September 16, 2019
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The Amazon is burning. We should all care.

Victor R. Caivano | AP
Victor R. Caivano | AP
Virgin jungle stands next to an area that was burnt recently near Porto Velho, Brazil, Friday, Aug. 23, 2019. Brazilian state experts have reported a record of nearly 77,000 wildfires across the country so far this year, up 85 percent over the same period in 2018. Brazil contains about 60 percent of the Amazon rainforest, whose degradation could have severe consequences for global climate and rainfall.

The Amazon is burning. Although fires are common in the rainforest every summer, there are nearly twice as many blazes in Brazil this year compared to 2018.

So far this year, nearly 73,000 fires have been recorded in Brazil, which is home to two-thirds of the Amazon. That’s an 84 percent increase over last year, according to data from the country’s National Institute for Space Research. In the last week alone, 10,000 new fires have been recorded.

A major concern is that the fires, coupled with the rapid deforestation of the Amazon basin, will further hasten changes in the climate, not just in South American, but around the world.

“The Amazon is incredibly important for our future, for our ability to stave off the worst of climate change,” Christian Poirier, the program director of Amazon Watch, told CNN. “This isn’t hyperbole. We’re looking at untold destruction — not just of the Amazon but for our entire planet.”

Scientists warn that the rainforest, which is a major repository of carbon dioxide and an important source of oxygen, is near the point of turning into a dry savanna. When the forest was more humid, fires were rare. But as the forest has dried because of climatic changes, fires are more common and more intense. These fires destroy more carbon-holding trees and vegetation and pump more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which hastens climate change.

The Amazon is also home to 1 million indigenous people and an estimated 3 million species of plants and animals. Scientists believe that some of the plants, few of which have been studied, may have potential to be used to treat medical conditions.

The fires are mostly intentionally set by farmers and land owners to clear land for farming or to increase its value for development. Most are illegal because there is a high danger of fire spreading during the current dry season.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro campaigned on pledges to reduce regulations to boost the country’s economy. Asked about the fires at a recent press conference, Bolsonaro said, “I used to be called Captain Chainsaw. Now I am Nero, setting the Amazon aflame.” He has also blamed his adversaries for setting the fires and downplayed their consequences.

Bolsonaro has also weakened government oversight. The country’s environmental agency is now under the oversight of the agriculture ministry. The president fired the chief of the space agency earlier this month after the scientist defended satellite imagery that showed deforestation in the Amazon was 88 percent higher this June than in the prior year. Bolsonaro called the information “lies.”

Emboldened by Bolsonaro’s action and rhetoric, farmers declared a “day of fire” earlier this month and set more of the Amazon ablaze.

“Our house is burning. Literally. The Amazon rain forest … is on fire. It is an international crisis” French President Emmanuel Marcon tweeted Thursday. He called on other world leaders, who will be attending a G7 meeting in France over the weekend.

European countries are already considering withholding funding from Brazil because of the government’s lack of urgent response to the fires, which some see as a violation of commitments Brazil made to combat climate change. Others are advocating changes to trade agreements between the European Union and Brazil and other South American countries.

We don’t expect much action from the Trump administration. The president has scorned climate change as “a hoax” and, like Bolsonaro, has prioritized development and weakened environmental regulations in the U.S.

The Amazon fires are reason for alarm. Unfortunately there are no easy ways to stop their proliferation. But international pressure, including from the United States, can play an important role in any solution.

 



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