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Shouting “Fire!” in the Amazon – A Double-Edged Sword?

This piece will be part of a regular blog from Future Earth Communications Director Alistair Scrutton on issues of communicating science. The blog does not represent the views of Future Earth.

When it comes to communicating climate change, what is more effective? Shouting “Fire!” inside your house, or shouting “In ten years our house will be underwater!”?

The recent spat between the G7 and Brazil underscored how communicating science may be a political minefield as the climatic impacts increasingly make themselves felt. The often slumberous G7 woke up to messages of uncontrolled Amazon fires threatening the “world’s lungs” with warnings of trade retaliation. They seem to have had some impact as Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted by sending in the army to battle the blazes.

As David Wallace-Wells puts it in a fascinating article in New York magazine, “The Glimmer of a New Climate Order” climate change is worsening, but for politicians it is also getting an easier sell. That is not all good.

“Judged strictly from the semi-sociopathic perspective of journalistic narrative, the climate change story is getting “better.” Rather than relying on dry-sounding predictions of centuries-long sea-level rise measured in centimeters or inches, natural disasters and extreme weather are teaching us all how to tell stories that horrify us into action, even of an imperfect kind,” he wrote.

Focusing on short term emergencies is tempting. But the 24 hours news cycle is open to exaggeration and a lack of nuance that can risk accusations of alarmism, undermining science’s credibility over longer-term threats. It can all be a bit of a journalistic blur.

Media coverage over the Amazon struggled for this simple focus. Initially, the fires in the Amazon presented a dramatic, easy media story. President Emmanuel Macron helped push the  panic button with his tweet about the lungs of the planet being under threat.

But then there was a backlash in some mainstream media – this was not the work of “climate skeptics.” Reports surfaced over whether deforestation and fires were particularly serious from a historical point of view.  Environmental writer Michael Shellenberger in Forbes criticized the inaccurate label of the Amazon being “the lungs of the planet” as typical of media sensationalism.  The New York Times said much of the fires were on land that had already been cleared for agriculture rather the picture of virgin rainforest painted on much TV coverage.

Writers like Shellenberger were heavily criticized because the overall, longer-term picture may have been lost.

While the Amazon may not act as the planet’s lungs from the perspective of oxygen, it acts as an important carbon dioxide sink. Many leading scientists like Amazon expert Carlos Nobre say ongoing Amazon deforestation could lead to a tipping point, as decreases in rainfall threaten to plunge the region’s vast jungle into savannah, potentially leading to domino impacts in South America and the Earth system.

The overall message on the Amazon was made murkier by the sensitivities to Western criticism from countries like Brazil, where any idea of colonialism touches a raw nerve.

Some argued Marcon’s criticism and G-7 pressure provided common cause between conservationist groups and Western powers, with Europe happy to exclude low-cost Brazilian food from the EU — effectively turning protection of climate to protectionism on trade. Europe can easily ignore its own history of cutting trees to fuel development, and their current role of encouraging deforestation through our passion for hamburgers.

As the smoke cleared, Macron showed how emotive messages on climate change may have impacts we cannot imagine. As Wallace-Wells argues, the G7 may have crossed a Rubicon with its trade retaliation threats. Could climate change become the new rallying cry for foreign intervention and the promotion of Western interests?

Wallace-Wells asked us to imagine “a world, probably at least a few years away, in which a similar group of nations — or a similarly concerned single superpower — does take the next step and threatens military action.”

At the heart of this thinking is that the world’s powerful states will increasingly exert their influence when their own survival is threatened. There is an intellectual tradition to back this up – namely the Realism theory of international relations. It does not bode well for anyone who somehow thinks that liberal-minded governments will band together in a common cause.

With this elephant in the room, the Amazon fires may have been a pilot episode where governments, rather than ignoring climate change, use it for their own national advantages.

Telling the next climate “emergency” with good science is more important than ever. It is probably just around the corner.

This piece will be part of a regular blog from Future Earth Communications Director Alistair Scrutton on issues of communicating science. The blog does not represent the views of Future Earth.