Images of orange skies over San Francisco from the raging California wildfires could mark a turning point in our collective consciousness about the incoming effects of climate change. These pictures were not just remarkable because of the catastrophe they portrayed but also because reality met fiction: the images had an uncanny resemblance to Dune, a 1960s book series by Frank Herbert whose newest film adaptation is set to release later this year.
Herbert dedicated his books to dry-land ecologists, saying, “wherever they may be, in whatever time they work, this effort at prediction is dedicated in humility and admiration.”
1965, meet 2020. You omitted a global pandemic in your story line.
We are not quite living in the apocalyptic world depicted in Dune, but our failure to develop adequate ecological literacy, prioritize climate change as a national and global emergency, and restructure political economies around environmental and climate targets is making a dry and dystopian future more and more likely.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s latest comments about the situation in California are particularly concerning—such as when he reportedly told Wade Crowfoot, the burning state’s natural resources secretary, that “It’ll start getting cooler, you’ll see.” Part of his foresight failure can be explained by events unfolding somewhere that’s not as distant as it may appear—Brazil.
The Amazon’s Ecology Simplified
The Amazon is a complex biome, one of the world’s largest rain forests, and a critical hot spot of biodiversity. It is also the source of one of the world’s biggest aerial rivers, which transports water vapor into the atmosphere. The Amazon emits about 20 billion tons of water per day through evapo-transpiration. Trees and biodiverse vegetation play a central role in this physical process, which consists of sucking out water from underground and transpiring it into the atmosphere as moisture, which later returns to the ground as rain. This daily phenomenon is key to regulating our global climate regime through the water cycle that partly governs global heat dynamics. It is the same as human physiological reactions: human bodies transpire so as to cool down.
Through its complex vegetal biodiversity, the Amazon is critical to creating, recycling, and distributing moisture across South and North America. It continuously pumps and generates water vapor that gets redistributed in the form of rainfall in the Amazon and across other regions. Think about it this way: we often call the Amazon the lungs of the earth by virtue of its oxygen production. But it is also one of the beating hearts of the planet, pumping and distributing blood—fresh water—to other organs. If we weaken its function as a water pump, land dies, releasing further carbon dioxide and warming our global climate. The more temperatures rise, the more fires we get, locking us into a vicious cycle of our own making.
We can still fix it. But we need to hurry up before we go into organ failure. Literally.
The Amazon provides ecological services that support life, food production, and water integrity as far north as the American Midwest, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Pacific Coast. What does this mean for California? The state’s winter rainfall levels, and the subsequent amount of water it can store, are partly the result of the combined effects of the Amazon and other rain forests. Underground water storage is essential to making California landscapes more resilient to desertification, drought, and fire. In other words, the Amazon is a critical buffer against disasters in California.
Yet, deforestation in the Amazon has been taking place at increasingly alarming rates, especially since Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro took office. In fact, Bolsonaro is taking pride in burning the Amazon to the ground. Rainfall has consequently decreased in Brazil, making not just the Amazon more prone to ravaging fires but also the far-flung regions where it sends moisture.
These rainfall changes manifest in more than just megafires resulting from protracted drought too. This month also saw the Chihuahua protests in Mexico, sparked by water debt repayment to the United States in the midst of a catastrophic drought that led to food production failures in Mexico and Texas. Such unrest is an appetizer for what is to come if deforestation across the Amazon continues unabated.
If the Amazon is a source of water and U.S. regions are among its sinks, then the United States is effectively dependent on the rainforest’s ecological integrity for its water, food, and environmental security. If Trump abets Bolsonaro’s aggressive policies toward the Amazon and the indigenous populations that live there, he indirectly undermines U.S. security through misguided foreign policy.
For centuries, we took our natural environment as a given and built our human systems on its backdrop. But if our environment fails as a result of our political and economic mismanagement, what is in store? The ecological integrity of the Amazon is fundamental to global environmental security—not just because it soaks up carbon dioxide and transforms it into carbon but also because it generates moisture and maintains rainfall patterns across the American continent and more widely across the globe. It is not the only ecosystem in the world that bears this function, but the sad truth is that the majority of ecosystems are being destroyed at a staggering pace, sending our climate and our water and carbon cycles into disrepair.
Geopolitics, geoeconomics, and regional and national politics need to be underpinned by an understanding of the fundamental ecological independencies that rule the Earth’s systems. They are vital to understanding today’s natural disruptions and the critical importance of ecological integrity for global security. This is not just a matter of carbon dioxide emissions but also of environmental stewardship to protect and sustain human activity.
Arsenous Political Management
Trump and Bolsonaro share a strategy of weaponizing environmental disasters such as megafires into partisan issues, fueling polarization and information warfare. In the United States, Trump blames the Californian wildfires on poor forest management in a state held by Democrats, even though the lands most susceptible to the wildfires are actually federally managed. He has threatened on numerous occasions to withhold federal aid in response to the fires—thankfully to no practical avail. In Brazil, Bolsonaro has alternatively blamed the fires on indigenous populations, local environmental NGOs, and political opponents. He has gone as far as attacking the media for making the fires up (even when they are observable from space). Their strategies have consistently fostered social and political mistrust, caused rising violence, and opened a path for aggressive economic policies focusing on short-term interests. These interests set environmental and social standards and regulations ablaze and with them the security of their citizens.
Yet, Trump and Bolsonaro keep pushing nationalist and populist agendas, both cheering to the sounds of America and Brazil first. They rhetorically pose as the solutions to the very problems that they manufacture or worsen, denying science that speaks of the fundamental interdependencies underpinning their national stability.
In a climate-disrupted world, this is not just demagoguery—this is an arsenous attempt at undermining local, national, regional, and global security for current and future generations.
The health of the Earth’s larger ecosystem depends on the health of local ecosystems. The macro communicates with the micro, and vice versa. The Amazon, like other critical ecosystems around the world, is a global common responsibility that national sovereigns should steward. This responsibility should not be carried alone, however. It should be supported and compensated. But such support can only take place once governance systems align—from the local to the global—to sustain the ecosystems that provide life-supporting functions. Though it sounds like a broken record to say this now, let us try it again, if only to support the UN in these days of General Assembly: cooperation is key. Even nationalistic agendas benefit from multilateralism in a world that is deeply interconnected at economic, ecological, cultural, and political levels. Wishing our natural and human-made interconnectedness away only results in dramatic damage.
It is in the interest of Bolsonaro, Trump, and all heads of state across the Americas to cooperate on protecting the Amazon. Beyond them, it is in the interest of the world community to protect and regenerate the Amazon and our global ecosystems—for the multidimensional benefits accrue to all nation states, regardless of national and environmental borders.
We have historically failed to understand this fundamental axiom of global peace: national and global security are intertwined when it comes to preserving ecological integrity. This interconnectedness should be to the world of peace and security actors what the discovery of new elements is to physics: a revolution of thought.
Let the era of ecological diplomacy begin.