The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

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World on Fire

The Amazon is burning.

Social media appeared to suddenly take note of the fact last week, followed by mainstream news coverage a few days later. Personally, I found the whole thing too depressing and frightening for words, which is why I resolved not to read up on the subject until I was in a position to do a full investigation of the subject, including reading up on steps I could take to do something about it. Writing this post has become the occasion of my reading.

At least part of the reason for my panic is that I’ve read this story before–a novel I picked up some years ago covered the future of climate change in frighteningly plausible detail and included scenes in which the entire Amazon burned. As in, the rainforest there simply went out of existence, taking human lives, human cultures, endemic species, and a major carbon sink with it. Could something like that happen for real? Maybe: I’ve written before of how a positive feedback loop could make deforestation suddenly become self-sustaining; And Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, is building a reputation for himself as a rabid anti-environmentalist. Is the nightmare actually happening as we speak? Maybe.

But maybe not. And while something is clearly going very wrong in Brazil, knee-jerk panic is unlikely to do anything to help. We need to educate ourselves.

Clearing the Smoke to See the Fire

Let’s start by looking at what the news media are saying about the fires, what the current story actually is. Then, let’s look at some varying voices of commentary. Finally, let’s take a quick look at the complex background against which this fiery drama is playing out.

Just the Facts

There is an excellent article on Al Jazeera’s website summarizing the story. Let me summarize their summary, supplemented by other sources as noted.

Fires are normal in the Amazon at this time of year, although most of them are set deliberately by humans to clear land for crops and pasturage. Not all the fires are in the forest; farmers often burn agricultural stubble after harvest. Even the forest fires are not necessarily instances of large-scale deforestation; slash-and-burn agriculture is a very old technique in which a small area is cut and burned and then farmed for several years until the soil becomes nutrient-poor. Then the people start over with a new plot and the old one regrows. Whether slash-and-burn is a problem, ecologically, depends on other factors, and fire can also be used to clear large areas of land permanently. Deforestation in the Amazon is not new, either, unfortunately.

The unusual thing this year has been the extent of the burning which has been much higher than in years past since June at least. This, coupled with the anti-environment, pro-business leaning of Brazil’s president, has led to wide-spread worry that we could indeed be looking at catastrophe.

Many people are now raising their voices against the fires internationally, including celebrities and European leaders. President Bolsonaro has seemed slow to respond to the fires and has recently rejected international aid, citing his concern for his country’s sovereignty.

Some of the Facts May or May Not Be Wrong

I found an article in Forbs, that made some interesting counterclaims about these fires.

  • The images of fire being shared by celebrities and on social media are mostly not pictures of the current fires in the Amazon.
  • The Amazon rain forest is not a major source of the planet’s oxygen and while it is a carbon sink, so are the agricultural lands that are replacing it.
  • Most of the fires are not burning rain forest but rather brush and scrub.
  • Deforestation in the Amazon is currently declining and most of the remaining forest is protected.
  • The current mainstream coverage of the fires ignores political, economic, and cultural realities on the ground. Much of the international pressure is actually counterproductive because it ignores that reality.

Now, I question the veracity of parts of this article. Notably, while mature rain forest does use most of the oxygen it produces, it’s a mistake to use that factoid to downplay the planetary importance of the forest. And while cattle pasture and soy farms do hold carbon and produce oxygen, there is no way they can hold as much carbon as forest does because they have much less biomass. Biomass is made out of carbon compounds, remember. It’s also worth noting that cattle release much of the carbon they consume as methane rather than as carbon dioxide–and methane is a more powerful greenhouse gas.

However, the part about political and economic reality rings true. While I know very little about Brazil specifically, environmental conservation has a long history of foundering through willful ignorance of actual people. These fires are being set by people, and the people have reasons for setting the fires. They either need what the fires can give them, or think they do. While the fires themselves are unquestionably a problem, charging in (metaphorically or literally) without regard to the needs that drive the fires will be ineffective at best.

So while I do not regard the Forbs article as a reliable source of information, it raises some interesting points that certainly bear further research–and the call to avoid knee-jerk, under-informed reactions is almost certainly spot-on.

More than the Facts

I’m not going to present myself as an expert, here. I have a good deal of knowledge of conservation issues generally, and some aspects of the current crisis have been familiar to me for a while, but other things I’m just reading about today. Doubtless there are things, even important things, that I’ve just missed so far. What I’m trying to do is get the information I do have into a manageable, accessible form so that I and my readers can do something productive instead of running around wringing our hands in a panic.

There are a couple of pieces here that deserve careful attention.


What we’re looking at is the latest iteration of a complex, long-term political problem. Mr. Bolsonaro, remember, was elected. A large part of the issue is something that crops up in virtually all international discussions of climate change: fairness.

Europe and the United States and certain other countries have grown rich and powerful largely by two mechanisms: liquidating our own environmental capital and exploiting the resources of other countries through a combination of force and unbalanced trade. When we rely on historically poorer countries, like Brazil, to leave their wildlands intact as a means of buffering the planet against our excesses, resentment and suspicion are predictable. Arguably, we’re just trying to exploit their resources again, though this time it’s intact forest we want to take–Brazilian nationalism is not necessarily a matter of paranoia or jingoistic pride but is, rather, an understandable reaction to actual foreign bullying.

Doubtless the situation is complicated by moneyed interests and internal cultural disputes. It’s not that Brazil should get a free pass to do whatever its people want in the name of understandable anger–legitimate grievance is doubtless not the only factor in play, nor is there any guarantee that legitimate grievance automatically leads to legitimate response. The rise to power of the Nazis, fueled as it was, in part, by a truly tragic economic crisis, provides a dramatic example of the principle.

But the international response could easily prove counterproductive if it is not lead by people with a deep understanding of what’s actually happening in Brazil.

The People and the Peoples of Brazil

Massive protests against the fires are underway worldwide–but also within Brazil. So while some Brazilians may feel pushed around by foreigners, others are doing their own pushing to protect what they see as their heritage–and demanding help and support from outside. Many of these protestors are indigenous, and indigenous communities are being hit hard by both smoke and the loss of forests and crops to fire. Bolsonaro’s policies generally have been bad for them.

A reasonable question, when we talk about what the people of Brazil want, is who are the people of Brazil? Which viewpoint should outsiders regard as legitimate? It’s an age-old question, one that applies equally well to many other countries.

Are These Wildfires?

If these are wildfires, than how can the government be blamed for them? If these are intentional burns, then how and why are the fires damaging private property? Are the fires legal or illegal–and, if legal, are the laws supporting them just? I’m seeing a variety of answers to these questions. I suspect the real answers depend on which individual fire you’re talking about and when you are talking–a deliberately-set fire can escape to burn out of control.

I have no answers, yet, but it’s worth noting that tackling these questions could be the only way to make sense of the disagreements among editorial slants we see regarding the fires.

What Can We Do?

We may or may not currently be facing catastrophic nightmare–but at the very least, this year represents a surge in the ongoing crisis of deforestation in the Amazon. Something needs to be done.

We can start by saying what not to do.

  • Nothing. Do not do nothing.
  • Panic and make assumptions. Riding in, guns blazing, without a full understanding of the situation, is likely to make a bad situation worse.
  • Demand complete perfection immediately. I’ve seen some people claim that the whole world needs to go vegan because meat production for export is a major driver of deforestation in the Amazon. Probably some are calling for an end to capitalism as well. It’s not that such ideas are bad–they’re not. But these to-do list items are not likely to be accomplished this week, and meanwhile the Amazon is burning.

So, what should we do?

The Guardian (a British publication that does good work) recommends political action in favor of forest protection, financial support of non-profits active in the region, and boycott of products that are derived unsustainably from the Amazon, such as Brazilian beef. It sounds like good advice, but it’s a little vague. Let me elaborate.

Political Pressure

Bolsonaro is showing signs of responding to international pressure, even as such pressure also sometimes seems counterproductive. The solution is to identify the political leaders who seems to be getting results and support them both politically and, if possible, financially. Call your representatives and ask them to block trade deals with countries that are environmentally destructive–and to offer support to those that protect their forests. Might be a good idea to show appreciation for leaders of other countries who seem to be getting results, too. Notice that all this is bigger than Brazil.

Above all, focus your support on political leaders who are doing the well-informed, nuanced work the situation needs.

I suspect the most immediate solutions will be political and are, in fact, underway and in need of support. The other two options are more long-term.


The Guardian recommends supporting the following groups (though this is clearly not meant to be an exhaustive list):

I plan to focus on groups that specifically champion the rights of people who live in the forest; protect the people who protect the land. Respond to the S.O.S. messages that have been sent.

Consumer Activism

Yes, cutting back on meat consumption, especially beef consumption, is a good idea, since the global meat industry relies heavily on both pasture and feed production in areas that used to be rain forest. Boycott unsustainably-produced products generally. But don’t stop there. Brazil and other heavily-forest countries do need to make a living somehow, and if cutting down the forests is the only way to do it, then the result is predictable and possibly unavoidable.

Both as a consumer and as a voting citizen, support sustainable economic activity by countries whose forests we want to preserve.

The Guardian recommends The Rainforest Alliance as a source of information on what to buy and what to avoid.