I hadn’t thought much about forest fires in Brazil until the country was offered $20 million to fight them by the G-7 nations. I wondered why my home province of British Columbia hadn’t been made a similar offer. I mean, we do get forest fires annually with last year (2018) a record-breaker; 2,115 fires and 1.35 million hectares of forest destroyed. It surpassed 2017’s record high of 1.22 million hectares of forest destroyed.
Long summer days from late May can, by mid-June, render the province tinder dry and ready for rapid conflagration sparked by lightning strikes, carelessly tossed cigarette butts and campfires neglectfully left smouldering.
So, it’s taken me a while to start paying attention to the wildfires now roaring through Brazil’s Amazon rain forest, destroying – so the news reports tell me – “a football pitch size” of forest every few minutes or so and using “fake” photographs to ramp up the drama.
BC is not alone suffering from wildfires on the West Coast of North America. Between July and late September, wildfires also ravage Alaska, the Yukon, and the states of Washington, Oregon and California – especially California – with intense ferocity.
These fires, like those in the Amazon, are spread over vast areas. In BC last year, the “big fires” burned for days or weeks in the Stikine, Kitimat, Bulkley-Nechako and Cariboo, and “not quite so large” in the Peace River, Northern Rockies, Okanagan-Similkameen and Central Kootenay.
Accompanying all major fires are air quality concerns. In 2018, BC was troubled with increased risk from added smoke drifting north from U.S. fires.
In BC, all air quality stations registered higher than seven on the Air Quality Health Index on at least one day, and several remained there for many days with warnings issued that children, the elderly and anyone with heart or breathing problems should reduce strenuous outdoor activities. In some regions, “above seven” warnings remained in effect for between 18 days (south Okanagan) and 32 days (Prince George).
It all set me wondering why Brazil’s fires should be attracting such widespread attention – and merit a gift of $20 million from G-7, of which Canada is a member. It didn’t take much research to discover that Brazil’s rain forests contribute heavily to the world’s supply of oxygen – the stuff we need if we are to breathe long enough to slow down global warming – and that without the Amazon’s lungs, our world would be seriously endangered.
Then, in reports from The National Institute for Space Research, came a series of numbers quickly sharpening the focus of my BC-biased mind. The NIFSR informed me that between January 1st and August 1st of this year, Brazil’s Amazon rain forest had been hit by 75,300 fires, an 85 per cent increase over the previous year. In the land of my birth, such announcements are appropriately termed “gob smacking.” The NIFSR does note that some of those fires could be small, but all had been “reportable.”
(In the name of accurate reporting, the New York Times has reported Brazil’s reported fire numbers “this year at 39,194 … a 77 per cent increase …” My numbers are from a table reproduced by the BBC from the NIFSR covering January 1st to August 21st. The NYT could have been quoting January to July, but 39,000-plus is still a helluva whack compared with BC’s two thousand.)
Brazil isn’t alone among South America’s big burners. Venezuela has fought or is fighting 26,500 wildfires – up 19 per cent; Bolivia 17,200 plus – up 114 per cent. But, Brazil does appear to stand alone with its new deforestation policy of clearing rain forest to create arable land for commercial agricultural projects.
In a recent opinion piece, The Guardian quoted a science community warning that President Jair Bolsonaro’s plan to convert rain forest to farms will eliminate 20 per cent of the world’s oxygen supply – “the most valuable asset humanity possesses in our increasingly difficult battle to avoid climate catastrophes.”
That is Universal catastrophe, not just Brazilian.
And therein lies a problem. President Bolsonaro was surprisingly elected last November. His Environment Minister is Ricardo Salles who, last year while serving as a state environment official in Sao Paulo, was found guilty of “administrative improprieties” for having changed a map to benefit mining companies. He was fined and deprived of his political rights – including his right to seek public office.
It was just three weeks after his conviction that Bolsonaro appointed him to cabinet. Like Bolsanaro, Salles does not believe in climate change.
That means other world leaders will need to figure out how to handle Bolsonaro – without the help and power of the United States whose President Donald Trump – also a climate change denier.
It will not be easy. Brazil, in a free world, has the right to do what it likes with its natural resources. But what should the rest of the world do if a Brazilian decision endangers not just other nations but the world, the universe and possibly all humanity?
The scientists tell us the latter is inevitable unless we get some serious checks and balances on climate change. And, that we cannot hope to get even a slow down without the natural assistance the Brazilian Amazon District rain forest has provided since time began.
So, what should our leaders do? Wait and pray for the miracle of an awakening United Nations with the courage to challenge rogue countries with end-of-the-world threats? Or just hold hands and hope it will all go away as we march to the edge of darkness?
Or maybe as nation known for past leadership in United Nation affairs we Canadians could drop Prime Minister Trudeau a line reminding him it was Liberal PM Lester B. Pearson who was a leader among leaders when the UN was founded. A repeat performance on the international stage between now and our federal election in October could be a real World Cup winner.