August 28th, 2019 by Roy W. Spencer, Ph. D.
No, I’m not in favor of burning down all of the rainforest in Brazil (or neighboring countries, which are being given a pass for some reason). But the recent outrage over increased fire activity this year in Brazil during the annual burn season seems pretty manufactured to me. And it’s largely political, placing blame at the feet of Brazil’s President Bolsonaro, who took office at the beginning of 2019.
The widespread reporting on this makes it sound like fires in Amazonia this time of year are a new thing. With 50 million Brazilians living below the poverty line, many take up farming which involves clearing land to grow grass to feed cattle, pigs, chickens, etc. They make about US$5.50 a day.
Here’s just one of hundreds of headlines making the rounds lately: The Amazon rainforest is on fire. Climate scientists fear a tipping point is near.
This then gets everyone whipped into a frenzy. For example, here’s what noted environmental expert and Toto guitarist Steve Lukather tweeted:
So, just how bad is it this year compared to previous years for rainforest destruction in Brazil? Well, here’s the official data:
Graphic from Brazil farmers deforesting Amazon ‘to survive’
Now, tell me exactly what about that graph suggests that things have suddenly gotten worse in terms of rainforest destruction?
If you say, “Well, that’s only through July of this year. Maybe August is much worse!”, then I will point out that the original news article from The Guardian about the “88% rise” in rainforest destruction “under Bolsonaro” was way back on July 3!!
In that article they were comparing June of 2019 to June of 2018, which sounds like cherry-picking to me, when a much more extensive and complete history in the above graph suggests 2019 will not be exceptional for rainforest destruction compared to previous years.
This year’s dry season (June-August) has indeed been exceptionally dry, though. Brazil’s rainfall is tied to sea surface temperature patterns in both the Pacific and Atlantic, especially related to El Nino and La Nina activity. NASA satellite data show that the fires there, mainly set for agricultural purposes, are burning exceptionally hot, probably due to a lack of moisture in the fuel. Anyone who has a wood burning fireplace, or has tried making a campfire with wood that is not thoroughly dry, is familiar with this effect. The fires are burning hotter and “cleaner” than usual. If you look at NASA’s daily satellite imagery of smoke you will see that many previous years were smokier in Amazonia than this year is.
This is just one more example of the media controlling the narrative and selectively and hypocritically placing blame on a particular (and almost always right-leaning) political party.
To be clear: I’m not supporting President Bolsonaro’s policies. I’m pointing out the hypocrisy of the media in its environmental reporting.