accepts bribes, criminal demarcations or unfounded threats.”
On Friday, a bipartisan coalition of seven former Cabinet secretaries and chief climate change negotiators moved to push Biden forward anyway.
“The Amazon rainforest is absolutely essential to the world. It stabilizes the Earth’s climate and rainfall, sustains many tens of millions of people and is home to more wildlife than anywhere else,” said Bruce Babbitt, a former Arizona governor and Interior secretary during the Clinton administration.
Babbitt’s group, in a letter Friday to Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, outlined an “Amazon Protection Plan,” focusing on money, trade agreements, financial regulations and corporate commitments.
It aimed to add substance to Biden’s campaign pledges and a State Department directive Wednesday to develop policies to protect the Amazon.
“The Congress and American people have a long history of supporting conservation of the Amazon rainforest. It is something inspiring and concrete that they can get behind,” wrote the group, which includes two former Environmental Protection Agency administrators who served under Republican administrations, Christine Todd Whitman and William Reilly; Todd Stern, President Barack Obama’s special envoy for climate change; former Colorado Sen. Tim Wirth and Frank Loy, both of whom served as undersecretaries of state for global affairs in the Clinton administration; and Stuart Eizenstat, who led the U.S. delegation in the negotiations of the Kyoto Protocol climate accord of 1997.
The coalition is urging Biden to call a White House summit to press corporate leaders to help finance at least 1 billion tons of greenhouse gas reductions in the Amazon by 2025.
They also called on Biden to expand “debt for nature” swaps and to negotiate such agreements with governments in the Amazon region.
The heart of the proposal involves making the avoidance of deforestation central to trade agreements and closing loopholes in laws meant to deter forest crimes abroad.
Companies already are prohibited from importing timber from forests that are illegally chopped down.
But that does not extend to beef, soy or other agricultural commodities that may be raised or grown on illegally deforested lands.
“We are unintentionally creating a financial incentive for criminals to set fire to the Amazon and convert it into farmland,” said Nigel Purvis, a former U.S. climate negotiator and chief executive of Climate Advisers, a Washington-policy group.
A spokesperson for John Kerry, Biden’s international climate envoy, said the office will include deforestation experts, and protection of the Amazon “will be an important element of U.S. climate diplomacy.”
In a letter to Biden last week, Bolsonaro — after weeks of repeating the baseless claims of voter fraud perpetrated by his close ally, Donald Trump — expressed hope that the United States and Brazil could enter into a trade agreement.
Babbitt said “meaningful environmental provisions in trade agreements” could be the single most important way to curb deforestation.
Under Bolsonaro, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon hit a record high last year when about 4,280 square miles, an area slightly smaller than Connecticut, was destroyed, according to Brazil’s national space research agency.
Thomas Shannon, who served as ambassador to Brazil from 2010-13, said pressure on Bolsonaro alone will not work.
“Brazil will not be bullied,” Shannon said. Biden’s challenge, he added, “is fashioning a diplomacy that convinces Brazil that there’s reason for it to reengage in the world.”