Rainforest fires "not a natural phenomenon"

Brazilian pastoralists burn parts of the Amazon forest to create grazing lands. Photo credit: Pedarilhos/Shutterstock

By University of Sydney - 23 August 2019

Scientists, engineers and anthropology experts from the University of Sydney discuss the inferno that's raging through the Amazon, devastating large swathes of rainforest and increasing CO2 levels.

"The planet is losing an important carbon sink"

Danilo Ignacio de Urzedo is from Sao Paolo, Brazil and has worked in the Amazon as a forester. He is completing his PhD at the University of Sydney's School of Geosciences on the topic of Amazon forest restoration.

“The extreme number of fires burning now is not a natural phenomenon. They are a direct result of mismanagement, underfunding and illegal deforestation, mostly for the cattle industry," said Mr Urzedo.

“The impact of these fires is felt most acutely by the Indigenous communities that rely on Amazonian biodiversity for their livelihoods. But the impact goes much further. Brazil’s cities are choking on the smoke. And deforestation of the Amazon is affecting rainfall across South America. Beyond this, the planet is losing an important carbon sink and the fires are directly injecting carbon into the atmosphere," he said.

The fire will increase CO2 levels, which is dangerous for human, animal and plant health, says Professor Huang. Photo credit: Pixabay

Fire exacerbating global heating - investment in CO2 conversion needed

Professor Jun Huang is a chemical engineer and expert in CO2 conversion from the University of Sydney’s School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and Sydney Nano.

"Not only has the inferno raging in the Amazon released a huge amount of CO2 into the atmosphere, it has also reduced the rainforest's capacity to convert CO2 back into oxygen, therefore exacerbating global heating even further," said Professor Huang.

"The further the fire advances, the more CO2 will accumulate, which is dangerous for human, animal and plant health. CO2 is heavier than air, so it accumulates at ground level and reduces the very oxygen that we need in order to breathe," he said.

"What is currently taking place in the Amazon only further highlights the urgent need for a rapid investment in CO2 conversion technologies. If we don't combat this threat head on, we will reach a tipping point whereby industrial CO2 emissions heat the planet to a point where fires will burn out of control and there will be no forests left to absorb CO2.”

Smoke from the Amazon fire can be seen from space. Photo credit: NASA/Lynn Jenner

Conservation essential to preventing further fires

Dr Petr Matous is a leading humanitarian and environmental engineer from the University of Sydney’s School of Civil Engineering.

“Large-scale fires in the Amazon rainforest can be linked to ill-conceived infrastructure development projects in the region. There are strong feedback loops between forest fires, development of road infrastructure and deforestation in Amazon, all of which are rapidly increasing under the current president of Brazil although he disputes the scientific evidence," said Dr Matous

"The Amazon used to be known for its extreme resistance to fires thanks to dense and moist tree canopies. But road construction along with insensitive logging has opened the canopy and increased the fuel load on the ground, which in turn allows for intensive fires during dry seasons and El Niño years. Dense fire smoke in the atmosphere also causes more. So, once large fires start more are likely to follow," he said.

"However, something can be done. Destructive forest fires can be reduced by maintaining large continuous blocks of conservation and Indigenous reserves in which logging and harmful infrastructure developments are forbidden. Carbon-offset fund policies can be used to make forest protection economically profitable for local communities."

On Monday, smoke from the Amazon fires plunged Brazil's largest city into darkness. According to the country’s statistics bureau, more than three million São Paulo residents live in poverty. Photo credit: Leandro Mota/Twitter

 

Since 1970 Brazil has lost approximately 600,000 square kilometers of forest, an area greater than the size of Spain and Portugal combined. And for the last 10 years, an average of 2.8-million hectares or 0.48% has vanished annually.

⟶ The main causes of this massive deforestation are clearing land for livestock raising and growing animal feed. Scientists warn that if the rainforest destruction here and across globe proceeds at the current pace, all rainforests will virtually disappear by the end of the century.

⟶ The livestock sector is by far the single largest anthropogenic user of land. Livestock production accounts for 70% of all agricultural land and 30% of the world’s surface land area. And 70% of previously forested land in the Amazon is occupied by cattle pastures, and crops for animal feed cover a large part of the remainder.

 

Disasters like the Amazon fires affect infrastructure 

School of Civil Engineering academic, Dr Ali Hadigheh works in strengthening infrastructure in the context of natural disasters.

"Due to climate change, structures are being affected by increasingly large-scale and devastating natural disasters, costing many lives as well as billions of dollars. In addition, a large number of our existing structures do not satisfy the requirements of contemporary design standards, so during an emergency they may be vulnerable to structural or non-structural damage and thus loss of functionality," he said.

Deforestation in the Amazon as seen from a satellite in 2018. Photo credit: TommoT/Shutterstock

Bolsonaro proponent of mass development at expense of environment

Dr Luis Fernando Angosto-Ferrández is a senior lecturer in the departments of Anthropology and Spanish and Latin American Studies, with expertise in economic anthropology.

“These fires in the rainforest are truly a socioecological drama, but for ruthless advocates of economic growth, they also appear as an opportunity to bring 'development' into the Amazon region," said Dr Angosto-Ferrández.

“Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro declared that his government lacks resources to effectively address the fires that are devastating the Amazonian rainforest. Extinguishing these fires would indeed require vast amounts of resources, but many within Brazil consider that Bolsonaro's government lacks somethings as important as resources to tackle these and prevent future fires: determined political will," he said.

“From the moment he arrived in government, Bolsonaro made clear that his government promotes economic development ahead of conservation or social justice, and Brazil's Amazon basin remains a main target of advocates of that developmentalist orientation. It is not coincidental that the indigenous peoples from the Amazonian region in Brazil have been among the most actively mobilised against the current Brazilian president since he became a serious contender to the main political office in the country."

 

Does the amazon provide 20% of our oxygen?

By Yadvinder Malhi (*) 24/8/2019

The news is full of the surge in deforestation and fires in the Amazon rainforest, and and I have been fielding various media enquiries about what is causing this rise and what it means for our atmosphere. The increases fires have major consequences for regional climate, the rich Amazonian biodiversity, air quality and human health, and some consequence for global carbon emissions (though still small compared to the amount being emitted by fossil fuel combustion in industrialised parts of the world). One thing I am often asked on is to comment on the statement that "the Amazon provides 20% of our oxygen", a statement now being used by, among others, the President of France and the Secretary General of the UN. This statement is basically incorrect and based on a partial understanding of how ecosystems function. There are lots of reasons to be concerned about the Amazon and the current fires, including regional climate, human health affects of pollution, loss of the most biodiversity rich area of the planet and global carbon emissions. But running out of oxygen isn't one of them.

​Below  I lay out the science of where this number comes from, and why it is incorrect when you have a whole-ecosystem view of the Amazon.

The 20% figure comes from a partial understanding of the global oxygen cycle.
The tropical forests account for about a 34% of global photosynthesis. This is shown in the figure below (Beer et al. 2010, Science). The figure shows the global land distribution of photosynthesis - the rainforests are the big red patches and the Amazon accounts for about one half of the world's rainforests. Tropical rainforests photosynthesise so much because they have a year-long growing season not constrained by winter or drought. The units in the figure at g of carbon per square metre, and in the summary Table below the units are Pg (petagrams) of carbon. Pg of carbon taken up by photosynthesis but can be converted to Pg of oxygen released  by multiplying by 2.67. One petagram is 10^15 g, or a thousand million million grams, it is also often called a gigatonne, a thousand million tonnes).

Photosynthesis takes up carbon dioxide from the air but produces oxygen, as in the famous school textbook equation, which belie a fantastically complex and still incompletely understood marvel of nature:
6CO2 + 6H2O —> C6H12O6 + 6O2
The 2.67 multiplying factor comes from the molecular weight of O2 (32) divided by that of carbon (12).

Picture

Table 1 from the same paper shows the total photosynthesis (also known as Gross Primary Productivity or GPP) of each major land biome. We need to multiplying by 2.67 to convert to total oxygen production. Hence total oxygen production by photosynthesis on land is around 330 Pg of oxygen per year. The Amazon (just under half of the tropical forests) is around 16% of this, around 54 Pg of oxygen per year. Rounded up, this is where the 20% figure comes from. 16% of the oxygen being produced on land today is from photosynthesis in the Amazon.

Picture

But, rather like the Buddhist parable of the blind monks who each can only feel part of the elephant and therefore disagree on what the animal is, there are (at least) two important additional bits of information needed for a full picture.

First, the phytoplankton in the oceans also photosynthesise, generating around 240 Pg of oxygen per year. So total global photosynthesis (land and sea) produces about 570 Pg of oxygen per year. Therefore in terms of TOTAL global photosynthesis, photosynthesis in the Amazon contributes around 9%. This is smaller, but still substantial.

Second, a bigger point that is often missed is that the Amazon consumes about as much oxygen as it produces. This is shown in the diagram below. Plants produce oxygen through photosynthesis (green arrow). However, the the same plants consume the equivalent of over half the oxygen they produce in their own respiration (blue arrows: my own team's research suggests this is more like 60%). Plants metabolise just as animals do, just at a slower rate, and at night when there is no photosynthesis forests are net absorbers of oxygen. The remaining 40% of the Amazon oxygen budget is consumed mainly by microbes breaking down the dead leaves and wood of the rainforest, a natural process called heterotrophic respiration (dark blue arrows).
These process of plant and heterotrophic respiration are effectively the reverse of the photosynthesis equation above.

So, in all practical terms, the net contribution of the Amazon ECOSYSTEM (not just the plants alone) to the world's oxygen is effectively zero. The same is pretty much true of any ecosystem on Earth, at least on the timescales that are relevant to humans (less than millions of years).

Picture

The oxygen levels in the atmosphere are set on million year timescales by the subtle balance of geological, chemical and biological processes. They are not set by the short term (short term equals anything less than hundreds of thousands of years) activities or existence of current biomes. 

A final point to make is that the atmosphere is awash with oxygen, at 20.95% or 209,500 ppm (parts per million). Carbon dioxide, by comparison, is around 405 ppm, 
over 500 times less than oxygen, and rising by around 2-3 ppm per year. Human activity (around 90% of which being fossil fuel combustion) has caused this oxygen concentration to drop by around 0.005% since 1990, a trivial amount. In parallel, the same activities have caused carbon dioxide concentrations to rise by by 37 ppm since 1990, or 10%. This is a much more substantial percentage because there is so little carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to begin with, so human activities that emit or absorb carbon dioxide can make a major difference. This is why we need to worry about the increase of  carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (and its resulting impact on climate), and why we don't need to worry about running out of oxygen.

(*) Yadvinder Malhi is an ecosytem ecologist and Professor of Ecosystem Science at Oxford University

Addendum
Since writing this piece I have received a number of questions about whether the "effectively net zero" contribution of the Amazon to our oxygen supply means that trees have no net contribution to the climate and atmosphere. To be clear, when a tree is planted up on deforested land, it absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and locks it away biomass. Following the same old balance of photosynthesis, an equivalent amount of oxygen is released to the atmosphere. It we were to plant up an area the size of the Amazon rainforest (something unrealistically ambitious), around 90 Pg C would be removed form the atmosphere, and atmospheric carbon dioxide would be lowered by around 40 ppm, or 10%. Conversely, if the entire Amazon rainforest were to go up in flames (something also unrealistic, I think), atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations would rise by 10% and it would be almost impossible to keep global climate warming within safe boundaries such as 1.5 degrees Celsius.  Using the same argument applied above, burning up the whole Amazon rainforest would use up around 240 Pg C of oxygen, causing atmospheric oxygen concentrations to drop by around 0.02%, an almost negligible amount because there is so much oxygen in the atmosphere.  Keeping the Amazon rainforest largely intact matters for carbon dioxide and climate reasons (as well as many other reasons), it does not matter for oxygen reasons.

 

Brazil rejected a $20 million donation from the G7 to fight the Amazon fires, calling the gesture 'colonialist and imperialist'

By Bill Bostock - 27. August 2019

Brazil rejected the G7 countries' $20 million in aid to help fight the Amazon forest fires.

 

Bolsonaro & Macron  -  Adriano Machado/Reuters; Francois Mori/AP

  • Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro's chief of staff Onyx Lorenzoni said on Monday: "Brazil is a democratic, free nation that never had colonialist and imperialist practices, as perhaps is the objective of the Frenchman Macron."
  • In a Monday tweet, Bolsonaro also said the G7's offer of help makes Brazil seem "as if we were a colony or no man's land."
  • Bolsonaro and French President Emmanuel Macron, whose country hosted this year's G7 summit, are locked in a war of words over the correct response to the fires.
  • Brazil's defense minister on Monday claimed the fires are "under control." Some fires have been extinguished, but many remain.

Brazil's administration has rejected a $20 million emergency fund from the G7 to fight fires in the Amazon , calling it "colonialist and imperialist."

The move comes amid a fracas between Emmanuel Macron, president of G7 host France, and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro over how to address the fires, which climaxed on Monday with Bolsonaro mocking Macron's wife.

Earlier that day Onyx Lorenzoni, Bolsonaro's chief of staff, also said Brazil is rejecting the G7's money, and accused France of reviving colonialist tendencies.

"Brazil is a democratic, free nation that never had colonialist and imperialist practices, as perhaps is the objective of the Frenchman Macron," Lorenzoni told Brazilian news site G1.

Amazon fire  - REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

Bolsonaro echoed the sentiment in a tweet on Monday , saying the G7's intervention to "save" the Amazon makes Brazil seem "as if we were a colony or no man's land."

Scientists have recorded more than 76,000 fires in Brazil so far this year. Since August 15, more than 9,500 new forest fires have started an 83% increase year-on-year.

The fires were predominantly caused by Brazilian farmers during deforestation, a move that Bolsonaro has supported in the past.

Read more: Striking photos show the devastation wreaked by record-breaking fires in the Amazon rainforest

A tract of the Amazon jungle burns as it is cleared by loggers and farmers in Porto Velho, Brazil August 24, 2019. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

Fernando Azevedo e Silva, Brazil's defense minister, claimed on Monday that the country had the fires "under control," without giving further details.

"It has been exaggerated a little that the situation was out of control it wasn't," he said, according to France 24 . "The situation isn't simple but it is under control."

As of Tuesday, some of the fires have been extinguished, but many remain. The Brazilian military have been dispatched to deal with the fires.

The G7's $20 million donation was intended to finance fire-fighting aircraft, France 24 reported, citing a source close to the French presidency.

Read more: Amazon fires created a smoke eclipse in the skies above Brazil's largest city, 2,000 miles away

Macron has lambasted Bolsonaro for his indifference over the fires.

"The Amazon forest is a subject for the whole planet. We can help you reforest. We can find the means for your economic development that respects the natural balance," he said on Monday. "But we cannot allow you to destroy everything."

The leaders' feud started last Thursday after Macron tweeted a photo of the Amazon fires on Thursday with the caption: "Our house is burning. Literally."

On Sunday, Brazilian education minister Abraham Weintraub, called Macron an "opportunistic cretin seeking the support of the French farm lobby."

The fires are so severe that the Amazon is losing the equivalent of three football fields per minute , according to data from Brazilian satellites .

The UK has independently pledged $12 million in aid, and Canada $11 million. Leonardo DiCaprio's Earth Alliance group has donated $5 million.

See Also:

 

Michael Shellenberger’s sloppy Forbes diatribe deceives on Amazon fires (commentary)

Commentary by on 27 August 2019  (see Shellenberger article below)

  • Forbes columnist Michael Shellenberger gets a few things right about the Amazon fires, but he also spreads misinformation not founded in fact or science.
  • What Shellenberger gets right: The Amazon is being mischaracterized by the media as “the lungs of the planet”, the number of fires have been higher in the past, and there is a need to engage Brazilian ranchers and farmers to help curb deforestation and burning.
  • What Shellenberger gets wrong: According to scientists, the big issue is that the Brazilian Amazon stores a vast amount of carbon. Increased deforestation combined with climate change is pushing the Amazon ever closer to a forest-to-savanna tipping point, triggering a large release of carbon and worsening global warming.
  • Also downplayed: the role Jair Bolsonaro is playing in the crisis. Since January, he has dismantled environmental enforcement agencies and used incendiary language to incite ranchers and farmers to illegally clear forest. This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

I understand the desire to correct misinformation that proliferates in the aftermath of breaking news events. And I understand the frustration of sensationalist headlines that mislead readers. But columnist Michael Shellenberger’s attempt in Forbes to correct the record on fires burning in the Brazilian Amazon was sloppy at best, and deceiving at worst.

Shellenberger is right on several points, including the poor choice of “Lungs of the Earth” as a moniker for the Amazon rainforest, the fact that both deforestation and fires have been substantially higher in the recent past, the widespread use by the media of old or irrelevant photos to depict the current fires, the need to meaningfully engage ranchers and farmers in Amazon preservation, and the under-appreciation of the impact of sub-canopy fires.

But he’s wrong about some other important points. These are listed and refuted below.

Cumulative fire hotspots in the Brazilian Amazon according to INPE. Note: August 2019 data is through August 24.
Cumulative fire hotspots in the Brazilian Amazon according to INPE. Note: August 2019 data is through August 24.
Cumulative deforestation through July for each year from 2008 according to INPE's DETER system. Note that the chart switches from DETER to DETER-B in August 2016.
Cumulative deforestation through July for each year from 2008 according to INPE’s DETER system. Note that the chart switches from DETER to DETER-B in August 2016.

What about The New York Times claim that “If enough rain forest is lost and can’t be restored, the area will become savanna, which doesn’t store as much carbon, meaning a reduction in the planet’s ‘lung capacity’”?

Shellenberger’s hang up on oxygen here misleads and misdirects the reader. Scientists, including Dan Nepstad who is quoted extensively in the Forbes piece, have indeed warned that large-scale loss of tree cover in the Amazon rainforest could tip the ecosystem toward a drier, savanna-like ecosystem similar to the adjacent Cerrado. This new ecosystem would store vastly less carbon than a rainforest, increasing emissions and potentially escalating the rate of global climate change.

“As I’ve written on extensively, the Amazon forest dieback—savannization, as it is sometimes called—is the biggest threat to the Amazon forest in my opinion,” said Nepstad.

Importantly, some scientists argue that a vegetation transition of this magnitude would disrupt local transpiration and could even shift the Inter Tropical Convergence Zone affecting regional precipitation patterns and potentially impacting hydropower output, urban water supplies and agriculture production across Brazil—even to the point of threatening the Latin American nation’s position as a global agribusiness powerhouse, potentially endangering the food supply to millions in the EU and China who rely on Brazil for meat, soy and other vital commodities.

This image, based on measurements taken by the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM), shows the areas of the Amazon basin that were affected by the severe 2005 drought. Areas in yellow, orange, and red experienced light, moderate, and severe drought, respectively. Green areas did not experience drought. Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech /Google

One of Brazil’s leading environmental journalists agrees that media coverage of the fires has been misleading. “It was under [Workers Party President] Lula and [Environment Secretary] Marina Silva (2003-2008) that Brazil had the highest incidence of burning,” Leonardo Coutinho told me over email. “But neither Lula nor Marina was accused of putting the Amazon at risk.”

Shellenberger is quoting Leonardo Coutinho here, but it is certainly not true that the world turned a blind eye to deforestation and burning under the Lula Presidency. A simple search of any news archive will produce reams of stories reporting on the issue, public outrage over Amazon deforestation at the time, as well as Nepstad’s studies warning of an Amazon forest to savanna tipping point. And in fact Marina Silva very publicly resigned as Environment Minister in May 2008, a story which garnered significant press attention. Shellenberger failed to do his due diligence here.

Reached by Mongabay, Nepstad added that it was international attention that led the Lula government to pursue its successful deforestation reduction program, which resulted in massive emissions reductions that went largely unrewarded by the rest of the world.

“The reason President Lula prioritized the Amazon was the very high level of international outrage expressed through media coverage of the high deforestation rates in 2002-2004,” Nepstad told Mongabay.

Amazon forest fires are hidden by the tree canopy and only increase during drought years.

While sub-canopy fires are far more pervasive in drought years, especially during strong El Niño events, Amazon forest fires do not only increase in drought years as the burning this season—which isn’t historically dry—demonstrates. Overlaying satellite data from NASA with recent tree cover loss detected by Global Forest Watch’s GLAD system shows that fires are burning in close proximity to rainforests in the Amazon. Given that fires are burning hotter than normal this year, it’s almost certain that sub-canopy fires are burning from agricultural areas and slashed forests into rainforests. We’ll know for sure once the smoke clears and scientists are able to assess the situation on the ground. Shellenberger is wrong here.

CANDEIRAS DO JAMARI, RONDÔNIA, BRAZIL: Aerial view of a large burned area in the city of Candeiras do Jamari in the state of Rondônia. (Photo: Victor Moriyama / Greenpeace)
CANDEIRAS DO JAMARI, RONDÔNIA, BRAZIL: Aerial view of a large burned area in the city of Candeiras do Jamari in the state of Rondônia. Photo taken August 23, 2019. (Photo: Victor Moriyama / Greenpeace)

What increased by 7% in 2019 are the fires of dry scrub and trees cut down for cattle ranching as a strategy to gain ownership of land.

There is no evidence to support Shellenberger’s contention here that dry scrub and “trees cut down for cattle ranching” represent 100 percent of the increase in fires in 2019.

Half of the Amazon is protected against deforestation under federal law.

Incursions into protected areas and indigenous territories as well as the weakening and widespread disregard of the Forest Code means that while half the Amazon may be protected on paper, it is not protected in practice. Invasions of conserved areas, illegal logging and the terrorizing of rural populations by loggers, miners and land grabbers under past governments, and especially under the government of Jair Bolsonaro have been regularly reported.

For example, Jamanxim National Forest lost 3 percent of its forest cover — 44,800 hectares (110,700 acres) — in May alone. Meanwhile, the much heralded Surui Paiter indigenous carbon offset project in Rondônia has been invaded by illegal miners, forcing the tribe to suspend the initiative.

And just 3% of the Amazon is suitable for soy farming.

The biggest driver of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is cattle ranching, not soy farming.

But even so, Nepstad said “3 percent of the forests outside of protected areas are suitable for soy cultivation”. That’s far different than the entire Amazon.

Both Nepstad and Coutinho say the real threat is from accidental forest fires in drought years, which climate change could worsen.

Shellenberger is misleading here. “Accidental fire” makes it sound like fires aren’t intentionally being set, but that’s not the case.

Nepstad: “Virtually all fires in the Amazon are started by people. They often escape their intended boundaries, into neighboring forests.” There is nothing accidental about Amazon deforestation via the use of fire as a tool. Importantly, land speculators also regularly employ fire intentionally in the Brazilian Amazon as a primary tool of illegal deforestation, as preparation for illicit land sales at highly inflated prices to cattlemen and farmers.

Today, 18 – 20% of the Amazon forest remains at risk of being deforested.

There is absolutely no evidence to support Shellenberger’s claim here.

Nepstad said Shellenberger could be referencing land in the Brazilian Amazon that is still undesignated.

“About one fifth of the Amazon forest is still undesignated—it is “up for grabs”, terra devoluta,” he said. “This is certainly not the only forest that is under threat of deforestation or fire.”

CANDEIRAS DO JAMARI, RONDÔNIA, BRAZIL: Aerial view of a large burned area in the city of Candeiras do Jamari in the state of Rondônia. (Photo: Victor Moriyama / Greenpeace)
CANDEIRAS DO JAMARI, RONDÔNIA, BRAZIL: Aerial view of a large burned area in the city of Candeiras do Jamari in the state of Rondônia. Photo taken August 23, 2019. (Photo: Victor Moriyama / Greenpeace)

Missing the big picture

In his eagerness to critique the media and lambast celebrities, Shellenberger effectively dismisses the broader concerns over recent developments in the Amazon. The fear is that Brazil’s past progress in reducing deforestation and fires is being reversed as a result of the Bolsonaro administration’s undercutting of the regulatory framework, the institutions, the civil society groups, and the science that enabled the country to achieve those outcomes.

This reversal also comes as a warming planet makes the world’s largest rainforest more vulnerable to drought and fire. A return to the peak deforestation of the mid-1990s through mid-2000s would be even more damaging today given the greater frequency of drought and elevated temperatures in the Amazon as well as the higher concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere, which gives us even less time to curb emissions.

And while Nepstad’s comments in Shellenberger’s piece seemed to also be dismissive of the global attention currently paid to the situation in Brazil, the scientist reiterated that now is a very important moment for the Amazon. In his own words:

“Fire is a huge problem in the Amazon region. Large-scale fires in standing forests during extreme dry periods are the biggest threat to these forests in a warming world. Once burned, forests become more vulnerable to further burning. And as deforestation and repeated fire reduce forest cover, rainfall is inhibited.

A deforestation and forest loss scenario for 2030 developed by Dan Nepstad and colleagues at the Woods Hole Research Institute in 2008.
A deforestation and forest loss scenario for 2030 developed by Dan Nepstad and colleagues at the Woods Hole Research Institute in 2008.

“In 2019 this problem is getting the attention it deserves. The number of fires and the amount of smoke they are producing has increased, probably because of the large number of felled forests that have been dried and are now burning. The good news is that there is no evidence that the area of standing forests catching fire is significantly greater than the area of forest that typically burns this time of year. It is still early, however. The bad news is that weather forecasts indicate that the dry season the Amazon is currently in could become quite severe. Forests could begin to burn over large areas.

“Brazil has a rare opportunity to focus on fire now and design some systemic solutions to fire, including short-term and long-term components, as described in the blog. These solutions start on the ground—there is enormous expertise in fire prevention and fire control among the farmers, communities, fire brigades and local governments of the Amazon. In the long-term, a shift to more tree crops, agroforestry systems, aquaculture, and more intensive cattle production could greatly reduce the use of fire and greater increase investments in fire control.”

Chart showing deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, 1988-2018
Chart showing deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, 1988-2018
Chart showing deforestation alerts in the Brazilian Amazon since 2010
Chart showing deforestation alerts in the Brazilian Amazon since 2010

Andrew Revkin, the former New York Times reporter and current Founding Director of the Initiative on Communication & Sustainability at The Earth Institute at Columbia University who was also quoted in Shellenberger’s column, agreed that the current reporting around the Amazon fires by mainstream media has often been problematic, failing to distill important nuances. But he told Mongabay that he wasn’t thrilled with Shellenberger’s framing.

“I don’t endorse the framing of the article and absolutely don’t agree with the caricatured distillation of the situation,” he wrote via email. “Amazon threats and solutions are as varied and widespread as the basin itself. Simple characterizations of catastrophe — as in a lot of media coverage — miss substantial opportunities to slow loss and even turn the tide toward restoration and sustainability.”

“As with doomism around climate change, they can prompt paralysis and disengagement when the opposite is needed. But simplistic interpretations of the motives of those challenging Brazil’s current leadership are as unhelpful.”

PORTO VELHO, RONDÔNIA, BRAZIL. Aerial view of burned areas in the Amazon rainforest, in the city of Porto Velho, Rondônia state. (Photo: Victor Moriyama / Greenpeace)
PORTO VELHO, RONDÔNIA, BRAZIL. Aerial view of burned areas in the Amazon rainforest, in the city of Porto Velho, Rondônia state. Photo taken August 23, 2019. (Photo: Victor Moriyama / Greenpeace)

Header image: Aerial view of burned areas in the Amazon rainforest, in the city of Porto Velho, Rondônia state. Photo taken August 23, 2019. (Photo: Victor Moriyama / Greenpeace)

 

Why Everything They Say About The Amazon, Including That It's The 'Lungs Of The World,' Is Wrong

By Michael Shellenberger FORBES  - 26. Augus 2019

The dramatic photos shared by celebrities of the fires in Brazil weren't what they appeared to be

The dramatic photos shared by celebrities of the fires in Brazil weren't what they appeared to be

Wikipedia

The increase in fires burning in Brazil set off a storm of international outrage last week. Celebrities, environmentalists, and political leaders blame Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, for destroying the world’s largest rainforest, the Amazon, which they say is the “lungs of the world.”

Singers and actors including Madonna and Jaden Smith shared photos on social media that were seen by tens of millions of people. “The lungs of the Earth are in flames,” said actor Leonardo DiCaprio. “The Amazon Rainforest produces more than 20% of the world’s oxygen,” tweeted soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo. “The Amazon rain forest — the lungs which produce 20% of our planet’s oxygen — is on fire,” tweeted French President Emanuel Macron.

And yet the photos weren’t actually of the fires and many weren’t even of the Amazon. The photo Ronaldo shared was taken in southern Brazil, far from the Amazon, in 2013. The photo that DiCaprio and Macron shared is over 20 years old. The photo Madonna and Smith shared is over 30. Some celebrities shared photos from Montana, India, and Sweden.

 

To their credit, CNN and New York Times debunked the photos and other misinformation about the fires. “Deforestation is neither new nor limited to one nation,” explained CNN. “These fires were not caused by climate change,” noted The Times

But both publications repeated the claim that the Amazon is the “lungs” of the world. “The Amazon remains a net source of oxygen today,” said CNN. “The Amazon is often referred to as Earth’s ‘lungs,’ because its vast forests release oxygen and store carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping gas that is a major cause of global warming,” claimed The New York Times.

I was curious to hear what one of the world’s leading Amazon forest experts, Dan Nepstad, had to say about the “lungs” claim.

“It’s bullshit,” he said. “There’s no science behind that. The Amazon produces a lot of oxygen but it uses the same amount of oxygen through respiration so it’s a wash.” 

Plants use respiration to convert nutrients from the soil into energy. They use photosynthesis to convert light into chemical energy, which can later be used in respiration.

What about The New York Times claim that “If enough rain forest is lost and can’t be restored, the area will become savanna, which doesn’t store as much carbon, meaning a reduction in the planet’s ‘lung capacity’”?

Also not true, said Nepstad, who was a lead author of the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. “The Amazon produces a lot of oxygen, but so do soy farms and [cattle] pastures.”

Some people will no doubt wave away the “lungs” myth as nit-picking. The broader point is that there is an increase in fires in Brazil and something should be done about it. 

But the “lungs” myth is just the tip of the iceberg. Consider that CNN ran a long segment with the banner, “Fires Burning at Record Rate in Amazon Forest” while a leading climate reporter claimed, “The current fires are without precedent in the past 20,000 years.” 

While the number of fires in 2019 is indeed 80% higher than in 2018, it’s just 7% higher than the average over the last 10 years ago, Nepstad said.

While the number of fires in 2019 is indeed 80% higher than in 2018, it’s just 7% higher than the average over the last 10 years ago.

While the number of fires in 2019 is indeed 80% higher than in 2018, it’s just 7% higher than the average over the last 10 years ago.

INPE

One of Brazil’s leading environmental journalists agrees that media coverage of the fires has been misleading. “It was under [Workers Party President] Lula and [Environment Secretary] Marina Silva (2003-2008) that Brazil had the highest incidence of burning,” Leonardo Coutinho told me over email. “But neither Lula nor Marina was accused of putting the Amazon at risk.”

Coutinho’s perspective was shaped by reporting on the ground in the Amazon for Veja, Brazil’s leading news magazine, for nearly a decade. By contrast, many of the correspondents reporting on the fires have been doing so from the cosmopolitan cities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, which are 2,500 miles and four hours by jet plane away.

“What is happening in the Amazon is not exceptional,” said Coutinho. “Take a look at Google web searches search for ‘Amazon’ and ‘Amazon Forest’ over time. Global public opinion was not as interested in the ‘Amazon tragedy’ when the situation was undeniably worse. The present moment does not justify global hysteria.”

And while fires in Brazil have increased, there is no evidence that Amazon forest fires have. 

“What hurts me most is the bare idea of the millions of Notre-Dames, high cathedrals of terrestrial biodiversity, burning to the ground,” a Brazilian journalist wrote in the New York Times.

But the Amazon forest’s high cathedrals aren’t doing that. “I saw the photo Macron and Di Caprio tweeted,” said Nepstad, “but you don’t see forests burning like that in the Amazon.”

Amazon forest fires are hidden by the tree canopy and only increase during drought years. “We don’t know if there are any more forest fires this year than in past years, which tells me there probably isn’t,” Nepstad said. “I’ve been working on studying those fires for 25 years and our [on-the-ground] networks are tracking this.” 

What increased by 7% in 2019 are the fires of dry scrub and trees cut down for cattle ranching as a strategy to gain ownership of land. 

Against the picture painted of an Amazon forest on the verge of disappearing, a full 80% remains standing. Half of the Amazon is protected against deforestation under federal law. 

“Few stories in the first wave of media coverage mentioned the dramatic drop in deforestation in Brazil in the 2000s,” noted former New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin, who wrote a 1990 book, The Burning Season, about the Amazon, and is now Founding Director, Initiative on Communication & Sustainability at The Earth Institute at Columbia University.

Deforestation declined a whopping 70% from 2004 to 2012. It has risen modestly since then but remains at one-quarter its 2004 peak. And just 3% of the Amazon is suitable for soy farming. 

Both Nepstad and Coutinho say the real threat is from accidental forest fires in drought years, which climate change could worsen. “The most serious threat to the Amazon forest is the severe events that make the forests vulnerable to fire. That’s where we can get a downward spiral between fire and drought and more fire.”

Today, 18 - 20% of the Amazon forest remains at risk of being deforested.

“I don’t like the international narrative right now because it’s polarizing and divisive,” said Nepstad. “Bolsonaro has said some ridiculous things and none of them are excusable but there’s also a big consensus against accidental fire and we have to tap into that.” 

“Imagine you are told [under the federal Forest Code] that you can only use half of your land and then being told you can only use 20%,” Nepstad said. “There was a bait and switch and the farmers are really frustrated. These are people who love to hunt and fish and be on land and should be allies but we lost them.”

Nepstad said that the restrictions cost farmers $10 billion in foregone profits and forest restoration. “There was an Amazon Fund set up in 2010 with $1 billion from Norwegian and German governments but none of it ever made its way to the large and medium-sized farmers,” says Nepstad.

Both the international pressure and the government’s over-reaction is increasing resentment among the very people in Brazil environmentalists need to win over in order to save the Amazon: forests and ranchers.

“Macron’s tweet had the same impact on Bolsonaro’s base as Hillary calling Trump’s base deplorable,” said Nepstad. “There’s outrage at Macron in Brazil. The Brazilians want to know why California gets all this sympathy for its forest fires and while Brazil gets all this finger-pointing.”

“I don’t mind the media frenzy as long as it leaves something positive,” said Nepstad, but it has instead forced the Brazilian government to over-react. “Sending in the army is not the way to go because it’s not all illegal actors. People forget that there are legitimate reasons for small farmers to use controlled burns to knock back insects and pests.”

The reaction from foreign media, global celebrities, and NGOs in Brazil stems from a romantic anti-capitalism common among urban elites, say Nepstad and Coutinho. “There’s a lot of hatred of agribusiness,” said Nepstad. “I’ve had colleagues say, ‘Soy beans aren’t food.’ I said, ‘What does your kid eat? Milk, chicken, eggs? That’s all soy protein fed to poultry.’”

Others may have political motives. “Brazilian farmers want to extend [the free trade agreement] EU-Mercosur but Macron is inclined to shut it down because the French farm sector doesn’t want more Brazilian food products coming into the country,” Nepstad explained. 

Despite climate change, deforestation, and widespread and misleading coverage of the situation, Nepstad hasn’t given up hope. The Amazon emergency should lead the conservation community to repair its relationship with farmers and seek more pragmatic solutions, he said.

“Agribusiness is 25% of Brazil’s GDP and it’s what got the country through the recession,” said Nepstad. “When soy farming comes into a landscape, the number of fires goes down. Little towns get money for schools, GDP rises, and inequality declines. This is not a sector to beat up on, it’s one to find common ground with.” 

Nepstad argued that it would be a no-brainer for governments around the world to support Aliança da Terra, a fire detection and prevention network he co-founded which is comprised of 600 volunteers, mostly indigenous people, and farmers.

“For $2 million a year we could control the fires and stop the Amazon die-back,” said Nepstad. “We have 600 people who have received top-notch training by US fire jumpers but now need trucks with the right gear so they can clear fire breaks through the forest and start a backfire to burn up the fuel in the pathway of the fire.”

For such pragmatism to take hold among divergent interests, the news media will need to improve its future coverage of the issue.

“One of the grand challenges facing newsrooms covering complicated emergent, enduring issues like tropical deforestation,” said journalist Revkin, “is finding ways to engage readers without histrionics. The alternative is ever more whiplash journalism — which is the recipe for reader disengagement.”

Michael Shellenberger

Michael Shellenberger is a Time Magazine “Hero of the Environment” and Green Book Award Winner. He is also a frequent contributor to The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Scientific American, and other publications. His TED talks have been viewed over three million times.