I find it really fun showing where widely believed “facts” are, in reality, total BS, especially when the “facts” are being spread by politicians and celebrities. Recently I wrote a post about the Australian fires which showed how common beliefs about those were grossly exaggerated versions of the truth, but now I want to extend this to an even more egregious example of how almost everything, reported in both conventional and social media, about a politically trendy subject, is actually completely untrue.
The subject is actually a very similar one to the Australian fires: it is the fires in the Amazon, mainly from the middle of 2019. These were widely seen as an environmental disaster of unprecedented proportions, a major reason to call for climate action, and a reason to criticise the right-wing government of Brazil. In reality, all of these claims are doubtful.
I initially became interested in this after listening to a skeptical podcast, called the “Reality Check”. Skepticism often involves examining the truth of claims which many people just regard as true without a lot of thought, and this is a classic example of that phenomenon.
So let’s see what the claims are regarding the fires and how they compare with the reality…
Claim 1: The Amazon fires are worse this year than they have been in the past.
Response: Most people find the idea of the Amazon burning like this to be deeply worrying, but the evidence shows the fires during 2019 were no worse than similar fires in many of the previous 15 years. In fact, NASA says the year 2010 was worse. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned, but saying it is worse than usual is misleading at best.
Claim 2: The fires have been allowed to get this bad because of the policies of the right-wing government.
Response: It is true that the current president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, doesn’t seem to rate environmental protection as a high priority, but as I said above, the fires aren’t really any worse than they have been in the past, so if there is any negligence in protecting the environment, it doesn’t only apply to him. Also, the Amazon soil is not productive and after a few years of planting crops the farmers tend to abandon their current land and clear more by burning the forest. This is obviously an unsustainable practice, but not one instigated by the current government.
Claim 3: The Amazon is the “lungs of the planet” providing over 20% of our oxygen. Any damage to it will affect the Earth badly.
Response: While the destruction of all that forest will almost certainly have negative consequences on the environment, this claim is untrue. According to an expert on this subject, tropical forests are responsible for 34% of the photosynthesis on the land. So the Amazon potentially produces 26% of the oxygen produced on the land, or 9% if production from the ocean is included. Another climate scientist estimates the true number is 6% or less.
But trees also use oxygen in respiration as well as producing it through photosynthesis, so that number should be cut in half, leaving about 4%. But it’s even worse than that, because soil bacteria use any oxygen left over. So the Amazon produces no extra oxygen at all, and the oxygen in our atmosphere comes almost entirely from the oceans.
Note that many “trusted” sources, such as ABC, CNN, and Business Insider, as well as celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio and Cristiano Ronaldo, and politicians such as Emmanuel Macron have quoted the 20% number, but it simply isn’t true.
Claim 4: Photos on various sources show massive, out of control fires in the Amazon during 2019.
Response: Many of the photos are “fake”. They show fires from other locations on Earth, or fires from the Amazon, but from previous years. The fact that people are showing these photos with the intention of emphasising how bad the fires are at this time and place, yet they come from other times and places, shows how misleading this material is.
Many examples of this fakery exist, such as one titled “pray for Amazonia” which is actually a photo of a fire in Montana from 2000. Kendall Jenner posted two images, one from a 2014 fire in Sweden, and the other a fire in Siberia. Another post showing 4 images were from a fire in California in 2013, the Amazon in 1989, the Amazon in 2018 at the latest, and a digital map showing fires from the year 2000 to 2014.
It’s unlikely that these celebrities, news sources, and others are deliberately posting false images and information. More likely they are just ignorant and careless. Because the information they are sharing fits in with their political beliefs – particularly against the president of Brazil – they just distribute it without checking.
Claim 5: Environmental disasters like these will result in the loss of all life on the planet, or at least a massive reduction in biodiversity.
Response: An expert has calculated that if every living thing on the land of this planet was burned the atmospheric oxygen would reduce from 20.9% of the total atmospheric gases to 20.4%. That doesn’t seem like a change which is likely to result in mass extinction (apart from the fact that all life on land was burned – but remember this is just a thought experiment).
So it seems like this is just another hysterical overreaction to an event which is definitely problematic, but completely different from what is being seen in mainstream and social media. If we are going to debate, and try to fix, these issues we should start with the facts, not fantasy.
Conclusion: There is a very good chance that everything you see in both the “official” mainstream media and in social media today is untrue. By the way, I did fact check all of the counter-claims I made here, and confirmed them from sources such as NASA, Factcheck.org, etc.
Sadly, this lack of accuracy literally applies to everything, not just material concentrating on environmentalism, politics, or social trends (see numerous blog posts I have done on this, especially “Gell-Mann Amnesia” from 2019-06-18). At best what you see will be inaccurate, one-sided, out of date, or misleading. At worst it will be simple lies and propaganda. Don’t ignore it completely, but be suspicious… be very suspicious.