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Jair Bolsonaro has said Brazil may withdraw from the Paris agreement.

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Brazil’s new president has scientists worried. Here’s why

Brazil has long been a frontrunner in climate change policy and environmental diplomacy. The international conventions on climate change and biological diversity, for example, were born during the historic United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, and Brazil played a key role in crafting and implementing both agreements.

That legacy is now at risk. Since he took office on 1 January, Brazil’s new president, Jair Bolsonaro, has dismantled several government divisions dedicated to climate change. The former army captain and far-right congressman has also named Cabinet members who are openly hostile to the fight against global warming.

Government officials say climate change will continue to be a priority. But scientists and environmentalists are alarmed. “We have to wait and see what’s going to happen, but so far it doesn’t make much sense,” says Emilio La Rovere, a climate change and sustainable development researcher at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. Scientists also worry that religion may infringe on science in the new government’s policies.

Even before he took office, Bolsonaro decided to back out of Brazil’s offer to host the 25th Conference of the Parties, the United Nation’s 2019 climate change conference, which will now be held in Chile in November. His Cabinet hasn’t resorted to the use of distorted scientific data and theories to sow doubt about the reality of global warming—the usual strategy of climate “denialists”—but it is framing climate change as part of an ideological war between the left and the right, critics say, or between a globalist agenda and Brazilian sovereignty. The new minister of foreign affairs, Ernesto Araújo, recently wrote that global warming is left-wing “dogma,” used to “suffocate the economic growth of capitalist, democratic countries.”

Araújo’s ministry has eliminated its Climate Change Division, which spearheaded Brazil’s efforts within the United Nations and other international fora. All environmental policies now fall under a single department and the word “climate” has disappeared from the ministry’s administrative structure.

Two departments of the Ministry of Environment that dealt with climate change and mitigation policies were also nixed, along with one devoted to combatting deforestation, Brazil’s top source of greenhouse gas emissions. The Secretariat of Climate Change and Forests, to which the three departments belonged, has been renamed Secretariat of Forests and Sustainable Development; neither climate change nor deforestation are part of its official remit. Some say deforestation in the Amazon may accelerate under Bolsonaro.

To the relief of many scientists, the office responsible for monitoring climate change and reporting on Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions, part of the Ministry of Science, Technology, Innovation and Communication, has survived the ax. “It’s still there, at least on paper, so we hope the science will be preserved,” says Carlos Nobre, a retired climatologist from the National Institute for Space Research in São José dos Campos. The science ministry is now headed by Brazil’s only astronaut, former air force pilot and aeronautical engineer Marcos Pontes. A member of Bolsonaro’s party, Pontes has been on good terms with the scientific community so far.

During his campaign, Bolsonaro threatened several times to pull Brazil out of the Paris agreement, the 2015 landmark United Nations climate deal. But Ricardo Salles, the new minister of environment, said in recent interviews that Brazil will stay in the agreement while rejecting any “international interference” in its territory, agricultural practices, or use of natural resources. A far-right lawyer and aspiring politician with strong ties to agribusiness and industry, Salles has tried to shift the focus away from deforestation and to urban environmental problems such as sanitation and water and air pollution. “I am going to take care of the environment in Brazil,” Salles said in an interview with Jovem Pan radio, in December 2018. “Meanwhile, academia can [continue to] discuss this issue of climate change; I am not opposed to that.”

Other recent developments have riled scientists. On 9 January, newspapers reported that a government call for the purchase of millions of public school textbooks had been altered to exclude requirements about the accuracy and diversity of their content. Critics said the omission would open the door to creationism and other forms of pseudoscience or “alternative facts.” The Ministry of Education canceled the textbook call a few hours later under heavy criticism. Bolsonaro’s administration said the removal of the accuracy requirements was a “mistake” by the previous government, which denied responsibility.

On the same day, a video surfaced of Damares Alves, Brazil’s new minister for women, family, and human rights, saying the Evangelical Church had lost influence, “allowing the theory of evolution into schools” without questioning. “[We] let science walk on its own; and then scientists took control of this area,” she said. The recording dates back to 2013; in a statement, the ministry said Alves’s religious beliefs would not interfere with her role as a public official.

But many saw her statement as another harbinger of an upcoming struggle between science and religion in Brazil’s public policy. “It doesn’t matter when the video was done; it matters if she still thinks that way,” says Nélio Marco Vincenzo Bizzo, a science history and teaching scholar at the University of São Paulo’s School of Education  in São Paulo. “What’s wrong with scientists being in control of science?”