Big Smile, No Teeth: As the Amazon burns, world leaders move urgently to … uninspire us

Big Smile, No Teeth: As the Amazon burns, world leaders move urgently to … uninspire us

When the G7 countries met recently in Paris, they discussed the big issue on everyone’s minds: the ongoing burning of the Amazon rainforest in a series of devasting fires.

Naturally, you’d hope some inspiring climate leadership would emerge when Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States meet. But nothing did. In fact, the G7 summit generated three deeply uninspiring moments of climate leadership.

We’ll get to that, but first, why is the Amazon so important?

People call it the lungs of the planet though it is really only responsible for about 6% of the oxygen; its real value comes from its biodiversity and the role it plays as a carbon sink. The Amazon is home to around 10% of known species. According to the World Wildlife Foundation, the Amazon has “40,000 plant species, 427 mammals, 1,300 birds, 378 reptiles, more than 400 amphibians and around 3,000 freshwater fishes and between 96,660 and more than 100,000 invertebrate species”.

Now, if saving flora and fauna isn’t a priority for you but saving yourself is, please note that many important medicines are made from plants and insects and animals. Mainly, all the stuff living in the Amazon that can’t be found anywhere else. Maybe there’s a cure for cancer hiding out there in an Amazonian species we haven’t yet discovered – but if we burn down the Amazon we’ll never know. So maintaining a vast biodiversity on the planet helps us survive.

But the Amazon’s even bigger contribution is the role it plays as a carbon sink. As we all know by now (we should!), excess carbon in the atmosphere exacerbates the planet-warming greenhouse effect, which worsens the already apparent effects of climate change. Trees are a carbon sink because they use it to grow. The Amazon, to put it simply, is the largest collection of trees on the planet and thus is helping mitigate climate change. But when we burn it, the carbon all those trees are holding is released to add to the greenhouse effect. Which bones us.

So with fires raging across the all-important Amazon rainforest – some 80,000 fires, more than an 80% jump from last year – you can bet the G7 leaders were keen to get something done when they met in Paris.

So keen in fact, that the President of the United States, the most powerful and influential country on the planet that could be an example in leading the charge to stop climate change, decided not to show up. Donald Trump, showing his childlike desire to be nowhere near a topic he doesn’t care about – namely the welfare of anyone other than himself – skipped the G7 meeting on climate change and biodiversity. He was the only leader to do so.

So that was inspiring leadership moment No.1.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro refused aid offered to help deal with the Amazon fires, not because it was an insultingly paltry sum but because his feelings were hurt by French President Emmanuel Macron. So much for inspiring leadership in the face of environmental disaster. Photo: AFP

The next moment came when French president Emmanuel Macron announced that a deal to do something about these rampant fires in the Amazon was struck and US$20mil (RM83mil) would be donated to help get the fires under control. That seems like a lot of money because most of us don’t have 20 million dollars lying around – but it’s actually not. Especially when fighting a fire across a jungle that is 5.5 million sq km. Of course, the Internet exploded with comparisons.

Netflix spent US$100mil (RM419mil) for the right to stream the 1990s TV series Friends. The budget for the movie Venom, which was largely panned by critics, was also US$100mil. The American football quarterback Nick Foles’ annual salary is US$20mil – and though he can throw a football, he is by no means as valuable to the planet as the Amazon rainforest is. None of these things is. None of us are.

Remember how when Notre-Dame Cathedral burned in Paris and a billion dollars instantly appeared from wealthy donors to rebuild it within days with no major push asking for money? The Amazon is more important than the Notre-Dame. Sorry, but it is.

Raising a paltry sum of money – in an era that demonstrates money is available for star athletes, nostalgic TV series, questionable superhero films, and an old church – for a natural environment that is key to the very survival of the planet? Check.

That was uninspiring leadership moment No.2.

Then came the news that Brazil was going to turn down the money from the G7 because Brazilian President Jair Boslonaro, a “strong man” leader, would not “accept anything from France” because “Mr Macron must withdraw the insults he made to my person. Firstly, he called me a liar.”

French President Emmanuel Macron reportedly said Bolsonaro had “lied” to him about his climate commitments.

So now the paltry sum that was being sent to Brazil is no longer being accepted because a so-called strong man leader had his feelings hurt.

Uninspiring leadership moment No.3.

We all better get real used to living in caves. Because unless our leaders stop acting like this is some kind of bad comedy, the whole world is boned.

But on a positive note, actor Leonardo Dicaprio donated US$5mil (RM21mil) of his own money to help put out the Amazon fires. No word yet on whether Bolsonaro has turned down this sum because Leo is universally more charming than he is. Stay tuned.


Big Smile, No Teeth columnist Jason Godfrey – who once was told to give the camera a ‘big smile, no teeth’ – has worked internationally for two decades in fashion and continues to work in dramas, documentaries, and lifestyle programming. Write to him at lifestyle@thestar.com.my and check out his stuff at jasongodfrey.co. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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