The Great Amazon Fire Scare of 2019 Fact Check
In August 2019, news stories around the world declared that the Amazon rainforest was burning up.
Actor Leonardo di Caprio announced on Instagram that “the lungs of the Earth are in flames” and cast the blame on Brazilian President Bolsonaro.
Politicians around the world, including G7 leaders, took up the cause and demanded urgent action, pledging millions of dollars in aid. “Our house is burning. Literally,” said French President Emmanuel Macron. “The Amazon rain forest – the lungs which produces 20% of our planet’s oxygen – is on fire. It is an international crisis.” And the government of Brazil soon found itself under intense pressure to do more to save the forest.
The story spread like, well, wildfire. In a matter of days, before anyone could begin to, you know, think the issue through and check the facts, it had gone from a rumour to a celebrity-driven panic to top of the G& Summit agenda.
Lost in the rush, amidst all the hype and rhetoric, were some key details that showed the story was yet another gross exaggeration and a false “climate emergency” panic.
I’m John Robson, and this is a CDN Fact Check on the great Amazon Fire Scare of 2019.
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On August 26, the Toronto Star said “The head of the United Nations is urging world leaders to step up in the face of a dramatic climate emergency as wildfires blaze across the Arctic and the Amazon rainforest”.
Wildfires blazing across the Arctic? The Arctic? Here’s a satellite image of global forest fire activity taken at the time UN Secretary-General Guterres made his speech. You can see the fires in the Amazon, but where did he get the idea fires were blazing across the North Pole?
It’s also very odd that neither the head of the UN nor anyone else in the hastily formed climate emergency bucket brigade seemed to care that more than five times as many fires were burning in Africa as in the Amazon.
While everyone was running in circles screaming and shouting about 2,000 active fires in the Amazon, there were 10,000 burning in Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo alone, and another 2,000 elsewhere on the continent. Why did only the smaller number of fires in the Amazon and the imaginary ones in the Arctic count?
Once journalists got around to talking to experts about the situation, the picture began to change. Starting with the fact that, for the most part, it wasn’t the rainforest that was on fire in the Amazon. It was mostly non-forested areas used for agriculture.
"A tropical rainforest is generally not flammable" according to Jeffrey Chambers, an expert on rainforests at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab in the US.
I think it might be something to do with the rain making things wet.
So, what was burning?
Much of it was waste from previous agricultural use of the affected land: branches, vegetation and leftover material from logging. Landowners pile up the debris until the late summer then burn it all at once.
"It's how you get rid of your agricultural waste products… And part of the reason why that works is because those fires don't generally move into the forest," the Lawrence Berkeley Lab’s Chambers added.
Speaking of the picture changing, things unraveled further when it was discovered that the photo DiCaprio had shared was from 20 years ago. It could have been worse; Madonna shared one from 30 years ago, and soccer star Rinaldo chose one that wasn’t even from the Amazon. At least it wasn’t the North Pole.
As for the Amazon being the “lungs of the Earth” and source of 20% of the world’s oxygen, rainforest expert and United Nations IPCC Lead Author Dan Nepstad was remarkably blunt. “It’s bullshit”.
Nepstad went on: “There’s no science behind that. The Amazon produces a lot of oxygen but it uses the same amount of oxygen through respiration so it’s a wash.”
OK, ok, but can we at least say there are record numbers of fires burning and surely it’s a sign of climate change like everything else bad? After all, one prominent environmental journalist claimed the situation in the Amazon was without precedent in the past 20,000 years and of course was further proof of a climate emergency. And they wouldn’t just invent stuff like that to scare us, would they?
According to the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research, forest fires in 2019 were only slightly above average for the past decade, and lower than the average of the previous decade.
As of August 25, 2019, there had been just over 127,000 fires detected this year in the Amazon, far higher than 2018’s 61,000. But it was roughly tied with 2016, which by August 27 of that year had also had 127,000 fires. And it was far below the fire rates prior to 2010, when many years had between 150,000 and 200,000 fires by that point in the summer.
When the panic galloped off over the horizon into the smoke and experts finally had a chance to weigh in, they emphasized that these fire counts aren’t unusual. And they aren’t, for the most part, a count of forest fires. When they’re not burning waste on land already in use, they’re usually slash fires associated with logging and agriculture. Like every other country in the world, Brazil has a population to feed, and for a long time they’ve been sending settlers into the forest to clear the trees and into the grasslands to clear them, and convert both to agriculture.
Now, before you get on your high horse and condemn them for this behaviour, look at where you’re standing. No matter where you are in Europe or North America, it’s almost 100% certain that our forefathers did exactly the same thing on that spot 200 or 300 years ago. Or longer. Many North American aboriginals had long had a habit of altering the ecology through fire to favour the kinds of wildlife that they hunted.
Which isn’t to say setting such fires is always a good thing. Indeed, the Brazilian government has slowed the rate of deforestation down by 70 percent from 2004 to 2012 through determined efforts, and they recognize that they could use the land they’ve already cleared more efficiently. It’s a learning process, and it’s one we went through too.
The great Amazon Fire Scare of 2019 is a classic illustration of how climate alarmism works. An iconic image – a skinny polar bear, a bad storm, a walrus going off a cliff, or in this case a fire in the Amazon rainforest – gets yanked out of context and is used to whip up a public alarm. It races around the internet within 24 hours and before anyone has had a chance to dig up the facts, activists and celebrities have created a deafening, self-satisfied call for action, and those political leaders who find alarmism helpful for selling their agenda cheerfully pile on.
Later, when it’s debunked as it inevitably is, the whole mechanism simply re-sets and waits for next time, and nobody is really called to account for creating a false panic using inappropriate pictures or distorted data or facts that are completely invented.
So if you’re feeling skeptical about all the climate emergencies and eco-panic stories out there, you should be. There’s a lot more heat than light in these alarms.
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For the Climate Discussion Nexus, I’m John Robson.