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SCIENCE GOES UP IN RAIN FOREST SMOKE: Amazon not the lungs of the world

  • Dr David Whitehouse, GWPF Science Editor

If journalists as well as politicians, celebrities, presidents and the Pope can so easily slip into scientific myth and get the facts so wrong what credibility do they have on other issues of climate science?

Image result for Amazon fires lungs of the earth

The idea that the Amazon rain forest are the lungs of the world is so embedded in our minds that few questioned its widespread use when news about fires in the Amazon was reported this summer. The idea is everywhere – so it’s obviously true. Trees absorb carbon dioxide (bad), don’t they, and give off oxygen (good), and there are billions of trees in the Amazon, so surely it makes sense.

Responding to the fires in the Amazon the Pope has said that the, “Lungs of the forest are vital for the planet.” Emmanuel Macron tweeted, “The Amazon rain forest – the lungs which produces 20% of the planet’s oxygen – is on fire.” Leonardo DiCaprio has almost 3 million likes for his Instagram posting saying, “The lungs of the Earth are in flames.” Christiano Ronaldo tweeted that The Amazon Rainforest produces more than 20% of the world’s oxygen,” adding #prayforamazonia

Green Party MP Caroline Lucas says “It’s the lungs of the Earth…which provides 20% of our oxygen.” Barry Gardiner Shadow Minister for International Climate Change tweeted he couldn’t agree with Macron more. Lib Dem MEP’s say the lungs of our planet are literally burning. Even Donald Tusk, the President of the European Commission tweeted of “…the destruction of the green lungs of Planet Earth.”

The Rainforest Alliance say, “The lungs of the world are in flames.” Friends of the Earth want a deal to stop the fires adding, “They need to say ‘we won’t do a deal with you if you are effectively condoning burning the lungs of the world’.” WWF says the Amazon is popularly known as the lungs of the world. DiCaprio’s Earth Alliance has formed an emergency Amazon Forest Fund with an initial commitment of $5 million to focus critical resources on the key protections needed to maintain the ‘lungs of the planet.’

However, as the saying goes, it’s not that simple – things never are in science. Check where the figure comes from (and it’s actually not that straightforward to do) and you will find that it’s not that simple. It’s actually wrong.

Geology’s Gift

The Amazon rain forest is not the lungs of the world and they do not produce 20% of the world’s oxygen as is so often said. The Amazon rainforest is a vast, vital wonder, full of biodiversity and photosynthesizing plants producing 9% of the world’s photosynthetic output but, here is the key figure, 0% of its net output.

You could destroy all of the world’s forests and it would hardly affect our oxygen supply. In fact you could destroy every living thing on Earth and still not dent it because our atmosphere of 20.9% oxygen is the gift of geologic time, slow to build up and we have enough to last millions of years.

Yet this idea of the world’s lungs and of atmospheric oxygen needing to be refreshed and replenished, ideas unsupported by science, is everywhere.

Surely journalists would act differently from advocacy groups, celebrities and politicians and check this fact before writing and broadcasting about it. After all journalists, especially science and environment journalists who are experts in their field, always check figures and statistics? Oh no, they don’t. Just Google the phrase to see how many time it is repeated, by the BBC, the New York Times, CNN, The Australian, to name a few. ITN in particular has risen above much of the other coverage with its over-the-top reporting. They say the Amazon is burning on a scale never seen before (nonsense). That the Amazon can never be replaced (nonsense), and that Nature is being killed (Oh come off it)!

Who Spoke up?

If journalists as well as politicians, celebrities, presidents and the Pope can so easily slip into such scientific myth and get the facts so wrong what credibility do they have on other issues of climate science? Where are their science advisors? Surely they should make this mistake only once before being given proper advice. Or is it that if any of them goes against the trend they fear the condemnation? This is not the way to tackle the important environmental issues we face.

Look how much we had to go through for science to wrench our minds free of what is “obviously true” and seek proof. Is climate science, or at least the public side of it, immune from normal scientific standards? And where are the high profile, “public” scientists setting the record straight, highlighting that the Amazon rain forests are not the lungs of the world?

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