WASHINGTON — A question for this moment: If the Earth's lungs were on fire and the doctor refused to treat it, would there be cause for a third-party intervention?
This is a rhetorical query for now, but it surely nags the conscience of an outraged international community as the Amazon rainforest is ablaze in Brazil and at least two other countries whose boundaries include sections of this crucial ecosystem. Most maddening is Brazil's at-times lackadaisical attitude toward the inferno — actually a collection of more than 26,000 separate fires — and its president's initial rejection of $22 million in aid from the G-7 nations.
It isn't as though Brazil, which contains 60 percent of the Amazon rainforest, or other countries with smaller holdings suffer the impact of such destruction in isolation. This rainforest, the largest in the world, is often called the Earth's "lungs" in part because it absorbs about 2.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually, thus reducing greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.
What, if anything, should the rest of the world do to save a critical organ in our planet's body?
Before some readers start choking on the word colonialism, let's take a deep breath (while you can) and stipulate that we're not going there (although Brazil's president has). Colonialism describes the occupation of territories and the use, abuse and, effectively if not wholly, the enslavement of native people. What is suggested by the line of questioning herein is: How can the world help sovereign people preserve and protect the treasures within their borders for the benefit of all mankind?
It's a fair question. If Jack and Jill shared a set of lungs and Jill decided to fill her half with smoke, most people would think Jack had a right to seek redress. If Jill refused to cooperate, despite clear evidence that her actions were causing Jack harm (essentially the argument against second-hand smoking), then other measures would be justified. But as executed by whom and by what power?
In a similar vein, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro essentially has stoked the fires now sweeping through his chunk of the river basin. He has done so since taking office in January by cutting budgets and staff in governmental environmental enforcement institutions and by promoting development, logging and agricultural expansion.
Fires have a way of getting away from people — as these have. Although some Amazonian fires are naturally occurring during the dry season, there have been far more this year than in previous years. Bolsonaro initially blamed non-governmental organizations for setting the blazes to discredit him. But recently, following weeks of international condemnation and domestic protests, he has begun to take the issue more seriously.
Even so, his wounded ego and chauvinistic pride apparently wouldn't allow him to immediately accept the G-7 aid package. On Tuesday, Bolsonaro retreated a bit from this position, suggesting that he might consider the package, but only if French President Emmanuel Macron apologizes for comments he recently made praising the Brazilian people and expressing hope that they "soon have a president who is up to the job." Macron, who has described the Amazon fires as an "international crisis," had also released a statement Friday calling Bolsonaro a liar.
Bolsonaro, who has accused Macron of promoting a "colonialist mentality," insists that foreign intervention is really aimed at "interfering with our sovereignty." This defensive posture may look paranoid to some, but it is also at least somewhat understandable in the context of Bolsonaro's historical orientation. Like President Trump, he has appealed to constituents' (and voters') sense of marginalization to juice his ratings. Not surprisingly, Trump tweeted his support for Bolsonaro Tuesday, saying, "He is working very hard on the Amazon fires and ... doing a great job for the people of Brazil — Not easy."
Other nations, meanwhile, are doubling down. Germany and Norway are withholding millions of dollars in contributions to the Brazil-run Amazon Fund, which collects money to combat deforestation. France has threatened to pull out of the Mercosur free-trade deal between the European Union and four South American countries, including Brazil. Ireland has threatened to do the same.
Such reasonable measures are what civilization demands. But as extreme weather incidents increase and other climate change-related conditions worsen, people's survival sense may demand more direct action and new ways of balancing sovereign interests with global priorities. Earth's lungs may reside mostly in Brazil, but they belong to the world. There's no denying that.
Kathleen Parker's email address is email@example.com