When the residents of Sao Paulo looked up in mid-afternoon of August 19th, they were met with a darkness that filled the sky and blotted out the sun. This was neither an eclipse nor the apocalypse — rather, it was a massive cloud of smoke wafting over the city from the fires raging in the Amazon rainforest.
Images of the phenomenon spread like wildfire over social media, giving rise to the hashtag #PrayforAmazonas and generating more than 3 million tweets in a few days. The reactions on social media included names as prominent as French President Emmanuel Macron and celebrity footballer Cristiano Ronaldo, both of whom wrote on Twitter of the importance of the Amazon, given that it “produces more than 20% of the world’s oxygen.”
Parts of such reactions, though warranted, are more nuanced than they lead on. As Michael Shellenberger wrote in Forbes, some photos shared by such celebrities are either decades old or taken from entirely different parts of the world. The 20 percent claim is also misleading, as the Amazon rainforest is believed to absorb most of this oxygen through respiration, meaning its net contribution to the atmosphere is much less than 20%. But to suggest, as Shellenberger does, that there is no cause for concern is also unwarranted — Daniel Nepstad, quoted extensively in the piece, said as much when he disavowed the article online, claiming it “took my quotes out of context.”
Although the number of reported fires in the Amazon this year may not be unprecedented, there are many factors which should lead us to worry about its health, and by extension, the health of our planet.
The first is that the number of fires reported neither fully encapsulates the crisis, nor is representative of some of the most worrying instances. As Nepstad writes in his own myth-busting piece, the fires detected by satellite surveillance are those that tend to reach the higher canopies of trees, and these almost exclusively occur in dead forests and those being used for logging. Fires in untouched virgin forests, however, cannot be detected by satellites as they burn low to the ground across the damp layer of leaves that cover the forest floor. It is these fires, Nepstad writes, “that do the most damage, burning slowly across the forest floor, killing giant trees with thin bark.” While Nepstad notes that the visible fires are seven percent more than the decade’s average, he emphasizes that it is unclear how large the full area covered by these fires is, or how much virgin forest is burning.
This blind spot is cause for concern as the Amazon cannot afford too wide a margin of error; it is near a tipping point. This tipping point is known as a “dieback,” a feedback loop which accelerates the Amazon’s destruction. If fires and deforestation progress enough, the warming and drying effects they have on the regional climate will create conditions that make further fires and deforestation far more likely — Nepstad calls this the “biggest threat to the Amazon rainforest.” On top of this, a recent study shows that tropical forests rapidly lose resilience to future fires each time they are burned, making them far more likely to succumb to dieback. Given warnings that the Amazon is close to a point of no return, predictions that fire occurrences will double by 2050 is particularly alarming. Other than the massive carbon emissions caused by these wildfires, there is the risk of “transforming the region from rainforest into savanna,” a loss expected to produce a net warming effect on the globe.
It is uncertain whether this tipping point will be met with a heroic reversal anytime soon, however. Brazil’s current president, Jair Bolsonaro, has faced intense criticism for his government’s policies leading up to and dealing with the crisis. He has accused his own country’s space institute of lying about deforestation figures, sacked its head Ricardo Galvao for disagreeing with him, and in the wake of the Amazon fires accused NGOs of igniting them. Galvao, days after his dismissal, said that “the government has sent a clear message that there will not be any more punishment … and when loggers hear this message … it is a question of brutal, fast economic exploitation.” This echoes the words of Bolivian President Evo Morales, who said of the fires that, “The profits, the luxuries and the consumption patterns enjoyed by a few are causing great damage to those who inhabit the earth.” This, along with Morales’ willingness for global cooperation against the fires, is in stark contrast with Bolsonaro, who has clashed with French President Macron over his expressed concern and refused foreign aid from the G7. As a previous article in Sense & Sustainability noted, his government has repeatedly encouraged loggers and farmers to clear the Amazon forest, and clashed with the rights of indigenous tribes living therein — a trend which continued when a tribe’s leader was stabbed to death and their village invaded by gold miners in July. So long as the practices of the Bolsonaro government persist, the Amazon, and with it the world, may be creeping toward a catastrophic tipping point.
Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on October 29, 2019.