The worldwide enviromental impact of these fires cannot be overstated.
The Amazon — the “lungs of the world,” a rainforest spanning eight countries, the vegetation that accounts for 20 percent of the earth’s oxygen — blazes as around 50,000 fires release the trees’ carbon stores. Smoke from the fires has blackened several cities, including the largest city in Brazil, São Paulo, 1,700 miles away. Short-term, these flames may represent only inconveniences to nearby citizens, points of contention for politicians or an opportunity to express one’s great concern for environmental issues via social media. Long-term, however, their effects prove existentially detrimental.
While destructive fires have ravaged the Amazon before, they now burn with greater ferocity. Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) reported an 80 percent increase in the number of fires over the past year. A record 72,843 fires have burned since January (9,000 of which were spotted just during one week in August).
Higher temperatures and longer droughts are likely contributing to this massive increase, but these are not the only factors at play. Not only have more extreme dry seasons passed without such fires, peak dry season is still a month away. Most of the fires in the Amazon were originally started by people, either intentionally or accidentally.
Brazilian farmers often burn trees to clear land quickly for agricultural use, but these fires have gotten wildly out of control. Scientists name deforestation practices such as this major causes of these fires, as farmers in Brazil have greater freedom to clear forest land for their own purposes, especially after Jair Bolsonaro took office. Deforestation proves cyclical, as the rainforest itself generates one-half of its rainfall so that a newly treeless region only grows drier, thus promoting even more tree loss and making the trees more susceptible to fires.
Jair Bolsonaro, the president of Brazil, supports expansion into the Amazon, claiming that looser regulations for agriculturalists (who primarily grow soy and raise cattle) will ramp up production and bolster the economy. Having taken this stance, Bolsonaro eliminated federal policies like issuing fines for tree clearing or offering low-interest loans for farmers wanting to invest in sustainable agricultural practices, both of which were intended to reduce deforestation.
However, Bolsonaro’s position is undermined by the facts. Not only has food production in Brazil increased substantially since 2004, but the farmers who followed the government’s regulations for sustainable agriculture doubled the number of cows they slaughtered for meat that year. As a result of Bolsonaro’s interests, deforestation has increased since he took office. From January to August this year, the rainforest decreased by an area of 1,330 square miles, at a 40 percent higher rate than in 2018. When the INPE released this data, Bolsonaro called the numbers “a lie” and proceeded to fire the director of the institute.
Though trees can be replanted in the Amazon to offset (but not entirely counter) the damage done by these and other fires, the rainforest will eventually reach a point of no return should instances such as these continue unchecked. In fact, upon reaching this irreversibility, the Amazon would be a savannah rather than a rainforest. Without the world’s largest rainforest absorbing carbon dioxide as it does now, global temperature increases would accelerate and remaining below the recommended temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius as compared with preindustrial levels would prove nearly impossible.
Bolsonaro was offered $20 million from the Group of 7 (G7) countries following their French summit to help combat the fires. He refused, accusing Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, of colonialist ideals. Prior to this, a Facebook post mocking Macron with photos of his and Bolsonaro’s wives received a supportive comment from Bolsonaro’s Facebook account.
Global leaders refrain from taking any preventative measures to offset the hazards of the climate crisis because it has always been a thing of the future. By dealing with the ramifications of individual crises as they come, politicians pretend to have environmental concerns. They then focus on their careers, the economy or international affairs whilst putting off the greatest disaster into which mankind has led himself.
As a rainforest becoming a savannah, the Amazon provides an example of our doomed fate. And, should nothing change, it certainly will not be the last. Perhaps events like fires in the Amazon will change the way in which politicians legislate on environmental issues. For now, though, they appear to be preoccupied with Facebook.