Amazon fires: Could we reach the tipping point for runaway climate change?

26 August 2019

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GLOBAL  – Images of the Amazon burning from space show a black cloud extending over half of South America, the continent dotted with incendiary markers representing, as of Sunday, 78,000 fires, half deliberately lit since the start of August.

The season of the ‘queimada’, the burn-off undertaken by cattle ranchers on 10 August, saw 2500 new fires lit in 48 hours. The cattle ranchers hoped to signal their support for the far-right President Jair Bolsanaro, the ‘Tropical Trump’ who has weakened ecological protections and aims to build the Brazilian economy at any cost.

When he came to power in January, he said he would “not give one more inch” to the Indigenous people of the Amazon; indeed, he’d run a highway through the middle of it to access land and mining resources.

The blaze over the Amazon Basin, roughly the same size as Australia at 7 million square kilometres, threatens nine countries, 30 million people, 400 tribes, custodians of the Amazon for 11,000 years, three million species, 20 per cent of global terrestrial oxygen, and 25 per cent of the world’s carbon sink. Scientists fear, at its worst, that half the Amazon could be lost above ground.

A wider problem

Problematically, soil degradation from climate change has already put the Amazon on track to lose half its capacity for carbon absorption by 2035. Already compromised, what’s also not yet talked about is that eight metres of peat beneath the Amazon, if set alight, has the potential to spark a subterranean mega-fire that could burn for decades. Together, they would belch the world’s entire remaining carbon budget into the atmosphere, demolishing the target for the Paris Agreement and sending the world into net zero emissions territory without any remaining buffer.

Land masses known for being covered in ice have started to burn due to a combination of low humidity and climate change drying out fuel sources. The Siberian tundra, Alaska and Greenland are developing bigger fire seasons every year.

The Amazon sits on 35,000 square kilometres of peat, but the Congo sits on 150,000, and Borneo on 440,000. If the world’s peat caught alight, it would pump out enough emissions to power the US economy for 200 years. This is without considering what lies beneath the polar regions. With drier climates, ignition of existing fuel-loads are more likely. With poverty comes more ignition due to arson, where the same processes play out worldwide.

The Australian story

In Australia, it’s been confirmed that most of our 62,000 fires per year are deliberately lit, but the reasons are somewhat different to those emerging in South America. A small number of Australian fires are lit by lightning and reignition points, but recent satellite analyses confirm about 90 per cent are due to human activity, both accidental, suspicious or deliberate.

If the world’s peat caught alight, it would pump out enough emissions to power the US economy for 200 years.

About half are lit by children and adolescents, following the same age-crime curve that affects every crime in every nation, but the true arsonist aiming at maximum destruction is much older and acts alone, at least in Australia. They lurk on the urban fringes where bushland meets the edges of development. This is a crime that has equal parts psychopathology and poverty, whereas fires in South America are almost entirely economic and 99 per cent human.

Arson in the developing world is always driven by poverty. While about 2000 fires are burning the Amazon, there are 7000 fires burning in Angola, 1000 in neighbouring Zambia, 3000 in the Congo, 800 in Australia and 550 in Indonesia.

Ravaged by civil war, small landholders in Africa use fire to clear and replenish the soil in a wasteland littered with landmines. Their motive is entirely economic, as it is in Indonesia and South America.

The same sorts of motives play out as poor farmers respond to poverty, which has its origins, in some part, with us in the developed world. There are mining companies paying local villagers to light fires across protected reservations in the Congo. Protecting mountain gorillas has become an exercise in helping locals develop out of poverty, resist the incentives given by mining companies, and poachers for bushmeat or Chinese medicine. Likewise, the orang-utans of Borneo are threatened by mining interests, and the Amazon Basin is threatened by companies such as BHP and Vale in search of iron ore and gold.

Apart from mining, illegal logging and soy plantations, 70 per cent of burning in the Amazon is stimulated by the needs of local cattle ranchers, and 80 per cent of their produce is for export – Europe, America and China being the biggest consumers. About 57 percent of soy produce in the Amazon Basin goes to China. Illegal timber goes to Europe and the United States.

Lessons to learn

It’s easy for the developed world to pass judgement. But we should remember that Latin America is a place of rich culture and home to a people who live far more sustainably than we do in Australia. They live almost as long and are happier compared to Australia, despite having only a third of its wealth.

It’s easy for the developed world to pass judgement. But we should remember that Latin America is a place of rich culture and home to a people who live far more sustainably than we do in Australia.

Some of their countries are the most sustainable, both in terms of human and planetary outcomes. To put it in context, if the remainder of the carbon budget were fairly given to every person on Earth, Australians would have used up their share by 2022. If everyone in the world lived like Australians, we would pump out enough carbon emissions to exceed 8 degrees Celsius warming by the end of the century.

Perhaps the developed world needs to find a way of rewarding the custodians of the Amazon and other planetary factors, so they don’t have to resort, in desperation, to burning it.

Indeed, a bit more equity in Australia would also go a long way towards reducing its own problem with arson. On the edges of our bushland, children are neglected, parents work 60-hour weeks, and transport and welfare systems remain undeveloped. Growing social chaos is driving some to express their dismay with fire.

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