Brazilians Take On Global Warming and Steal the Show

Brazilian Amazon's jaguar Brazilians take global warming seriously, much more than the rest of the world. The recently published 2009 Pew Global Attitudes Project survey of twenty five prominent nation-states, including the United States, China, India, France, Kenya, and Poland among many others, now confirms that Brazil is now the world leader in concern over global warming.

The Pew survey reveals Brazil’s highest affirmative response rate to the question: Is global warming a serious problem?  90 percent of Brazilians think so, by far the highest proportion of any country in the study.  Argentina ranks second with 69 percent, the U.S. response is well behind at 44%, and China is last in this survey with only 30 percent of the respondents troubled by greenhouse gas emissions. 

Since the election of President Lula in 2002, Brazilians have become increasingly aware of national and global environmental problems, from the impact of land use practices in the Cerrado to deforestation in the Amazon.

President Lula told Reuters that Brazil was open to adopting targets for greenhouse gas reductions, “the issue is not a taboo for us.”, thus reflecting the national preoccupation with global warming and all but reversing the country’s adamant opposition to adopting emission reduction targets.

Brazilians did not always share such a unique perspective on the global warming challenge.  Before Lula’s election, only 20 percent of the population expressed concern for the environment according to the Pew Center.  By 2007 this number had jumped to 49%, the largest increase of the survey.  According to Larry Rohter of the New York Times,

“The factors behind the re-evaluation range from a drought here in the Amazon rain forest, the world’s largest, and the impact that it could have on agriculture if it recurs, to new phenomena like a hurricane in the south of Brazil. As a result, environmental advocates, scientists and some politicians say, Brazilian policy makers and the public they serve are increasingly seeing climate change not as a distant problem, but as one that could affect them too.”

Climate change is now front and center in Brazil.  Members of Congress from all political parties race to affiliate with the environmental caucus and co-sponsor “green” legislation.  The former Minister of the Environment under Lula, Workers Party Senator and former Amazon rubber tapper, Marina Silva, is now considering an invitation from the Green Party to run as their presidential nominee in 2010. 

Even S.O.S. Mata Atlântica, a prominent environmental advocacy organization, is running humorous television ads asking Brazilians to “piss in the shower” to save millions of liters of fresh water in a campaign to preserve the Atlantic coast’s dwindling rainforest.

Dare to compare Brazil with the U.S.?

During the same period from 2002 to 2007, the U.S. level of environmental concern rose from 23 to 37 percent, but alarm over global warming decreased from 47 percent in 2007 to 44 in 2009 as the economy crumbled. Although President Obama and the Democratic Party passed the controversial American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (known as Waxman-Markey) in the House of Representatives by a very close vote; efforts to pass a climate change bill in the Senate face stiff opposition. 

In fact, the ranking Republican member of the key Environment and Public Works committee responsible for developing climate change legislation, Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, doubts the scientific findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize with former U.S. Vice-President Al Gore in 2007.  In 2003 Sen. Inhofe remarked that global warming was the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.”

Of course, there are other countries in the Pew Center survey that also play down the threat of global warming, including the very large greenhouse gas emitters China and Canada, yes Canada!  However, the public opinion gap between Brazil and the U.S. may prove to be a major obstacle in galvanizing international cooperation to reduce emissions.

48 percent of Brazilians are willing to pay higher prices (for energy, food, etc.) to address global warming, compared to only 41 percent for the U.S. Even more interesting, 79 percent of Brazilians are willing to tolerate slower economic growth and job creation to protect the environment compared to 64 percent for the U.S. 

With respect to who is most trusted to deal with global warming, 57 percent of U.S. citizens believe the U.S. is the most trustworthy while only 17 percent of Brazilians place their faith in U.S. leadership. Of the countries studied, only Israel, Kenya, and Nigeria place more than 40 percent confidence in the U.S. on climate matters. 

Even more telling, Brazil ranks high in the list of countries who blame the U.S. for global warming.  49 percent of the Brazilians single out the U.S. Only Turkey and Bangladesh (61%), Spain (56%), Venezuela and Slovakia (55%), France (53%), and Indonesia (52%) surpass Brazil suspicions.  Evidently, these numbers partially reflect the animosity unleashed by President George W. Bush’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol in 2001.

Brazil’s recent and very rapid increase in public awareness stands in sharp contrast with the partisan rancor and controversy surrounding U.S. efforts to confront global warming. Moreover, Brazilians about-face is now bearing down on domestic policy making. The government’s Prevention and Control of Deforestation in the Amazon (PPCDAM) got off to a slow start, but is now showing measurable results. 

No doubt this effort has its critics, but Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research confirms that the rate of Amazon deforestation is slowing.  Also, the current Minister of the Environment, Carlos Minc, announced in June that President Lula himself would directly participate in efforts to stop deforestation by visiting Amazon communities involved in sustainable production.  Even Brazil’s Army is joining the campaign to stop deforestation!

These efforts highlight Brazil’s broader commitment to protect the Amazon and play a leading role in climate change negotiations at Copenhagen. They are now coupled with international campaigns to diminish the external threats to the rainforest. Greenpeace’s recent campaign, “Slaughtering the Amazon,” has already pressured such companies as Nike to “certify” that leather used in the company’s products does not come from cattle herding in the Amazon. 

Taken together, Brazilians’ concern with global warming, the Lula administration’s increasing commitment to stop deforestation, international efforts, such as the Amazon Fund, to assist the country with sustainable development in the Amazon, and Brazil’s historic leadership of the G-77 nations in climate change talks add up to a prominent position at this year’s Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework on Climate Change negotiations in Copenhagen or COP15.  Indeed, the U.S. Climate Change envoy, Todd Stern, recently visited Brasilia for talks with the government and remarked,

“And I think that an issue like this, which is of enormous importance to the world … is an ideal opportunity for Brazil to demonstrate leadership on the global stage. And if you want to be a global player, that’s what you have to do.”

According to the Pew Center, over 180 million Brazilians have weighed in are now ready to take the stage and steal the show.

Mark S. Langevin, Ph.D., is Director of BrazilWorks (,  adjunct Associate Professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland-University College, and Associate Researcher at the Political Studies Laboratory of the Federal University of Espírito Santo, Brazil.  He researches and writes on U.S.-Brazil relations.  He can be contacted at


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