Amazon Fires Are Not the End of Life as We Know It

The Amazon rainforest is on fire, with the smoke visible from space. Unless something is done, civilization itself may be doomed. The Amazon, the media solemnly informs us, are the “lungs of the Earth,” taking in carbon dioxide and emitting oxygen through the process of photosynthesis. If the fires are allowed to continue, we are told, the levels of CO2 in the atmosphere will rise and climate change will become out of control.

The truth is a lot more complicated and less dire than the media narrative would have one believe.

For one thing, the Amazon rainforest is not the lungs of the Earth. It turns out that the oxygen that gets produced by the trees and other plants not only in the Amazon but everywhere else is consumed by animals, ranging from tiny insects to human beings, according to a recent piece in the Atlantic. The cycle of photosynthesis followed by respiration is essentially a wash.

Where, then, does the oxygen that makes up part of the Earth’s atmosphere come from? Without getting too much into the weeds, the oxygen in the atmosphere was created over millions and billions of years by the decomposition of plant and animal life, preserving carbon beneath the Earth, releasing oxygen into the air. In other words, the same process that created fossil fuels creates surplus oxygen.

But are the fires going on now in the Amazon rainforest unprecedented in its scale and destructiveness? Powerline quotes Dr. Ryan Maue of the Cato Institute, who says not.

An important point to remember about these fires…is that the rainforests themselves are not entirely or uncontrollably ablaze. Natural fire does not typically occur in these tropical forests due to suffocating humidity, wet dense foliage, and daily thunderstorms. What is burning right now is land near the forests where farmers and ranchers have cleared hundreds and hundreds of acres of trees. This is easily seen in satellite imagery, which scientists finally examined and compared to the past two decades.

— Dr. Ryan Maue of the Cato Institute

In other words, what is being seen are controlled burns of land that has already been cleared for growing soybeans and raising cattle. Over 80% of the Amazon rainforest remains standing, untouched by human land clearing, according to a recent piece in Forbes. Fires are only a threat to the existing forest during drought years. Otherwise, it is too wet in the Amazon for accidental or naturally caused fires to be sustained.

The “crisis” is being hyped by Hollywood celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio and European politicians like French President Francois Macron. Forbes suggests that the concerns have little to do with the environment or climate change. Dan Nepstad, of the Earth Innovative Institute, and Leonardo Coutino, a Brazilian journalist who has covered the Amazon rainforest for the past few decades, have some ideas on what is motivating the hype.

“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, ‘Soybeans 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.

The solution for preserving the Amazon rainforest does not involve beating up on the farmers, who are just trying to make a living but allying with them as well as the indigenous people.

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.

Such a sensible solution is less exciting than appearing before TV cameras and pronouncing the doom of all things. No crisis would exist for egotistical celebrities to glom onto or politicians to use for their hidden agendas. But the rest of us will have one less thing to worry about.