Every year, farmers in the Amazon set fires to clear agricultural land during the dry season starting in August, but this year may be a record-setter, not for the number of fires, but for the global outrage.
The G-7 nations pledged Monday about $40 million to help fight fires in the Amazon rainforest in response to the outcry from celebrities, media outlets and leaders like French President Emmanuel Macron, who said the blazes represented an “international crisis.”
Climate scientist Roy Spencer had another term for the fires: “normal agriculture.”
“I think the media focus on this is misplaced and exaggerated, as is virtually every weather-related story that appears these days,” said Mr. Spencer, a former NASA scientist who does consulting on global crop-market forecasting.
“The driest years in Brazil will have the most fires set by farmers,” the professor at the University of Alabama at Huntsville said in an email. “That isn’t a climate story, it’s normal agriculture in a country where 50 million people living in poverty are trying to survive.”
This year’s fires have been decried by media outlets and environmentalists as “record-setting,” and while that may be true of the number of fires in one of the 10 Amazon districts — Amazonas — the big picture is far less incendiary.
After finding last week that the Amazon fire activity “has been close to average in comparison to the last 15 years,” the NASA Observatory said Saturday that there has been an “uptick,” making 2019 “the most active fire year in that region since 2010.”
Data from the Global Fire Emissions Database of Amazon Region fire activity dating back to 2003 showed 2019 falling somewhere in the middle of the pack, with the number of fires as of Saturday at nearly 110,000.
That’s well above last year’s 58,500, the basis of widespread reports of an 84% increase in fire activity, but it’s also below the 116,000 fires recorded to date in 2016.
Dan Nepstad, president of the Earth Innovation Institute, told Forbes that the number of 2019 fires is 7% above the average of the last 10 years, even as deforestation fell by 70% from 2004-12 in the Brazilian Amazon. About 80% of the Amazon rainforest is intact, and half is protected under Brazilian federal law.
Such facts run counter to the widespread narrative depicting the Amazon going up in flames and on the brink of deforestation, thanks to the pro-development policies of President Jair Bolsonaro, the so-called “Brazilian Donald Trump” who took office in January.
Christian Poirier, Amazon Watch program director, said the “unprecedented fires ravaging the Amazon are an international tragedy and a dangerous contribution to climate chaos.”
“This devastation is directly related to President Bolsonaro’s anti-environmental rhetoric, which erroneously frames forest protections and human rights as impediments to Brazil’s economic growth,” he said in a Thursday statement.
In addition to Mr. Macron, celebrities such as Madonna, Leonardo DiCaprio, Cristiano Ronaldo, Jaden Smith and Shakira have stoked alarm about the fires on social media. Also going viral are photos declared fake by fact-checkers at such media outlets as Agence France-Presse and Mother Jones, which noted that Mr. Macron tweeted an image taken in 2003.
Also going viral was the claim that the Amazon produces 20% of the earth’s oxygen, as tweeted by Mr. Macron and Rep. Ro Khanna, California Democrat.
But even Penn State climate scientist Michael E. Mann, a leader of the global-warming movement, said that was too high. In fact, Mr. Mann tweeted, even 6% would probably be too high, because “plants both photosynthesize and respire.”
Mr. Bolsonaro may have invited some of the alarm with his florid rhetoric though.
“I used to be called Captain Chainsaw. Now I am Nero, setting the Amazon aflame. But it is the season of the queimada,” Mr. Bolsonaro told reporters last week, using the Portuguese word for “burned,” which has entered Brazilian usage to refer to the annual burning project.
Kris Jenner accused Mr. Bolsonaro of issuing “an open invitation to loggers and farmers to clear the land,” despite the Brazilian Embassy in the U.S. noting that nearly all of the fires in the annual burn are ranked 1 on a scale of 1 to 3, with 1 being the lowest intensity.
Mr. DiCaprio pledged $5 million to protect the Amazon rain forest through his newly formed Earth Alliance. Canada agreed to add $11 million and Britain $12 million to the $20 million also pledged by the G-7 nations, prompting Mr. Bolsonaro to speculate that they may want something in return.
“Look, does anyone help anyone … without something in return? What have they wanted there for so long?” asked Mr. Bolsonaro, who accused Mr. Macron last week of treating Brazil like a “colony.”
Mr. Macron had a response: “We cannot allow you to destroy everything,” he said.
Most but not all of the Amazon basin is in Brazil, which has six of the 10 Amazon districts. Three others are in Bolivia and one is in Peru, but Bolivian President Evo Morales, a socialist, has received none of the international condemnation heaped on the right-wing Mr. Bolsonaro.
Certainly Mr. Bolsonaro has invited criticism by, for example, suggesting that the fires were set by his critics to hurt his image, but it’s also true that his pro-business political positions have rubbed environmentalists the wrong way.
“The Brazilian president has been labeled a ‘climate denier’ by the media, thus he must be stopped,” said Climate Depot’s Marc Morano. “The Amazon fires are being used to crush Bolsonaro politically and vilify him.”
In 2015, Mr. Morales told a crowd at the World People’s Conference on Climate Change that, “Capitalism is Mother Earth’s cancer.”
“The fires in Bolivia are being ignored by the media because Bolivia’s government is socialist and does not fit the narrative of evil ‘right-wing,’” Mr. Morano said. “Bolivia is protected from media criticism because they are the politically correct political leaders.”
The incidence of fire was higher from 2003 to 2007 and in 2010, during the administration of former Brazil President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a member of the Workers’ Party, although he received little in the way of international backlash.
The Embassy of Brazil in the United States reported that 2,409 firefighters have been deployed, more than in recent years, and insisted that the Amazon fires “are not out of control.”
While climate change has been blamed for the fires, NASA attributed the blazes more to farm activity than drought.
“While drought has played a large role in exacerbating fires in the past, the timing and location of fire detections early in the 2019 dry season are more consistent with land clearing than with regional drought,” said the NASA post.
Mr. Spencer, who holds a Ph.D. in meteorology, pointed out that that “many of the fires are being reported along roadways and near urban areas, so it is possible that carelessness is also playing a role.”
Conditions in Brazil have been dry for the past two decades, a phenomenon he attributed to “persistent El Nino activity in the tropical Pacific.”
Farmers burning already deforested land to prepare for crops is nothing new, but what is exceptional this year is the fire intensity and visible imagery of smoke, which Mr. Spencer attributed to the dryness of the vegetation.
“This year is exceptional, but not in a way that is concerning,” he said. “When rainfall conditions return to normal, so will the human-caused fire activity.”