The appointment of a reputed climate change denier as the head of Brazil’s science ministry has some scientists worried about the country’s environmental future. Others are withholding judgment, at least until the new minister, Aldo Rebelo, appoints the team of scientists and policymakers who will work with him for the next 4 years.
Rebelo, a hard-line communist, labeled climate change an “environmental scam” in a 2010 open letter to environmentalist Marcio Santilli, according to Bloomberg View. As a legislator in Brazil’s Congress, he called the movement to curb the emission of greenhouse gases “nothing less, in its geopolitical essence, than the bridgehead of imperialism,” The New York Times reported this week. “His positions on climate change are completely out of phase with the Brazilian scientific community,” says Paulo Artaxo, an atmospheric physicist at the University of São Paulo who studies climate change in the Amazon. “We are expecting serious problems in several areas, such as environment, biodiversity, climate change, and forest protection.”
But like many minister appointments in Brazil, President Dilma Rousseff’s selection of Rebelo to lead the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MCTI) was a political decision, not a scientific one, explains Helena Nader, the president of the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science (SBPC). “Rebelo is a representative of a party that strongly supported [Rousseff’s] reelection.” Rousseff narrowly won a second term this past October; Rebelo served as sports minister in Rousseff’s first administration. He was sworn into his new position at MCTI on 1 January.
Rebelo’s appointment comes at a critical moment for environmental policy in Brazil. In an address to the United Nation’s General Assembly this past September, Rousseff called climate change “one of the greatest challenges of our times” and pledged that Brazil would take a leadership role in future climate negotiations. By slowing deforestation in the Amazon, the country steadily curbed its own greenhouse gas emissions between 2004 and 2012. But in just the last year or so, emissions and deforestation both seem to be back on the rise, according to the Times.
For many environmentalists, Rebelo’s new position at MCTI is even more worrisome because it comes in tandem with the appointment of Katia Abreu as Brazil’s new minister of agriculture. Abreu is in favor of development in the Amazon and has been dubbed the chainsaw queen by critics. She and Rebelo worked together on a 2012 revision of Brazil’s forest code, which an analysis in Science concluded was likely to increase deforestation. Taken together, the Rebelo and Abreu appointments “are deeply worrisome and seem at cross-purposes to Brazil's leadership role on climate change and environment,” says Thomas Lovejoy, an ecologist at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, who has worked in the Amazon since the 1960s.
Still, Nader says, “it is important to give Rebelo some time before” jumping to conclusions based on comments he made in the past. She says that several propositions from SBPC were ultimately incorporated into the revised forestry code, an experience that leaves her optimistic about working with Rebelo. “Our expectation is that regarding environmental issues, Dilma’s government is not going to backslide.”