Are the fires in the Amazon rainforest, dubbed the “lungs of the earth” by environmentalists, a crisis? The Heritage Foundation’s Nick Loris joins us to discuss what’s really happening—and add some much-needed context. Read the interview, posted below, or listen to the podcast:
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Kate Trinko: So we’re joined now by Nick Loris. He’s deputy director of the Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation and his work focuses on economic and environmental policy.
Nick, thanks for joining us.
Nick Loris: Thanks for having me.
Trinko: We’ve seen reports that the Amazon rainforest is experiencing the worst fires in a decade and many are calling this a global crisis because the rainforest is quote-unquote, “the lungs of the earth.”
First of all, is that claim true? And if these rainforests all burned down, is everything going to hell in a hand basket?
Loris: Not at all. In fact, many of what has been depicted as a crisis has been exaggerated or dramatized or just flat out wrong.
A lot of the pictures that were tweeted out were pictures from decades ago, some were pictures of fires that happened in the United States. They weren’t even occurring in Brazil. So, there’s a lot of misinformation that’s been spread about these Amazon wildfires.
Even this year, while the number of fires is up 80% over the previous year, it’s really nothing all that new compared to last decade’s average. It’s about 7% higher than last decade’s average.
This is the normal time for these fires in Brazil because the area is used for a lot of different agricultural activities, whether for ranchers and farmers or for growing soybeans. So, there’s a lot of economic activity. This is their dry season. This is when they have a lot of scheduled burns.
Now, there has been some illegal activity and illegal burns through deforestation processes that shouldn’t be happening and that is problematic. But the crisis is not what it is purported to be in the media.
Trinko: And what about this “lungs of the earth” claim? … How essential is it for that we have enough oxygen in the climate?
Loris: It’s not. This “lungs of the earth” moniker that the Amazon has received over the past several days and weeks is just flat out wrong. Most biologists and environmentalists have said that they don’t really know where this phrase came from.
Even the 20% number, say it produces 20% of the world’s oxygen, is not correct because there’s a lot of respiration that occurs in the Amazon rainforest—with the decay that comes from older trees decomposing and the wildlife, the bugs and the beetles and the animals, it’s not just that they’re producing oxygen, but they’re producing the oxygen and taking in oxygen.
So, even if we were to completely eliminate the Amazon rainforest, which is not what I’m advocating for, that’s certainly not what we should do, there’s still plenty of oxygen on the planet. That’s not a crisis, nor will it ever be a crisis anytime soon.
Trinko: You mentioned that the fires are a bit higher, but it sounds like it’s pretty typical for there to be fires in the Amazon rainforest. What’s the historical perspective here? Can you put this year’s fires in a context for us?
Loris: Yeah. In regard to the past decade, they are marginally higher or there’s more of them over this year compared to last decade’s average—7% higher. So, really, not all that much.
It’s been several decades now that Brazil, the people of Brazil, the indigenous people of Brazil, the Brazilian government have recognized that the Amazon forest should be a resource for them. And they understand that a lot of economic activity can come through that area.
So, decades ago, they built a road essentially through the Amazon and that’s created some more economic activity. Understanding that they want to protect a majority of the Amazon rainforest, but they can also use it for economic purposes, mostly agribusiness.
So, over the years, you’ve seen more and more business popping up throughout and adjacent to the Amazon rainforest because it is good land, in some instances, for growing soybeans and for raising livestock. And over the years they’ve had to clear brush and smaller trees and things of that nature and to do that, a lot of these burns are scheduled and controlled.
Trinko: You mentioned the business interests. Is there a way for Brazil to both be a good environmental steward of the Amazon rainforest and be a good place for business?
Loris: Absolutely. And that’s one of the concerning things that I’ve been reading about this is it’s just pitted the agribusiness of Brazil against the environmental and the international community who want to see the Amazon preserved. And both of those things can happen. They’re certainly not mutually exclusive.
Part of the problem for Brazil, which is it has a very robust agricultural business, I believe it provides about a quarter of their entire gross domestic product. So it’s pretty substantial.
Part of the problem is that the regulations and the permits for scheduled clears and scheduled burns have become more cumbersome and more time-consuming and that’s been problematic and created the perverse incentive of having more illegal burns and deforestation.
So, you can have scheduled burns and you can clear certain areas, for short, to allow for agricultural productivity while protecting a majority of the rainforest.
At the same time, you want to make sure that if you are protecting certain areas and you don’t want them cleared for economic purposes, you are compensating the Brazilian farmers and the cattlemen and the ranchers and the indigenous populations who live there who are losing economic opportunity. One of the things I equate it to in the United States is the Endangered Species Act.
So, if you own minerals underneath your property, if you come across a huge deposit of oil or natural gas, all of the sudden you’re very wealthy and the value of your property increases significantly.
If you have a endangered species on your property, an endangered bird and you’re a logger in Oregon or Washington, the value of your property and your business decreases significantly if that bird’s habitat is on your property because you can no longer log.
In that instance, what it does for the logger is creates the perverse incentive to chop down the street to destroy the habitat and potentially lose economic opportunity while also resulting in a worse-off environmental state by destroying the endangered species’ habitat.
I think that’s somewhat relevant to what’s happening in Brazil, is that there’s a perverse incentive right now for some of these farmers and cattlemen to have unscheduled illegal burns because of the rigorous regulations that have resulted in limiting their economic opportunity.
Trinko: OK. CNN is reporting that Brazil “has banned the use of fire to clear land throughout the country for 60 days in response to the massive increase in blazing fires in the Amazon rainforest that has caused international outrage.” Is this the right call?
Loris: It may or may not be. … An outright ban is usually not the best result. If you look at where the burns have been scheduled and there are legalized permits, that’s areas where it should be allowed to continue. They should focus on the areas where illegal activity is going on and if there is an international commitment to put out the fires in certain areas where that illegal activity is going on, that’s where the concentration should be.
So, Brazil already has laws against illegal deforestation and illegal burns. Those laws should be enforced and that’s where the forest fires should be focused on, where we put them out.
But this is still a way of life for Brazil. This has been happening for a long, long time. It doesn’t make sense to blame the current Brazilian government for something that’s been going on for decades.
And if this is their way of life, the international community shouldn’t chastise them for something that they’ve done for a long time and largely has had successful results in making sure that their agricultural community is well off while the rest of the rainforest is protected, which is a significant amount.
Trinko: Speaking of the international community. A few days ago, French President Emmanuel Macron offered about $20 million in international aid from him and others to help Brazil fight these fires.
Brazil turned it down, has accepted aid from other countries, there’s a whole lot of drama I don’t need to get into. But does the international community need to help here, and should Brazil be accepting any and all offers?
Loris: I think the Brazilian government and the Brazilian people were frustrated with this entire process. One, because of a lot of the misinformation that had been out there. But also because of the sovereignty of the rainforest.
This belongs to them, this doesn’t belong to the world. And the international community and the government of France and elsewhere were treating it like this was something that was new, that was existential, and that was a crisis. And that clearly was not the case.
I think it’s fine for them to accept money, to allocate that money to farmers and cattleman who may lose economic opportunity as a result of protecting the rainforest, as well as to put out the fires where they are occurring illegally. But at the same time, Brazil should have control of those resources.
This money shouldn’t come with strings attached saying you need to do X, Y, and Z in order to receive these funds. Brazil knows best as to how to fight these fires. They have hundreds of volunteers who have known how to do this and to schedule and maintain these for years now. So, let’s allocate the resources to them, but ensure that they have control as to how they’re dispersed.
Trinko: Last week, MSNBC host Chris Hayes suggested that right-wing politics were behind the fires in the Amazon. Let’s play that clip.
Chris Hayes: The important thing to understand, and the reason that we’re showing you these images, the ones you’re seeing on your screen, is that this is not just some natural thing that just happened. It is in many ways the product of politics. Of right-wing politics. Of a right-wing movement dedicated to climate denial amid climate destruction. Just like the right-wing movement we have right here in the U.S. In Brazil, this guy, Donald Trump’s buddy, Jair Bolsonaro, is the president.
Trinko: Nick, is there any truth that right-wing politics is to blame for this?
Loris: No. Again, if you look at the trends and the data of forest fires in Brazil—and there’s a lot of good statistical evidence as to these fires occurring for decades—some of the highest years were under President Lula, who was the president of the workers movement party, a far-left party in Brazil, from 2003 to 2008, some of the largest years of fires in Brazil. And that happened without the international community batting an eye.
So, again, I think people do need to understand that this is a way of life in Brazil. That this has occurred for years, for decades, and understandably one can be upset if these activities are occurring illegally and it’s leading to both economic and environmental destruction. But rather than playing a blame game, we should be focused on productive policy solutions that adequately protect the rainforest while compensating the people who lose economic activity from not being able to grow soybeans or not being able to raise beef and livestock in these areas.
There’s a solution for both that we should be working in harmony to find solutions rather than just pitting these communities against one another.
Trinko: OK. Well, Nick Loris of The Heritage Foundation, thank you so much for joining us.
Loris: Thanks for having me.