Emmanuel Macron may not technically be a celebrity, but he tweets like one.
Prior to the G-7 summit, the French president declared on Twitter, “The Amazon rain forest — the lungs which produce 20% of our planet’s oxygen — is on fire.” He added that, “Our house is burning. Literally,” and called the fires an “international crisis.”
Macron’s tweet was deeply ill-informed and misleading but indistinguishable from the commentary of all the actors and singers who pride themselves more on their (alleged) social and environmental consciences than their knowledge.
They got images that they believed were of today’s Amazon fires wrong and repeated lazy cliches about “the lungs of the planet,” wrapping it all in apocalyptic warnings of climate doom.
At least Diddy and Leonardo DiCaprio don’t host multilateral meetings of Western heads of state.
Macron does. He made the Amazon fires a major item of discussion at the G-7 summit, with the ready assent of other Europeans governments. The Germans agreed that the Amazon fires are “frightening and threatening.”
The problem with the G-7 summit wasn’t that Donald Trump didn’t get with the program; it was that the program itself, insofar as it dealt with the fires, relied on a hysteria-induced misunderstanding of what’s happening in the Amazon.
The Amazon fires are catnip for proponents of swift and radical action on the climate. They pine for a mediagenic, easy-to-understand planetary emergency and are happy to manufacture one as necessary.
It wasn’t just celebrities who hyped the fires. An NBC News headline declared, “Amazon wildfires could be ‘game over’ for climate change fight.” The meteorologist Eric Holthaus related the opinion of a specialist in prehistoric fires in the Amazon that “the current fires are without precedent in the past 20,000 years.”
According to a story on CNN’s website, “An inferno in the Amazon, two-thirds of which is in Brazil, threatens the rainforest ecosystem and also affects the entire globe.”
This is the sense of imminent crisis that so moved Macron and his brethren, although it had little basis in reality.
Some press reports, beneath the alarming headlines, related a more sober version of events, and a few isolated voices, most notably the environmentalist Michael Shellenberger at Forbes, pushed back against the dominant narrative.
The fires aren’t an epochal event. According to The New York Times, the Brazilian agency tracking fires by satellite image reports that, at this point in the year, it’s the highest number of fires identified since 2010, which obviously isn’t thousands of years ago, indeed, not even a decade ago. In the 10 years prior to 2010, there were years when the number of fires was much higher.
The fires aren’t the spontaneous result of global warming. The program director of the group Amazon Watch told CNN, “The vast majority of these fires are human-lit,” noting that it isn’t easy for the rainforest to catch fire, even in the dry season.
“Natural fires in the Amazon are rare,” the Times reports, “and the majority of these fires were set by farmers preparing Amazon-adjacent farmland for next year’s crops and pasture.
“Much of the land that is burning was not old-growth rain forest, but land that had already been cleared of trees and set for agricultural use.”
Nor is it true that deforestation in the Amazon is spiraling out of control. Deforestation markedly diminished in the 2000s, declining by 70 percent from 2004 to 2012, according to Shellenberger. It has picked back up again under Brazil’s new populist president, Jair Bolsonaro, a trend worth monitoring but hardly the onset of planetary catastrophe.
Surely, the Amazon must be the lungs of the world, responsible for 20 percent of our oxygen, right? No. This is drivel based on an erroneous understanding of how the atmosphere gets its oxygen.
If we need trees to preserve a habitable planet, we should be pleased with recent trends. Ron Bailey of Reason magazine points to a study published in Nature last year that found there were nearly a million square miles more of tree canopy around the world in 2016 than in 1982, with Europe, the United States and China all adding canopy.
At the end of the day, the offer that the G-7 made to Brazil of $20 million to help fight the Amazon fires was reasonable enough. The blustery Bolsonaro, who has blown hot and cold on the aid, would be foolish not to accept it. The Amazon is a natural wonder worth preserving on its own terms, and it could at some point get caught in a cycle of drought and fire.
Still, Macron and Co. need to be aware of how their high-handedness — including poorly informed declarations from afar — comes across in Brazil. Advanced countries that deforested long ago because it accorded with their economic interests should be humble when insisting that a poorer country not do the same. Proposals to buttress the Amazon have to run with the grain of Brazil’s interests, not against it.
This will require sobriety, care and a long view — in other words, exactly the opposite of what we have seen over the past couple of weeks.
The most fervent devotees of climate change don’t really want science, no matter how often they invoke the word; they want drama and memorable images, believing they will catalyze action in a way that a properly modulated account of the best research won’t.
If they have to blow their credibility, one faux emergency at a time, so be it.