The world is understandably shaken by the news that the Amazon rainforest is burning uncontrollably, that the "lungs of the world" are suffering, and that Brazil's conservative president isn't doing enough to help. How could this happen? How could we allow this to happen? Are we really this callous and indifferent to the impact of man-made climate change?
In a word, no. The world is shaken primarily because of the hysterical and largely inaccurate manner in which the rainforest fires have been covered. They are neither the result of climate change nor unprecedented. In fact, the number of fires in the Amazon this year is actually down significantly.
That hasn't stopped celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio and world leaders like French President Emmanuel Macron from expressing their outrage.
Their concern is touching, but the picture they shared is from 20 years ago. Actor Jaden Smith, the son of megastar Will Smith, shared a picture that is nearly 30 years old.
Soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo shared a picture that isn't even of the Amazon rainforest.
The fake pictures reflect an inconvenient fact about this year's fires: There is nothing especially alarming about them. While it's true that the 40,341 fires captured on satellite imagery this year represent an 80% increase over last year, it's just 7% higher than the average over the last decade. In fact, it's about even with the number of fires that burned in the Amazon in 2016.
And it's only about half as many as those which burned in 2005 and 2007.
"The decade before [this] included several years in which the number of fires identified during the first eight months was far higher [than 2019]," The New York TImes concluded.
"These fires were not caused by climate change," the Times continued. "They were, by and large, set by humans."
Natural fires in the Amazon are rare, and the majority of these fires were set by farmers preparing Amazon-adjacent farmland for next year’s crops and pasture. Much of the land that is burning was not old-growth rain forest, but land that had already been cleared of trees and set for agricultural use."
In other words, the rainforest itself isn't actually burning out of control.
But isn't deforestation itself a massive problem? Aren't farmers clearing too much land nowadays? Not really, as the Times reported. Annual deforestation over the past decade is just a tiny fraction of what it was from the mid-1990s to the middle part of the last decade.
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 bulls***,” 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.”
Naturally, this doesn't fit in with the prevailing narrative that man is destroying the Amazon and permanently impacting the environment, so it is all but ignored in favor of politically-motivated attacks on new Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and U.S. President Donald Trump. Shellenberger continues:
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.”
Yet there is hysteria--fueled by misinformation and outright dishonesty--and spread across the world like, well, wildfire.