How can they sleep while the forests are burning?

Reflecting on the Amazon fires and how the media drives climate change news

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Words || James Booth

A few weeks back, plastered across our timelines and twitter feeds were calls that “the earth’s lungs were on fire!”. Everyone from political leaders to celebrities were sharing pictures of the Amazon fires, and calling for the Brazilian government to put an end to the fires started by Brazillian farmers.  

The reportage surrounding the Amazon drew upon the 80% increase in fires between 2018 and 2019, which saw the fear of climate change become front and centre in the lead up to the United Nation’s Climate Action Summit on the 23rd of September. This is hardly unexpected as the Amazon is our earth’s largest remaining tropical rainforest, and houses approximately 10% of the world’s known biodiversity. The rainforest is also reported to contain 90-140 billion metric tonnes of carbon, which if released could accelerate climate change resulting from global warming. 

Moreover, according to the Coordinator of Indigenous Organisations of the Amazon Basin, approximately 2.7million or 9% of the Amazon’s population is made up of indigenous peoples from 350 different ethnic groups – with more than 60 remaining largely isolated from our world. 

Considering that 17% of the Amazon’s forest cover has been lost within the last half century, and the prevalence of illegal logging and trade within the forest, it becomes evident why the world erupted into panic at the thought of our earth’s lungs being on fire. Particularly in that the Amazon is linked to regional climate patterns through hydrological cycles, resulting from the evaporation of water by the forests into rainfall for the region and its surrounding nations. 

What all of this means, is that the Amazon rainforest is a key ecosystem that is highly beneficial for our planet and we as a planet should endeavour to protect it. However, reflecting upon our burning lungs, it must be asked whether the coverage of this specific issue internationally is another in a growing series of environmental reportage which seeks to simplify the complexity of the environmental disaster we’ve found ourselves in. 

It is much easier to report on a tangible event like an increase in forest fires to increase awareness to the impacts of climate change, than it would be to explore the disastrous impact of the coal or fossil fuel’s industries on the planet. Or perhaps to explore the impacts of commercial and private air travel on increasing pollution in our atmosphere. In blaming the Brazilian government for weakening protections for its rainforest that is the “lungs” of our earth, we are realistically removing any sense of responsibility for the climate disaster we are in. Especially when, according to satellite reportage from the National Institute for Space Research, the recent increase in fires is significantly lower that the peaks in 2003-2005, 2007 and 2010. All of which received little to no reportage by the world’s media. 

The reportage of the blazes saw world leaders and celebrities pledge their support to stop the fires. Canadian president Justin Trudeau pledged $15M towards water bombers to help fight the blazes in the Amazon. However, these instances of foreign aid were knocked back by Prime Minister Jair Bolsonaro who accused the G7 leaders of a colonialist mindset. 

This is a viewpoint often shared by scholars and leaders in developing nations in regards to climate change and international environmental action, with many believing that International Law regarding reductions of emissions worldwide is seeking to continue western financial and resource power over developing nations. It is not hard to empathise with these countries, whose resources were largely pillaged through colonialism to benefit the growth of the western world that is  largely responsible for the current climate disaster. We have seen this viewpoint reflected in international agreements. With the 2005 Kyoto protocol drawing upon the common but differentiated responsibility of all nations to resolve climate change, and as such the Kyoto protocol did not regulate the emissions of growing economies India, China, and Brazil. 

In placing the blame for increasing climate change on a tangible event like the burning of the Amazon, nations like Canada can reaffirm their commitment to preventing environmental damage whilst pursuing the Trans Mountain pipeline to the detriment of its indigenous populations. It is hard to not see the hypocrisy here, where a nation state can simultaneously criticise Brazil for an increase in forest fires while pursuing an oil pipeline domestically. This is made especially worse, when nations like Canada have historically refused to meet obligations under the previous climate change protocols themselves.

To look to the Amazon fires as an Australian without simultaneously being outraged at the environmental destruction occurring domestically is to be just as hypocritical, especially given our NSW state and our federal government’s inaction on climate change. The 2019 UN National Inventory Report into Climate Change in Australia, noted that the last four years have seen increases to our carbon emissions – with our last drop in emissions occurring during the carbon tax period of the Gillard-Rudd Labor government. Our nation is not on track to lower our emissions to meet our pledges at the 2015 Parris Climate Summit. Australia was banned from speaking at the UN Climate Summit by the UN Secretary-General due to our coal-supporting economy, and failure of the nation to act on reducing emissions. In turn PM Scott Morrison refused to even attend the summit, with our coal-wielding PM seemingly refusing to even pretend to care about environmental destruction.

It is not hard to look further and find more ways in which Australia is refusing to act on environmental destruction and climate change. We are pursuing the Adani Coal mine, which will constitute the largest coal mine in the nation and only seek to further increase our emissions. Instead of promoting jobs in green energy, we are pursuing jobs in coal that will only increase our emissions further. Queensland suffered an extreme spring bushfire season that is now largely expected to become the new normal, with the dry sclerophyll edges of rainforests burning it is only a matter of time before our own rainforests burn. Moreover, to criticise the Brazilian government for weakening protections for its rainforests without criticism of the Berejiklian government for its weakening of biodiversity protections, is to be ignorant of the impact that our own nation is having on the environment.

While the Amazon may not be our earth’s true lungs, the potential for further destruction and the impacts on climate change are frightening. However, it is important to remain critical of western nations in much the say way. As the historical perpetrators of environmental destruction, it is unfair for developing economies to be expected to halt their production and growth to save western economies that are not doing the same. If we expect the Brazilian government to protect our earth’s amazon, we should start by protecting our own great artesian basin and great barrier reef.