It’s all over the news — the Amazon rainforest, the “lungs of the planet,” is burning like never before. There’s a record number of fires, they’re burning out of control and if nobody does something about it or stops doing bad stuff we’re all going to die. Oh yes, and it’s probably President Trump’s fault somehow. This is scary stuff, a real environmental apocalypse happening right in front of our eyes. Or, alternatively, it’s hysterical rubbish. Which is it?
- Celebrities have been calling this week for something to be done about the wildfires currently raging in Brazil. Madonna, di Caprio, even soccer player Ronaldo have all been sharing photos of burning forests and warning that this is a huge threat to us all.
- It’s widely known that forests release oxygen, which we all rely on to stay alive. The Amazon basin is home to the largest tropical rainforest on Earth, while having very few people, so it’s widely believed to be a vital source of oxygen for the whole world.
- The reality is that forests are very close to oxygen-neutral. It’s true that, in daylight, all green plants absorb carbon dioxide from the air and, through photosynthesis, convert CO2 and water into the sugars they use as food. Oxygen is released as a waste product of this process.
- However, at night, plants change tactics and use respiration instead. When the sun is down they take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide, just like animals do. Burning down the entire Amazon rainforest would be a terrible idea for many reasons, but depriving us all of oxygen isn’t one of them.
- In any case, the rainforest isn’t going to burn to ashes this year. Yes, there are a lot more fires in Brazil than there were last year — but there are only 7% more than the average from 2008 to 2018.
- The real high point for forest fires in Brazil was between 2002 and 2007, when most years saw about twice as many fires from January to August as 2019 has done. Nobody’s talking about this, though. Environmentalists want to blame Brazil’s right-wing government for the fires — and President Trump, if they can. Unfortunately for them, a socialist government was in power from 2003 to 2008, when nobody was talking about fires.
- Finally, fires in Brazil might be higher than average this year, but there’s no evidence that fires in the actual rain forest are. Brazilian journalist Leonardo Coutinho, who specializes in environmental issues, says this year’s rain forest fires are nothing out of the ordinary.
- What’s actually burning is scrub and felled trees in areas that have been cleared for cattle ranching. The rain forest itself is so wet that it only suffers major fires in drought years, which this one isn’t.
- Deforestation itself is a problem, but it’s a declining one. Over 80% of the Amazon rain forest is still intact and the rate of deforestation has fallen significantly. Neither fires nor farmers are going to make much of a dent in Brazil’s enormous jungle.
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