The Truth Behind the Amazon Fires

The world’s largest rainforest has captured the attention of celebrities, politicians, and environmentalists in recent weeks. Their collective outcry stems from an 85 percent increase in the number of fires engulfing the Amazon compared to last summer. To be clear, these fires are a cause for tremendous concern given the threat they pose to the Amazon’s biodiversity and carbon absorption, but the prevailing narrative that suggests our planet has suffered irreparable harm is alarmist and damaging.


In any debate, agreeing on the underlying facts is crucial to having a productive conversation about what’s really happening. Unfortunately, much of the coverage surrounding the Amazon fires – riddled with inaccuracies – has created the perfect environment for talking past one another. The alarmist coverage has led most to spend their time debating others on whether the situation is being presented honestly as opposed to discussing what can be done to actually solve the problem.


One of the first to weigh in on the fires was French President Emmanuel Macron, who tweeted that action must be taken to protect the “world’s lungs” and producer of 20 percent of the world’s oxygen. Rather than challenge these claims that are misleading at best, much of the media chose to echo Macron’s sentiments.


The Amazon provides countless benefits, including accounting for a quarter of the carbon dioxide absorbed by forests, but producing mass amounts of oxygen isn’t one of them. In reality, nearly all of the world’s breathable oxygen comes from oceans. The Amazon, meanwhile, provides very little oxygen to the rest of the world because organisms and fires consume most of it before it has the chance to escape. This truth is unfortunately lost in the alarmist coverage, which misleadingly portrays a doomsday situation that requires a massive international response.


The Amazon fires have also been mistakenly attributed to climate change, a charge that only intensifies calls for an aggressive response from environmentalists convinced that the world is ending in twelve years. Climate change undoubtedly plays a role increasing the intensity and frequency of fires, but suggesting that it’s directly causing the Amazon’s troubles is inaccurate.


Nearly all of the raging infernos have been set by farmers preparing their land for crop planting and cattle grazing. And what’s more, most of the burning is taking place on adjacent land that was previously cleared for agriculture rather than in primary forest areas. The ongoing blaze is still very worrisome, but the situation is not as detrimental as much of the coverage suggests. In fact, this year’s fires are just 7 percent higher than the Amazon’s average in the last decade.


None of these facts have been raised to downplay the severity of the Amazon fires. Rather, they are pointed out to ensure that we can have rational discussions with the common understanding that alarmism has dominated the media coverage and prevailing narrative surrounding this issue.


Putting the facts together brings us to the root of the problem contributing to the Amazon fires: accelerating rates of deforestation. Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has increased by 88 percent from a year ago, largely due to reduced monitoring and policies that encourage slash-and-burn techniques. Rapid deforestation limits the number of trees that can pump water into underground aquifers, leading to more devastating droughts. When combined with the effects of climate change, a vicious feedback loop produces longer and more intense fires like the ones raging today.


Confronting the growth in Amazonian fires presents a significant challenge, but eliminating them altogether is an impossible goal given that natural infernos are a part of each drought season. Nevertheless, a positive step to reducing human caused fires would involve replacing policies that encourage deforestation with ones that incentivize farmers and landowners to conserve. We should capitalize on the natural interest that landowners have in preserving their land’s value while also ensuring that protected rainforest remains pristine. Progress like this will not be achieved by ostracizing Brazilian farmers for their ways of life, however. Farmers and those who live in the Amazon region are some of the best conservationists there are and will play crucial roles in tackling this issue; excluding and alienating them would be a significant mistake.


Reading articles and tweets from celebrities, politicians, and environmentalists about the Amazon fires could send even the most fearless individual into a state of panic, but fortunately, the situation is not as dire as these alarmist reactions suggest. The world is not ending tomorrow because of these fires, but the consequential relationship between deforestation, climate change, and drought should command our attention. We have a duty to protect the Amazon and preserve its many benefits, but this will be accomplished by having honest conversations and working together, not by perpetuating hysteria.   




Ronnie Thompson