Brazil's latest strange appointment: A climate change denier as Minister of Science
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Brazil's latest strange appointment: A climate change denier as Minister of Science

Brazilian politics are often weird, but President Dilma Rousseff’s new term has gotten off to an even weirder-than-usual start. First she appointed senator Kátia Abreu, who campaigned to weaken Brazil’s forest code, as her agriculture minister. Abreu is known in some circles as “Miss Deforestation” for essentially being a lobbyist for agribusiness.

Read more: Why did Dilma Rousseff choose ‘Miss Deforestation’ as Brazil’s new agriculture minister?

Now Rousseff has gone and appointed someone who doesn’t even believe in man-made climate change as the country’s Minster of Science, Technology and Innovation.

In most of the world, climate change deniers, or “skeptics” as they are sometimes called, are from the right end of the political spectrum. They are against regulations put on big business— especially the fossil fuel industry — for ideological, political and economic reasons. It’s not hard to understand why. It makes perfect sense that an oil baron would want to discredit a scientific phenomenon that blames burning petroleum products for what many climate scientists believe to be the “single biggest environmental and humanitarian crisis of our time.”

So the fossil fuel industry, with support from libertarians who believe in “global socialist conspiracies” — despite a global lack of socialism and a worldwide dominance of neoliberalism resulting in little to no significant government action on climate change — pours money into anti-science propaganda denying humanity’s role in climate change.

But Dilma Rousseff’s appointment of Aldo Rebelo, a longtime politician and member of Brazil’s Communist Party, is something unusual: a traditional leftist who disagrees with a broad scientific consensus on a worldwide crisis is now Brazil’s Minister of Science. Rebelo has stated that his “devotion” to the Marxist philosophy of dialectical materialism — as opposed to positivist scientific method — has informed his opinion that global warming is “incompatible with contemporary knowledge.” On the surface, this looks like climate skepticism from an entirely different angle.

Dialectical materialism rejects dogmatism and has been applied to physical as well as social sciences, not only in nominally socialist countries like the former Soviet Union, but also among Western scientists, including evolutionary biologist Richard Lewotin. Rebelo has also written that there is no evidence for global warming and criticized the use of computer models in scientific forecasts of climate change. However, the minister’s claims that mainstream climate science silences questions “at the first response” and prioritizes certainty over doubt do not jive with the consensus of risk and the uncertainty concerning how climate change will manifest, which most scientists warn of.

At first I thought this was some sort of mistake, that he was playing musical chairs and landed in the wrong chair. Unfortunately, there he is, overseeing Brazilian science at a very delicate juncture when Brazil’s carbon emissions are on the rise again.

—Márcio Santilli, a founding member of Brazilian environmental group Instituto Socioambiental, via the New York Times

Rather than delving too deeply into Rebelo’s character or qualifications to be a science minister, for me it is interesting to see climate change skepticism from the “old left” – if that is an accurate way to describe the minister. It first struck me as curious how Rebelo denies climate change by basically making the same arguments as the right, while claiming that his viewpoints are informed by a Marxist approach to science. This is not so strange, however, as similar criticisms on the same topic can come from a variety of political standpoints.

As an “old guard” leftist, it could be argued that Rebelo’s distrust of the global establishment, whether scientific or political, comes from a conservative communist perspective. In the past Rebelo has held positions on issues that could be considered nationalistic– but again, this is not so unusual among old guard leftists, especially those with populist tendencies, as they can articulate an opposition to globalism.

Rebelo’s appointment is even more curious given President Rousseff’s speech at September’s United Nations climate summit, in which she not only spoke of her belief that economic growth is compatible with reducing emissions, but also linked climate change to natural disasters, which predominantly affect the urban poor. It is also worth noting that both Rebelo and his Margaret Thatcher-admiring colleague Kátia Abreu were in favor of changing Brazil’s forest code, though Rebelo’s reasoning was that too many farmers did not obey it.

There were certainly motivations for appointing Rebelo, though they may be opaque to an outsider like me. Perhaps the appointment of a seemingly hardline leftist who rejects prominent environmental concerns — significant obstacles to unrestrained development of fossil fuels and hydropower — is a clever maneuver by the president to play all sides of the political spectrum for the purpose of removing barriers to economic growth.