Fires in Amazon rainforest become a global concern

By JESSICA KASAMOTO | September 5, 2019

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Fires in the Amazon rainforest have increased in intensity. It could significantly impact carbon emissions.

While wildfires in Brazil have been a relatively common occurrence in recent years, 2019 has seen an unprecedented increase in devastation, especially in the Amazon rainforest. 

According to the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), there have been over 80,000 this year in Brazil; this is approximately an 80-percent increase compared to the same time frame in 2018. More than half of these fires are taking place in the Amazon, which scientists believe will have an undeniably large impact on global warming.

The Amazon rainforest, which is often referred to as “the planet’s lungs” due to its large amounts of oxygen production, takes up about 40 percent of South America — an area that is about two-thirds the size of the U.S. The Amazon is also a hub for species diversity; on average, a new plant or animal is discovered in the Amazon rainforest every two days.

Excessive burning of such a large area of wildlife has turned the Amazon into a carbon sink, and environmentalists are worried that this excessive release of carbon dioxide and destruction of wildlife will speed up climate change. 

In an interview with The News-Letter, Benjamin Zaitchik, a professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences, described how significantly these fires could impact carbon emissions.

“Deforestation has a significant impact on Earth’s carbon balance,” Zaitchik said. “A number of credible studies have indicated that deforestation represents about 10 percent of global human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. As a point of comparison, those estimates indicate that emissions from tropical deforestation are less than the total greenhouse gas emissions of the U.S. or China, but they’re more than any other single country.”

Currently there are 415 parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere. The burning of the Amazon can contribute up to an additional 38 parts per million, according to Thomas Lovejoy, senior fellow at the United Nations Foundation and professor of environmental science at George Mason University. 

The destruction of forest can help to perpetuate climate change because it decreases the amount of carbon dioxide being taken in by these trees. 

In the past, the Amazon has absorbed approximately 2.4 billion metric tons of carbon each year, but increasing deforestation due to fires will severely limit the amount absorbed in the future.

Unlike in the U.S., where wildfires are usually attributed to lightning strikes or dry conditions, wildfires in the Amazon are usually caused by humans, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Farmers and cattle ranchers have often set fire to the forest in order to clear land for use.

According to meteorologist Haley Brink, the current fires are in line with typical seasonal and agricultural patterns. 

“It’s the best time to burn because the vegetation is dry,” Brink said in an interview with CNN. “[Farmers] wait for the dry season and they start burning and clearing the areas so that their cattle can graze. And that’s what we’re suspecting is going on down there.”

Moreover, many believe that the fires this year have been particularly severe due to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s relaxed environmental policies, which were meant to prioritize economic expansion.

From 2004 to 2012, the Brazilian government made it a goal to strongly limit deforestation; law enforcement protecting forests was strengthened and companies that did not reduce deforestation were penalized. Many private companies also made it a goal to reduce the amounts of agriculture produced from deforested land. Overall, deforestation rates dropped 75 percent between the years of 2005 and 2014.

However, Bolsonaro has made it clear in his time in office that he sees the Amazon as a human development zone; he has promoted the creation of roads, human settlements and environment-altering dams on newly deforested land. The budget for the country’s environmental enforcement agency has also been cut by $23 million since Bolsonaro took office, severely limiting the agency’s operations.

According to INPE, the country has lost more than 1,330 square miles of rainforest since Bolsonaro took office in January. After facing pressure from the public, Bolsonaro finally announced on August 23 that 44,000 Brazilian army troops would be sent to help quench the fires. 

Several international leaders have responded with alarm to these Brazilian fires. French President Emmanuel Macron, for example, has described the fires as an “international crisis” and urged members of the international intergovernmental economic organization, Group of Seven (G7), to discuss a course of action in future meetings. German government officials, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel have backed Macron in his sentiment. 

“Of course [it is] Brazilian territory, but we have a question here of the rainforests that is really a global question,” Merkel said following the G7 summit. “The lung of our whole Earth is affected, and so we must find common solutions.” 

Junior Keelin Reilly, the president of the Students for Environmental Action (SEA) club at Hopkins, believes that the international community should continue to take greater steps in putting out these Brazilian fires.

“I think the most important thing is to pressure the Brazilian government, both to work actively to fight the fires currently ongoing as well as to find funds and support environmental agencies that are supposed to be defending and applying the environmental laws on the books,” Reilly said in an interview with The News-Letter.

On August 26, the G7 offered $22 million to help the Brazilian government fight these fires. 

Bolsonaro turned it down, claiming that Macron’s comments towards Brazil harbored a “colonial mindset” that was insulting to Brazilians and the government.

Reilly said that SEA will likely be having discussions on what the club can do to raise awareness and support the fighting of these Brazilian fires, with the possibility of a benefit party to raise money for the World Wildlife Fund or other non-governmental associations that are helping to combat the fires. 

Zaitchik explained why he believes it is so important that Hopkins students are aware of the scope of the fires and all the potential dangers that come with it.

“Our consumer decisions and our country’s policies matter for this issue, and we should all be informed about the impact that our actions and political activities have on a critical planetary issue,” Zaitchik explained. “The more that we appreciate that the fate of major planetary systems have impacts that reverberate beyond today’s news feed, the better we’ll be able to respond not only to threats to the Amazon but to any number of planetary challenges we face.”

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