French President Emmanuel Macron speaks during a news conference at the G-7 summit in Biarritz, France, Aug. 25, 2019. (Ian Langsdon/Pool via Reuters)
The G-7 Summit, insofar as it dealt with the fires, relied on a hysteria-induced misunderstanding of what’s happening in the Amazon.
Emmanuel Macron may not technically be a celebrity, but he tweets like one.
Prior to the G-7 summit, the French president declared on Twitter, “The Amazon rain forest — the lungs which produce 20% of our planet’s oxygen — is on fire.” He added that “our house is burning,” and called the fires an “international crisis.”
Macron’s tweet was deeply ill-informed, but indistinguishable from the misleading rants of sundry actors and singers.
At least Diddy and Leonardo DiCaprio don’t host multilateral meetings of Western heads of state. Macron does. He made the fires a major item of discussion at the G-7 summit, with the ready assent of other European governments.
The problem with the G-7 summit wasn’t that Donald Trump didn’t get with the program; it was that the program itself, insofar as it dealt with the fires, relied on a hysteria-induced misunderstanding of what’s happening in the Amazon.
The Amazon fires are catnip for proponents of radical action on the climate. They pine for a mediagenic, easy-to-understand planetary emergency and are happy to manufacture one as necessary.
It wasn’t just celebrities who hyped the fires. An NBC News headline declared, “Amazon wildfires could be ‘game over’ for climate change fight.”
According to CNN, “An inferno in the Amazon, two-thirds of which is in Brazil, threatens the rainforest ecosystem and also affects the entire globe.”
The meteorologist Eric Holthaus related the opinion of a specialist in prehistoric Amazon fires that “the current fires are without precedent in the past 20,000 years.”
This is the sense of imminent crisis that so moved Macron and his brethren. Some press reports, beneath the alarming headlines, related a more sober version of events, and a few isolated voices, most notably the environmentalist Michael Shellenberger at Forbes, resisted the dominant narrative.
The fires aren’t an epochal event. According to the New York Times, the Brazilian agency tracking fires by satellite reports that, at this point in the year, it’s the highest number of fires since 2010, which isn’t thousands of years ago — indeed, not even a decade ago.
The fires aren’t the spontaneous result of global warming. The program director of the group Amazon Watch told CNN, “The vast majority of these fires are human-lit,” noting that it isn’t easy for the rainforest to catch fire, even in the dry season.
Nor is it true that deforestation in the Amazon is spiraling out of control. Deforestation markedly diminished in the 2000s. It has picked up again under Brazil’s new populist president Jair Bolsonaro, a trend worth monitoring but hardly the onset of planetary catastrophe.
Is the Amazon the lungs of the world? No. This is drivel based on an erroneous understanding of how the atmosphere gets its oxygen.
At the end of the day, the offer that the G-7 made to Brazil of $20 million to help fight the Amazon fires was reasonable enough. The blustery Bolsonaro would be foolish not to accept it. The Amazon is a natural wonder worth preserving on its own terms, and it could at some point get caught in a cycle of drought and fire.
Still, Macron and Co. need to be aware of how their highhandedness comes across in Brazil. Advanced countries that deforested long ago should be humble when insisting that a poorer country not do the same. Proposals to buttress the Amazon have to run with the grain of Brazil’s interests, not against it.
This will require sobriety, care and a long view — in other words, exactly the opposite of what we’ve seen over the past couple of weeks. The most fervent devotees of climate change don’t really want science, no matter how often they invoke the word; they want drama and memorable images, believing they will catalyze action more than a properly modulated account of the best research.
If they have to blow their credibility, one faux emergency at a time, so be it.