Today is the bicentenary of the Battle of Carabobo in the independence wars but for the planet at large it is (or should be) World Environment Day, as it has been for almost half a century now (since 1978). Worth a reminder because when the urgency of the coronavirus pandemic does not crowd out climate change concerns, there are those who mix apples and oranges by presenting the pandemic as a sort of booster punishment for disrespecting nature alongside climate change – as if plagues have not afflicted countless generations of humanity far more respectful of nature ever since Biblical times. In reality climate change should not need this spurious linkage with Covid-19 to rate as the main existential problem in its own right requiring solutions far more complex than mass vaccination.
In his recent European tour, President Alberto Fernández sought to establish an equally spurious linkage between climate change and debt by arguing that environmentally zealous countries like his own should be relieved of the latter. Meanwhile back home, his Congress caucus was busy passing a law to hack down biofuel percentage requirements in order to favour Vaca Muerta shale, turning the dead cow into a cash cow – whatever President Fernández might have told his German interlocutors in particular, whenever he thinks green, it is probably the face of Benjamin Franklin rather than Greta Thunberg which springs to his mind. Shale without fail is the name of the game even if environmental rhetoric (including continued adherence to international agreements on climate change) also has its uses by making a virtue out of necessity while the fracking is lacking. On another front Argentina could score green brownie points by presenting the ongoing beef export ban as a bid to slash the number of all those flatulent cows by replacing the dollar earnings therefrom with worthless pesos but no such argument has been offered.
In my 34 years in the Buenos Aires Herald newsroom as from 1983, it was a long time before any environmental issue entered my radar – very much the orphan of an otherwise lively politics. There was not even a permanent government department until 1991 (although before my time the 1973-1976 Peronist government did create a pioneering secretariat, immediately crushed by the military dictatorship). Before 1991 my main memory in that department was the remote Chubut town of Gastre being proposed in 1986 as a nuclear and toxic waste dump for the world, which its mayor initially said would be an improvement for the place – most of the citizenry thought otherwise and protested over the next decade until the project was scrapped after 150 tons of nuclear waste had been dumped there.
The late Carlos Menem revived the department in 1991 but his choice of secretary turned out to be a sick joke, María Julia Alsogaray, promising to clean up the Riachuelo in 1,000 days while swanning around in furs. I cannot remember taking any of her successors seriously with the exception of Romina Picolotti (2006-2008), a prize-winning environmental activist who however proved unable to control her family’s lavish use of public funds and was fired for nepotism and corruption – since these were the years of the glaciers law (vetoed by President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in 2008 in order to keep mining provinces happy), singling out Picolotti for such generalised practices as corruption and nepotism might well have been prompted by the desire to eliminate the risks from an environment secretary who took her job seriously.
All other secretaries were nonentities lacking any serious qualifications. For the rest of Kirchnerism the post strangely became the personal choice of the Cabinet chief (especially Aníbal Fernández and current Chaco Governor Jorge Capitanich with Alberto Fernández already gone) and invariably a political crony. In 2015 Mauricio Macri promoted the department to a Ministry (only to downgrade it again in 2018), which seemed to give the environment a new importance, but he made the eccentric choice of a rabbi with zero background, Sergio Bergman, to head it when he had Juan Carlos Villalonga, the director of Greenpeace Argentina for 17 years, in his ranks as a PRO deputy.
President Fernández duly included the environment in his expansion of the Cabinet back to 20 ministries but it would be unfair to judge either him or his minister Juan Cabandié with Covid-19, lockdown and vaccines swamping the agenda for all but the first 14 weeks of this presidency so far while over half the term still lies ahead. Like almost all his predecessors Cabandié had no serious qualifications for the post as a La Cámpora political hack but we have no way of judging the environmental strategy he offers the world if the COP26 in Glasgow where it was to be presented has yet to be held (this coming November for now). At the outset the first priority of this city boy was the very urban one of open-air garbage dumps while his approach to the mining industry is not the most aggressive – both jobs and the planet must be saved, he insists. But all a work in progress and why expect too much from his ministry with most of its staff in quarantine much of the time while lockdown was doing their work for them (last year at least with air pollution halved at times)?
The pandemic has dominated the agenda for 15 months now but even in the three months beforehand there were only glimpses of green. In the last days of 2019 there was a massive popular backlash in Mendoza when its new Radical Governor Rodolfo Suárez sought to encourage the mining industry by removing the ban on the use of cyanide, forcing him to withdraw the initiative. Then Productive Development Minister Matías Kulfas started off 2020 by promising a “Green New Deal” with a focus on renewable energy a year ahead of Joe Biden (why was Kulfas the minister talking green instead of Cabandié, it might be asked?).
Endless though it might seem, this pandemic is not forever – no plague in history has lasted for more than a couple of years. When those overdue vaccines finally arrive and we can forget about coronavirus, we should not forget climate change. Nature abhors a vacuum, it is said, but it is precisely the vacuum created by the pandemic which gives us the chance to rebuild the economy along lines friendlier to nature.