Environmental ‘Hero’ Knocks Celebs, Media for Amazon Fire Falsehoods

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Yes, there are fires burning in the Amazon and that’s obviously a bad thing, but one Forbes columnist chided movie stars, politicians and the news media for spreading misinformation about them.

Contributor Michael Shellenberger, who was once named an “Environmental Hero” by Time, exposed an abundance of inaccuracies stemming from the current hysteria over the fires in the Amazon — including the “bullshit” claim that it is the “lungs of the world.”

Outrage over the fires fueled misinformation including the sharing of images of past fires or fires that weren’t even in the Amazon and false claims the fires were because of climate change. Shellenberger noted that even The New York Times debunked that claim on Aug. 23, noting they were “not caused by climate change.

But he pointed out that the Times and CNN both repeated claims that the Amazon was the “lungs” of the world. Shellenberger turned to Amazon forest expert Dan Nepstad to find out if there was any truth to the idea that, “The Amazon remains a net source of oxygen today” as CNN claimed.

Nepstad told him “It’s bullshit,” and “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.” He also said the Times was wrong to claim that if the rainforest becomes savannah it would reduce the planet’s “lung capacity.”

Shellenberger also talked to a leading environmental journalist Leonardo Coutinho in Brazil who said coverage has been misleading because Brazil had “the highest incidents of burning” between 2003 and 2008.

“What’s happening in the Amazon is not exceptional,” Coutinho told him. A sharp contrast (or contradiction) to meteorologist Eric Holthaus’ tweet that “The current fires are without precedent in the past 20,000 years.” Holthaus is also an “ecosocialist” who writes on environmental issues for Grist, Slate and other publications.

“While fires in Brazil have increased, there is no evidence that Amazon forest fires have,” wrote Shellenberger.

Some other inconvenient facts in his piece:

  • Deforestation of the Amazon declined “a whopping 70 percent from 2004 to 2012.” Recent increases are still at “one-quarter of its 2004 peak.”

  • Experts said the “real threat is from accidental forest fires in drought years.”

  • Farmers got bait-and-switched by the forestry rules in Brazil, according to Nepstad. “Imagine you are told that you can only use half of your land and then being told you can only use 20%,” he explained.

Nepstad and Coutinho criticized the international reaction as coming from “romantic anti-capitalism,” and a “hatred of agribusiness.” But agribusiness is essential to Brazil and what it got it through the recent recession. They all argued pragmatic solutions that serve multiple interests would be essential.

For that to happen, Shellenberger argued, “the news media will need to improve its future coverage of the issue.”

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