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Don’t Hold Your Breath

Αssociated Press

A fire burns a field on a farm in the Nova Santa Helena municipality, in the state of Mato Grosso, Brazil (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

Fires in the Amazon forest have (finally) captured worldwide attention in recent weeks. Since taking office in January of 2019, the administration of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has consistently clashed with environmentalists and others over possibly opening up the Amazon rainforest to development and agribusiness.

The latest data from Brazil’s space research institute indicate a surge in deforestation in the Amazon in the last quarter. Between 2004 and 2012, deforestation was cut by 80 percent thanks to programs like the Amazon Fund, which was fueled by outside donations, primarily from the governments of Norway ($1.2 billion) and Germany ($68 million). Now both countries, upset that deforestation has risen sharply under Bolsonaro, have decided to cut back.

Brazilian federal experts have also reported a record number of wildfires across the country this year – up 84 percent over the same period in 2018. According to the World Meteorological Organization, satellite images show smoke from the Amazon reaching across the Latin American continent to the Atlantic coast and Sao Paulo, Brazil's biggest city.

In July alone, the rainforest lost 2,254 square kilometers (870 square miles) of vegetation, between three and five times the surfaces lost the same month in the past four years. An area about the size of Yellowstone National Park – was lost between January 1 and August 1.

Many, including French President Macron, have called the Amazon the world’s ‘lungs’ – stating that it produces about 20% of the oxygen we breathe. But this claim – which has inundated social media outlets – may be a bit misleading.

According to atmospheric scientists, this oft-repeated claim is based on a misunderstanding. In fact nearly all of Earth’s breathable oxygen originated in the oceans, and there is enough of it to last for millions of years.

But there are other analogies that we can use to describe the importance of keeping the Amazon alive and well.

For example, Carlos Nobre, a University of Sao Paulo climate scientist, says a better way to picture the Amazon's role is as a sink, draining heat-trapping carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Currently, the world is emitting around 40 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year. The Amazon absorbs 2 billion tons of CO2 per year (or 5% of annual emissions), making it a vital part of preventing climate change.

Additionally, tropical forests like the Amazon harbor many species of plants and animals found nowhere else. They are important refuges for indigenous people, and contain enormous stores of carbon as wood and other organic matter that would otherwise contribute to the climate crisis.

Thus, while Brazil’s reversal on protecting the Amazon does not meaningfully threaten atmospheric oxygen, the fact that this upsurge in deforestation threatens some of the most biodiverse and carbon-rich landscapes on Earth is reason enough to oppose it.

As the New York Times has said, there may be no consensus on just how much damage is being done by the fires raging through the Amazon basin, but when countless fires are ravaging one of the world's greatest rainforests, the threat is global.

The Amazon is too valuable to lose or shrink. We all have a stake in keeping it alive.