Amazon Rainforest Fires Hit Close to Home

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Lancaster University’s Professor Jos Barlow explains

As you are no doubt aware, thousands of fires have been raging across the Amazon rainforest. But readers in the UK may be wondering how the Amazonian fires could possibly affect them. I asked Lancaster University’s Jos Barlow, professor of conservation science. He urges that “Despite being thousands of kilometres away, the fires affect the whole world through their carbon emissions, and by contributing to the global loss of biodiversity. The Amazon has evolved over millions of years and has been predominantly forested over that time. There is nothing natural about converting this to non-forest or scrub, and allowing it to happen would result in the loss of much of the wold’s biodiversity and would accelerate climate change.”

Many other regions on Earth also experience forest fires in the hotter periods of the year. According to Professor Barlow, “fires are increasing in SE Asia, and have been out of control in many other ecosystems this year, from the boreal forests to the Congo.”

NASA wrote, “As of August 16, 2019, satellite observations indicated that total fire activity in the Amazon basin was slightly below average in comparison to the past 15 years.” This seems to indicate fears have been misplaced.

But Professor Barlow points out “15 years ago deforestation was 5x higher than today. The key thing here is that fires were higher this year even though it was a normal year in terms of climate and not an El Nino.”

El Niño is an abnormal climatic event caused by the warming of the Pacific Ocean around the equator. Trade winds normally blow the warm water west, but during El Niño those winds weaken or reverse, allowing warm water to flow east. El Niño’s effects are felt widely, but mainly in Australasia and South America.

According to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, there have been about 76,000 fires, which is an 85% increase from 2018.

As for the cause of the fires, Professor Barlow points to increased deforestation. He states, “land speculators and cattle ranchers are the primary cause of the fires”. The Brazilian government under Jair Bolsonaro cut the Ministry of Environment’s budget for climate change related activities by 95%. Professor Barlow argues that these cuts cast “doubt on their own deforestation figures” and create “an atmosphere where deforestation can occur without risk of punishment.” Bolsonaro has placed the blame on non-government organisations, but Professor Barlow refutes all credibility for this claim.

Many scientists and activists point to climate change and the increasing severity and frequency of extreme events like El Niño. But, as Professor Barlow acknowledges, “Abating climate change is not proving to be so easy, even if we know what we need to do!”

Even if we immediately cut global carbon emissions by 100%, it would still mean decades before climate stabilisation, and millennia before the atmospheric carbon naturally returns to other forms. In the short-term, Professor Barlow advocates “protecting the ecosystems that are intact, before they too become threatened […] avoiding deforestation and supporting restoration would be a relatively easy short term win. We have to keep trying as giving up on the planet is not an option. Rapid changes in human behaviour are possible.”

The UK is accountable for only around 1% of global carbon emissions. Some argue that because of this we have no real responsibility in the ‘battle against climate change’. Professor Barlow disagrees: “everyone has a role and our per capita emissions are much higher than those in India, and comparable to China.”

Other stressors besides climate change (including habitat change, invasive species, pollution, and overexploitation) contribute to ecosystem degradation. In fact, of climate change, habitat change, invasive species, pollution, and overexploitation, climate change is generally the weakest direct driver of change in biodiversity and ecosystems. But, as Professor Barlow warns, “it is probably wrong to think of stressors acting independently”. The synergistic nature of these stressors “acting in concert” troubles him the most.

One of the challenges for environmentalists is finding solutions which conserve the environment without impinging the livelihoods of locals.

Some say that denying developing countries their own fossil fuel revolution and asking them to wait for renewable energy will trap more people in poverty for longer. But others urge that climate change will increase the frequency and intensity of natural disasters, which will be felt most strongly by poor people in these countries.

Professor Barlow says that “while win-win outcomes have been difficult to find, they are far from impossible […] perhaps one of the key issues is to make ecosystems work for everyone and prevent their exploitation for the few.” Environmental degradation is just one global challenge among others including starvation & malnutrition; unemployment; terrorism; and lack of education. Ultimately, Professor Barlow believes that “good government will address them all and find solutions that provide multiple benefits.”

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