Journalism from the center of the world

A landscape in agony: in Altamira, in the state of Pará, the suffering tree, forest, overcast sky, and river are victims of the climate emergency. Photo: Jonathan Watts

Every morning, I take my dogs for a walk to the scene of multiple crimes, where I grieve for the victims and consider who is to blame.

The location is the bank of the Xingu River, which is a five-minute stroll from my home. I will post a picture here of this beautiful but brutalised panorama so you can examine for yourself the violence that has been inflicted on the landscape in the nine years since I first visited Altamira.

The first victim, very stark in the foreground, is a dead tree, one of the many millions killed when the reservoir of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam flooded the river banks, drowning countless plants and other species unable to flee the rising waters.

The second can be seen on the distant hillside on the far side of the river, where there are two broad expanses of cleared land that were cut out of the forest by neighbouring farmers who wanted more space for their cattle to graze.

The third is the sky, shrouded in an acrid haze from the dozen or so fires that were burning around Altamira over the 24 hours before my walk, according to NASA’s satellite imagery.

Fourthly – and most alarming of all – is the river Xingu itself, which has shrunk back to levels not seen in recent memory as a result of a freakishly long, hot dry season. Compared to the peak of the rainy season, the depth of the river has fallen by four or five metres.

The place where I usually swim is now a mud flat. Rocky outcrops have become visible mid-stream, creating dozens of new islands and adding to the challenge of navigation.The impact on other species is immeasurable.

That such horrors would come to pass was all too predictable. Earlier this year, I wrote that the El Niño on top of the climate crisis would create an emergency within an emergency, which Brazil’s authorities needed to prepare for as this would almost certainly mean a severe drought for the Amazon.

But there has been zero preparation. Across the Amazon, fire fighting units have been over-stretched and transport systems disrupted by the severity of the prolonged drought. Meanwhile land grabbers make things worse by starting fires to clear forest, taking advantage of the tinder dry conditions.

Those blazes cause problems long after the embers are dimmed. Countless studies have shown tree clearance has a local, regional and global warming effect, in addition to weakening the rainfall-generating capacity of the rainforest. Replace the trees with cows, as is the common practice in Altamira and much of the Amazon, and the effect is far worse because the methane burps and farts of the cattle are a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. One of the most shocking reports of the past year was a study showing Brazil’s 220 million cows (almost half of which are in the Amazon) have a bigger climate footprint, when you include their role in deforestation, than all the factories, cars, power plants and 125 million people of Japan.

On the way to death: in the municipality of Senador José Porfírio, Pará, an Ibama operation in the Ituna/Itatá Indigenous Territory finds illegal farms, with animals taken to a meatpacking plant after being rescued. Photos: Lela Beltrão/Sumaúma

This brings us to the vitally important question for justice and for solutions: who is to blame? Certainly not the innocent and soon-to-be-slaughtered cows, though they lead us to one group of culprits – the ranchers and, behind them, the global meat packing companies that make billions of dollars from the wreckage of the Amazon and the global climate, while turning a blind eye to the continued carnage. A new study by Radar Verde shows that 90% of deforested land in the Amazon becomes pasture, but almost no slaughterhouse or retailer has adequate measures to limit, or even monitor, how much of this destruction is part of their supply chains. Among the 201 companies in the survey, only two come close to responsible corporate behavious; the Pão de Açúcar supermarket group and ​​the Marfrig meatpacker. By far the worst company in this regard was JBS, the world’s biggest beef producer, which had the most slaughterhouses in areas of high deforestation. Blame for the climate crisis unquestionably lies heavy with this multinational. It is not alone.

There are those who would argue that humanity as a whole is responsible for this horrendous year of murderous heat, deadly fires, devastating floods and other global climate calamities, but that is only partly true. Yes, these extremes have undoubtedly been made worse by human burning of fossil fuels. The world is around 1.3C hotter than it was at the start of the industrial revolution. There is growing evidence that this makes El Niño events more likely. Yet despite the ever increasing death toll for all species from this heat, humankind is emitting more warming greenhouse gases than ever.

In mid November, the reading from the Mauna Loa observatory, which is the world’s benchmark atmospheric measuring station, shows CO2 levels have reached 422.36 parts per million, which is 5.06ppm more than the same day last year. This is probably the largest 12-month increase ever recorded – more than double the last decade’s annual average. It may be that the volcano eruption at Mauna Loa has played a part in these readings. But if not, it will go down as the clearest evidence yet that our species has failed to tackle the climate crisis.

But “we” are not equally to blame. Not by any means. There is a huge carbon divide between the air-conditioned super-rich, who travel the world in luxury yachts, and the heat-vulnerable poor, who suffer the worst climate consequences even though they are least responsible. A new study by Oxfam and the Stockholm Environment Institute highlights the enormity of this gulf and its consequences. From data in 2019, they find:

  • The world’s richest 1% (anyone who earns more than $140,000 per year) emit more carbon pollution than the 5 billion people who make up the poorest 66%.
  • One year of emissions from the richest 1% are likely to cause 1.3 million excess deaths from heat in the coming decades.
  • Over the period from 1990 to 2019, the accumulated emissions of the 1% were equivalent to wiping out 2021’s harvests of EU corn, US wheat, Bangladeshi rice and Chinese soya beans.
  • The top 10% (who are paid at least US$40,000 per year) are responsible for 50% of all emissions. They may feel less culpable than the super-rich but there are many more of them, so their combined impact is considerable.

This chasm is not just about wealth and emissions, but emotions and power. Climate anxiety means different things on the different sides of the wealth divide. For the poor, it means fear of heat and floods. At the top, it means a fear of increasingly desperate people below them. How else to interpret the billionaires planning doomsday bunkers in New Zealand and Nevada, or those blast off the planet in private rockets and talk of colonising space. Instead of making every effort to reduce emissions, they are increasing their carbon footprint by putting more distance between themselves and the masses.

The Oxfam report reveals that the decision-making classes who will dominate at Cop28 are also in the top 1% of income earners. This is senior politicians and corporate CEOs who own shares in oil companies or big agricultural concerns. They become an obstacle to change. Dario Kenner, the author of Carbon Inequality, has identified what he calls a “polluter elite”: anyone with a net worth over $1m who reinforces the use of fossil fuels through their high carbon lifestyles, investments in polluting companies and political influence.

This year, it will be hard to escape the view that the United Nations climate conference process has been captured by oil interests. Delegates at COP-28 need only step out of the security gates of the conference centre in Dubai to witness the carbon divide. The United Arab Emirates is one of the world’s most unequal nations, largely as a result of the wealth that its rulers have accumulated from pumping oil and gas out of the desert, and the poor conditions of the migrant workers who make up 80% of the population.

Its ruler, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, is from the richest family on the planet. The Al Nahyan clan dominate a country that owns 6% of the world’s oil reserves. By one estimate, they are worth more than $300bn. The family’s climate footprint from investments is similarly spectacular. The Al Nahyan royals directly or indirectly owns stakes in, among other things, Manchester City football club, a Formula One racetrack, the Ferrari World indoor theme park, the spacecraft manufacturer SpaceX. This month, it raised its stake in the Indian coalmining company Adani Enterprises. The family controls International Holding Co, which recently had the fastest-growing stock valuation in the world – 28,000% in just five years. The sheikh and his family own at least three super yachts, two private jets and multiple palaces.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the social ladder in Dubai is the climate-vulnerable migrant labour force, many of whom come from India, the Philippines and north Africa. They work on construction sites, in restaurants and as office cleaners, with monthly incomes ranging from 300 to 750 euros, barely enough to cover rent. Their carbon consumption is marginal and their climate exposure is dangerously high. They make up a disproportionate number of heatstroke cases because many labour outside in temperatures exceeding 40C. If global temperatures rise to 3C above pre-industrial levels, which is where the world is heading, then the number of extremely hot days each year in Abu Dhabi will double.

Inequality: in July 2023, on the eve of the COP climate meeting, a worker tries to cool down under the 40-degree Celsius heat in Dubai. At right, Sheik Mohamed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan boards his private plane in Orly, near Paris, after visiting France, in June 2022. Photos: Karim Sahib and Giuseppe Cacace/AFP

It is a similar story in many parts of the world, where temperature has become a marker of social status. Air-conditioned buildings excrete heat onto the streets, making them even hotter. In Mumbai, India, the vast Dharavi slum gets more than 5C hotter than the neighbouring gated communities of the middle class. In São Paulo, Brazil, tens of thousands of residents in the poorly ventilated Paraisópolis (Paradise City) favela look up at their wealthy middle-class neighbours in a residential tower where each of the 13 floors has a balcony with an outdoor swimming pool.

This shows how inequality is growing within countries, even as it shrinks slightly between countries. inequality and climate injustice are intertwined with sexism, racism, the denial of indigenous rights and other drivers of inequality. Studies have shown that black residents in New York are twice as likely to die of heat-related diseases as white residents. Black neighbourhoods in New Orleans and Houston bore the greatest losses from Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Harvey. Indigenous communities in the Brazilian Amazon are now on the frontline of drought even though many of them have net-positive carbon lifestyles due to their role in managing rainforests.

What all of this reminds us is that inequality and the climate crisis are closely interlinked. At the moment, they are making each other worse, and putting a solution even further out of sight. On the positive side, however, this realisation can be empowering. Climate justice could improve the vast majority of people’s lives and bring the super rich into a less fearful relationship with the rest of humanity. High taxes on billionaires and big emitters could provide money for a just transition, with money for cleaner forms of energy and financial support for communities worst affected by extreme weather. First, though, the 66% need to regain control of politics from the 1%. That may seem impossible right now, but it will become essential as more of humanity suffers the consequences of more climate crimes, while the perpetrators wall themselves away in bunkers, cruise off in yachts, or blast off to space.

When I take my dogs for a walk, I know that however hot it is now, this will seem cool five years from now. And however degraded the Amazon land, river and sky seems today compared to 2014, it will probably be a pristine memory if I return here in 2034. It is too late to stop that now, but we can still control the extent of the temperature rise and the scale of the damage, if we remember not only that we are all in this together but that some of us have a great deal more responsibility to change than others.

Text:  Jonathan Watts
Fact-checker: Plínio Lopes
Proofreader (Portuguese): Valquíria Della Pozza
Spanish translation: Meritxell Almarza
Portuguese translation: Denise Bobadilha
Photo Editor: Lela Beltrão
Layout and finishing: Érica Saboya
Editorial workflow and copy editing: Viviane Zandonadi
Director: Eliane Brum

El Niño in the Amazon: in the municipality of Beruri, in the state of Amazonas, this lake along the banks of the Purus River was practically dry when this picture was taken, a month and a half ago, on October 10. Photo: Michael Dantas/SUMAÚMA

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