By Michael Shellenberger
The whole world is burning, The New York Times, CNN, and mainstream media outlets around the world have declared in recent days.
The Amazon could soon “self-destruct” reports The Times. It would be “a nightmare scenario that could see much of the world’s largest rainforest erased from the earth,” writes Max Fisher who notes, “some scientists who study the Amazon ecosystem call it imminent.”
“If enough [Amazon] rain forest is lost and can’t be restored, the area will become savanna, which doesn’t store as much carbon, meaning a reduction in the planet’s ‘lung capacity,’” reports The New York Times.
It’s not just the Amazon, though. Africa, Siberia, and Indonesia are also apparently going up in smoke. Claims The New York Times, “in central Africa, vast stretches of savanna are going up in flame. Arctic regions in Siberia are burning at a historic pace.”
Any reader of the New York Times and other mainstream media outlet would be forgiven for believing that fires globally are on the rise, but they aren’t.
In reality, there was a whopping 25 percent decrease in the area burned from 2003 to 2019, according to NASA.
Between 2003 and 2015, the area burned in Africa declined by an area the size of Texas (700,000 square kilometers or 270,000 square miles.
And against the picture painted by celebrities and the mainstream media that fires around the world are caused by economic growth, the truth is the opposite: the amount of land being burned is declining thanks to development, including urbanization.
That’s because the amount of land being converted into ranches and farms has been going down, not up, and because more of it is being done with machines than with fire.
For the last 35 years, the world has been re-foresting, meaning new tree growth has exceeded deforestation. The area of the Earth covered with forest has increased by an area the size of Texas and Alaska combined.
Less land is being converted into agriculture globally in part because farmers are growing more food on less land.
Much of the re-forestation is occurring in deserts and tundra that had been barren, thanks to human-led reforestation initiatives, such as in China and Africa, and because of global warming. Warmer temperatures are what have allowed forests to grow in tundra.
Mainstream journalists botched this story. They should have known about the decline in burning since scientists published a major study in Science in 2015.
And yet mainstream journalists have continued to push the apocalyptic framing in their coverage of fires in Amazon and Africa and attempted to link them to climate change.
Consider how The New York Times misrepresented global fires earlier this week. “Their increase in severity and spread to places where fires were rarely previously seen is raising fears that climate change is exacerbating the danger,” wrote Kendra Pierre-Louis.
But this is wrong. In truth, the climate-fire nexus brings good news: the decline in area burned has offset much of the risk of increased fire from global warming, according to Doug Morton, co-author of the 2015 Science study and a forest scientist at NASA’s Goddard Institute.
“When land use intensifies on savannas, fire is used less and less as a tool,” said Niels Andela of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “As soon as people invest in houses, crops, and livestock, they don’t want these fires close by anymore. The way of doing agriculture changes, the practices change, and fire disappears from the grassland landscape.”
“Climate change has increased fire risk in many regions, but satellite burned area data show that human activity has effectively counterbalanced that climate risk, especially across the global tropics,” Morton said. “We’ve seen a substantial global decline over the satellite record, and the loss of fire has some really important implications for the Earth system.”
“Regions with less fire saw a decrease in carbon monoxide emissions and an improvement in air quality during fire season,” notes NASA. “With less fire, savanna vegetation is increasing—taking up more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.”
The New York Times‘ Kendra Pierre-Louis even repeats the “lungs of the world” myth in her August 28 story.
Celebrities and the mainstream news media have advanced an apocalyptic narrative of fires in places like the Amazon as violent intrusions on nature. This picture is false.
“Fire had been instrumental for millennia in maintaining healthy savannas, keeping shrubs and trees at bay and eliminating dead vegetation,” says the senior author of a major Science paper about the decline of fires, Jim Randerson of the University of California, Irvine.
In truth, the decline in burning raises new challenges. “For fire-dependent ecosystems like savannas,” Morton said, “the challenge is to balance the need for frequent burning to maintain habitat for large mammals and to maintain biodiversity while protecting people’s property, air quality, and agriculture.”
As for the myth that the Amazon is the “lungs of the Earth” providing “20% of the world’s oxygen,” it appears to have been invented by a Malthusian Cornell University scientist in 1966, according to the George Mason University environmental philosopher, Mark Sagoff.
“In the 1960s, when ‘lungs of the earth’ was the big reason to save the rain forest,” Sagoff told me yesterday, “I got interested in it as a scientific question. I found no evidence that any tropical rainforest contributes to the net oxygen budget of the world.”
Sagoff sent me a 1966 an article by Cornell University scientist LaMont C. Cole in the journal BioScience. In it, Cole claimed that, as a result of burning fossil fuels, “the oxygen content of the atmosphere must start to decrease. I wish I could estimate how near we are to that frightening compensation point…”
In 1970, climatologist Wallace S. Broecker explained why there was nothing to be frightened in an article in Science in June 1970. By 2000, he explained, burning fossil fuels would deplete just 0.2% of the Earth’s oxygen.
“In almost all grocery lists of man’s environmental problems is found an item regarding oxygen supply,” wrote Broeker. “Fortunately for mankind, the supply is not vanishing as some have predicted.”
Broeker wrote his article because the mainstream media had been spreading Cole’s myth. “Hopefully the popular press will bury the bogeyman it created,” Broecker said.
Sadly, it didn’t. Little wonder that public trust in the news media has been declining for many years and most Americans today say they do not trust it.
The good news for the news media is that 69% of the public say that trust can be restored. A good start would be for CNN, The New York Times, and other media outlets to correct their inaccurate coverage, and start covering the Amazon and fires issue fairly and accurately.
"The wealthy countries hold big speeches on the need to avoid deforestation but they already deforested everything.
"Few countries have the moral authority to talk about deforestation with Brazil."
– Luis Inácio "Lula" da Silva
— Michael Shellenberger (@shellenberger) September 2, 2019