The Far-right on the Rise in Brazil: between gaslighting and climate change skepticism

In the age of post-truth, fake news profoundly marked the 2018 Brazilian race to the presidency. Technological tools that once promised a more inclusive and informed democratic process were massively used to mislead the electorate in the country. In such turmoil, any debate on the actual policy agendas of the candidates simply did not happen. Let alone discussions on one of the most pressing issues of our time: climate change.


Amanda Lima and Isadora Cardoso

The same weekend of the first ballot of Brazil’s election, October 7, coincided with the official submission of the country’s candidacy to host the international climate talks in 2019, the COP25. Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right presidential candidate who asserted during the campaign its intent to withdraw Brazil from the Paris Agreement, was already a big obstacle in Brazil’s potential host status. The 63-year-old former army captain and congressman finally won the runoff on October 28, conquering 55.13% of valid votes (57,797,847 votes) against Workers’ Party candidate Fernando Haddad.

The day after the first turn of the elections, the IPCC released its latest special report on scenarios on a 1.5 or 2°C warmer earth. The report showed the tremendous impacts we will face if systemic change is not immediately pursued to limit the temperature rise to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levelsWith urgent climate action needed and the elections result, the scientific community, indigenous peoples, civil society organisations and environmentalists groups in Brazil became more alert than ever. Brazil always played a key role in the climate negotiations, having achieved historical deforestation reduction levels in the Amazon in the recent decades. Although Bolsonaro sees other uses for the forest. “Where there is indigenous land,” he once said, “there is wealth underneath it.” A clear message that such wealth must be exploited.

Bolsonaro’s governmental plan is extremely uncompromised with the environment. It does not include any low-carbon solutions for the promotion of sustainable development in the country. There is no mention of the word ‘environment’ in the plan; but there are 130 mentions of the word ‘God’, besides its clear nationalist and punitivist tone. In a supposed laic State, Bolsonaro bases his political agenda around a religious and moralist discourse. His main campaign slogan was “Brazil above everything, God above everyone”.

Photo: Raphael Nogueira

Bolsonaro is a climate change skeptic. He and his agribusiness fellows claim that the Paris Agreement threatens the country’s sovereignty. This denial of facts, not only restricted to the issue of climate change, was a mark of Bolsonaro’s campaign. On October 18, Folha de Sao Paulo divulged an illegal practice used by entreprises supporters of his candidacy, where private donations were directed to his campaign through the large-scale spread of false news on the Workers’ Party candidate through WhatsApp. In a context where 44% of the Brazilian electorate declared WhatsApp was its main mean of information during the electoral rally, and where more than half of the visual content circulated in that social media during the elections was false or decontextualised, it is clear that the widespread of fake news was certainly one of the main means to Bolsonaro’s victory.

With the support of pentecostal evangelicalsagribusinessthe industrial sector and financial market, Bolsonaro’s campaign also favoured the election of 52 congressmen from his Social Liberal Party (Partido Social Liberal — PSL), the second biggest constituency in the parliament from 2019 on. Even with this significant base in the National Congress, Bolsonaro’s intention to get Brazil away from the Paris Agreement is not that simple to realise. The Agreement was already internally ratified in 2016, with the approval of the Congress, when Bolsonaro was a congressman himself.

Other proposals by the new president-elect, as the one to fuse the already relegated Ministry of Environment with the Ministry of Agriculture, with the former being subordinated to the later, seem more feasible, although not confirmed yet. However, regardless of this fusion, the new bellicose-fundamentalist government will increase agribusiness and landlords power, accommodating oligarchies (from the soy, beef, mining, logging industries, etc.) above civil society groups supporting the sustainable use of Brazil’s natural resources. This may lead to a rise in land concentration, rural conflicts, soil degradation, deforestation and land grabbing, annihilation of indigenous peoples and traditional communities, as well as a softening in environmental regulations as Bolsonaro intends to dissolve environmental protection agencies and cease the recognition of traditional/indigenous territories. With so many predicted setbacks, environmental and human rights defenders were already mobilising against their materialisation, two months before Bolsonaro’s mandate starts.

There is a clear connection between the negationist — regarding climate skepticism — and manipulative — regarding fake news and the mislead of the electorate — aspect of Bolsonaro’s pathway to victory with the psychological phenomenon of gaslighting. Bolsonaro is known as openly racist and sexist, an aspect which is constantly denied by his supporters. The president-elect stands against basic rights of LGBTQI+ people and diminishes gender equality struggles by claiming they are ideological disputes. When in Congress, he publicly said it was not worth it to rape congresswoman Maria do Rosario, and that he would rather have a dead son than a gay one. His backers, from politicians to the general electorate, when asked whether they also support such misogynistic homophobic worldviews, oftentimes say Bolsonaro is not serious about them, that feminists and other opposing groups should not take it too seriously, that this is not the most important debate when compared to the fiscal and political crisis Brazil is going through, and so on.

Not taking these discourses seriously means accepting and thus normalising them into our daily lives. In turn, the normalisation of such outrageous positions legitimise and foster violent discourses and actions by individual, corporate and state actors. This is alarming in a country marked by abysmal socioeconomic inequality, weak rule of law, and where the world’s highest murder rates of environmental defenders and trans people are concentrated. Eventually, despite the general feeling of hopelessness and fear among those opposing what Bolsonaro represents — us included, there is an overall acknowledgement that it will not only suffice to withhold his backward politics. Above all, we are and will keep actively and constantly resisting and mobilising to advance sustainable, inclusive and gender-equal agendas in the country.

Isadora Cardoso is from Brazil and currently works with GenderCC-Women for Climate Justice in Germany. She has a BA in political science and MA in globalisation and development studies.

Amanda Lima lives in the capital of Brazil, Brasília, and currently works for the mainstreaming of the sustainable development policy agenda in the country. She has a BA in political science and a Msc in sustainable development studies.