Remember the Amazon?

tl;dr: problems that are far away still matter even when you're distracted by what is going on in your own backyard.


Aug 1 is World Lung Cancer Day. Breathing is obviously vital. It is one of the most basic elements of survival. We know something is wrong with our health when our respiration is impacted. If the planet were to have a set of lungs, they would be forests, and specifically tropical rainforests. The poster child of tropical rainforests is the Amazon. In the early 2000s, there was a large amount of coverage about the perils of Amazon deforestation. Rainforest loss was a calling card that brought many people over to the side of environmentalism. The facts even back then were pretty alarming. What was slightly different was the primary messaging. The threat was not related to how much carbon forests can remove from the atmosphere, but endangered plants and animals. Forests are incredibly diverse habitats, holding up to 80% of all flora and fauna on this planet. There is no more diverse region than the Amazon rainforest. Hopefully many people know this all too well. The messaging in the past was that we were losing thousands of species and the rate of extinction was accelerating to alarming levels.



As we saw Brazil trying to leverage their natural resources, many warnings were given that the Amazon was simply too important to replace with grazing lands, soybean farms, or other important industries that would allow Brazil to become a global economic power. I can distinctly recall the question being asked "what if we were to miss out on a cure for cancer because we would lose incredible plant species indigenous to the region?" The primary message was not that the Amazon was, in effect, the world's lungs. Oh, how things have changed.


What is incredibly frustrating is that while the warnings have evolved to the necessity of our times, it seems to me that what is going on in the Amazon is being discussed less and less. There is a reason for this. That is the concept of triage. Triage is the method used to determine the priority of treating patients based on the severity and type of injuries that they have. In the US, the prominent climate discussion is how hot things are getting. After all, almost every single region in the US has experienced record high days, weeks, and months this year. The other issue is the extended drought that the American southwest is experiencing. Some of it can be attributed to La Niña, a regular weather phenomenon, but most of the blame needs to be put where it rightfully belongs, which is in the results of anthropogenic climate change, or things that human beings are doing.


What is truly tragic is that for much of our environmental past, it seemed like the warning signs were too far away and too theoretical to be taken seriously by people who cannot comprehend causality. Scientists have been yammering away for decades about the polar ice caps melting. Average Joe still quips "Well, apparently they haven't gone anywhere because there is still ice." The vast majority of Americans live nowhere near polar ice caps. So the threat wasn't nearly as urgent. Most people also will never visit the Amazon, so if jaguars, river dolphins, or giant otters go extinct, it's really not a big deal, right? I mean, the zoos have loads of these dumb creatures!



Climate emergencies have started to creep closer and closer to our boundaries and lives. Forest fires have become regular news stories. Tropical storm impacts are becoming more and more costly. US cities are about to run out of water. All of these issues are dominating our priorities and suddenly we don't speak about Amazon deforestation. Combine that with an anti-environmental leader in Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, and what you get is now record high levels of deforestation in this vitally important region. I would bet the farm that most people are completely unaware that this is happening. The deforestation is so comprehensive that the Amazon is now a carbon emitter, and not a capturer. All that acreage burned to clear space for cattle, gold mining, agriculture, and other heavy industries has taken its toll.


It is somewhat annoying to be the individual to consistently remind people that things are really, really bad. Many would point out that statements like this are pretty obvious, so why the need for the frequent updates? Additionally, it can be exhausting to constantly be the person telling others what we have forgotten or overlooked. The problem is that we're really overlooking something that is vitally important. The messaging about what forests can do to remove carbon from the atmosphere is dead-on accurate. The problem is that we're now too distracted by the immediacy and proximity of the impacts of global warming to care.


Climate change knows no boundaries and what happens in the Amazon or in Greenland really does matter to you in the US. By the way, the things that we do here matter to the Amazon and Greenland, as well. It's not a one way street of causality. While you might not be able to see the incredible rainforests, you definitely will feel their loss. Take a moment to look at the map above. The black boundary used to be all rainforest. Look at how much more white and yellow space there is now. Look at all the forest fires in the multitude of red dots. The vast majority of this habitat loss has occurred in my lifetime. The blunt truth is that Amazon is important to you. However, most of you are picking the wrong one. The Amazon that you should be thinking of is not the one offering deep discounts, but the one sustaining all of our lives.

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