Apr 5, 2024 - Economy

Climate hypocrisy takes center stage in the Amazon

Illustration of an oil barrel rolling through a rainforest and leaving a dirt path behind it

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

South America's Amazon region, while extremely poor, sits on hugely valuable natural resources. The resulting tensions between environmentalists and wealth seekers are exploding once again.

Driving the news: The president of Guyana, Mohamed Irfaan Ali, went viral this week for a video in which he lectured a BBC journalist on hypocrisy around climate change.

  • The developing world, he says, has no right to lecture him about the carbon emissions from offshore oil drilling, when those countries had been emitting vast amounts of carbon for centuries during which Guyana itself was consistently carbon-negative.

The big picture: Whether or not Guyana drills for oil is very unlikely to meaningfully change the total global demand for oil or the total amount of carbon produced by burning oil.

  • It will increase carbon emissions attributable to Guyana — but Guyana also has a desperate economic need to be able to provide a reliable electricity supply to its citizens and companies.
  • Now it's going to be able to do that by piping in natural gas from the oilfields and then using that gas to power the national grid.

Zoom out: The Amazon provides Guyana not only with a certain amount of moral high ground when it comes to climate change but also with cash; in 2009, for instance, Norway paid Guyana some $250 million to continue to avoid deforestation.

  • That number pales in comparison, however, to the amount of money Guyana stands to make from offshore oil drilling. The country has already received $3.5 billion from ExxonMobil and stands to make much more in the future.

Zoom in: Across the border with Brazil, environmentalists are fighting — with guns! — criminal garimpeiros, miners drilling for gold and cassiterite, who are threatening the livelihood of the indigenous Yanomami tribe.

  • In a report for the New Yorker about a special forces unit of armed environmentalists, reporter Jon Lee Anderson unpacks a lot of the complex politics involved in the region.
  • One of his interviewees was a Brazilian judge, Luís Roberto Barroso, who tried to intervene to protect the Yanomami.

What they're saying: "There is an inescapable reality," Barroso told Anderson, "which is that you have people living in poverty sitting on top of vast wealth."

  • When that happens, the wealth almost always ends up getting realized, one way or another. The indigenous tribes, and the Amazon itself, invariably end up much worse off as a result.

Go deeper: In the NYT, Gaiutra Bahadur asks, in another deeply reported story, whether Guyana's oil is a blessing or a curse.

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