Withering deforestation rates in the Amazon rainforest, paired with the damaging policies of far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, are reportedly pushing the forest to an irreversible “tipping point” within two years.
Once the Amazon passes this point, the rainforest would cease to be able to produce its own rain—a crucial part of its ability to sustain itself—and it would degrade into dry savannah and grasslands, releasing enormous amounts of carbon emissions into the atmosphere, disrupting weather patterns across South America, and sending global heating through the roof.
The stark warning was issued this week in a policy brief by Monica de Bolle, a senior fellow at the Washington D.C.-based Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIEE).
De Bolle tweeted:
“The time for action is now.”
At current rates of deforestation the Amazon could reach its tipping point before the end of Bolsonaro´s term in office. The time for action is now.https://t.co/A9aLGAt4wa
— Monica de Bolle (@bollemdb) October 23, 2019
The Guardian reports that the analyst said:
“It’s a stock, so like any stock you run it down, run it down – then suddenly you don’t have any more of it.”
Speaking to News.com.au, Professor Will Steffen explained that economically-driven human activity combined with the fast-growing climate crisis is driving the lush Amazon habitat toward the disastrous tipping point. He said:
“A combination of direct human landclearing and climate change—primarily through changing rainfall regimes—can trigger a rapid conversion of much of the forest to savanna or grassland ecosystems, thereby emitting large amounts of carbon to the atmosphere.”
Since coming to office, the radically right-wing President Bolsonaro has encouraged the illegal deforestation of the Amazon through a combination of a hostile attitude toward environmental regulations and genocidal rhetoric toward indigenous groups whose ancestral land lies in the rainforests.
Bolsonaro and his officials regularly blame environmental laws, activist groups, non-governmental organizations, and indigenous peoples for allegedly hindering Brazil’s economic potential.
These policies led to a doubling of deforestation rates between January and August 2019 versus the same period last year, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, mainly due to the actions of arsonists serving agribusiness and cattle-ranching oligarchs.
In her report, de Bolle wrote:
“The Bolsonaro government has weakened [past agreements] and the capacity of the environmental agencies that monitor and penalize perpetrators of illegal activities in the rainforest. It has cut funding, dismissed personnel, and weakened oversight and enforcement. The Brazilian leader has questioned the data and scientific evidence produced by these agencies … and has called the law enforcement activities of public environmental agencies excessive, referring to the agencies as ‘factories of fines and other penalties’.”
De Bolle also described the Amazon rainforest as a “carbon bomb,” warning that “setting fire to the forest for deforestation may release as much as 200 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere a year, which would spur climate change at a much faster rate, not to mention associated changes in rainfall patterns that may result from deforestation.”
Conservationists and researchers are generally in agreement with de Bolle’s dire assessment of the Amazon and the urgency of saving the rainforest.
In July, the Intercept reported:
“Scientists warn that losing another fifth of Brazil’s rainforest will trigger the feedback loop known as dieback, in which the forest begins to dry out and burn in a cascading system collapse, beyond the reach of any subsequent human intervention or regret. This would release a doomsday bomb of stored carbon, disappear the cloud vapor that consumes the sun’s radiation before it can be absorbed as heat, and shrivel the rivers in the basin and in the sky.
The catastrophic loss of another fifth of Brazil’s rainforest could happen within one generation. It’s happened before. It’s happening now.”
However, not all experts are in full agreement with de Bolle’s extremely short timeline, according to the Guardian.
Brazilian climate researcher Carlos Nobre and U.S. conservation biologist Thomas Lovejoy wrote an article last year that warned that the tipping point would arrive in 20 to 25 years, when one-fifth to a quarter of the forest is destroyed.
Nobre remains skeptical that the deforestation would accelerate at the rate projected by de Bolle. However, he said:
“I hope she is wrong. If she is right, it is the end of the world.”
Lovejoy, however, is unsettled by de Bolle’s research—and fears that it may come true.
“We are seeing the first flickering of that tipping.
It’s sort of like a seal trying to balance a rubber ball on its nose … the only sensible thing to do is to do some reforestation and build back that margin of safety.”
De Bolle offered a number of recommendations to avert the unfolding disaster in the Amazon. These included:
- Washington rejoining the Paris climate agreement and working with Brazil to preserve the rainforest.
- Brazil adopting sensible land use policies that allow for some farming and grazing while actually enforcing its bans on illegal logging and mining activities.
- Brazil reinstituting past rural credit policies through public banks, which would both alleviate poverty and reduce deforestation, as was successfully the case from 2004 to 2014.
- Brazil taking the lead in global efforts to preserve the forest while reducing inequality in the region by creating jobs and reducing sky-high regional poverty rates.
- The international community and Brazil resolving differences over managing the Amazon and collaborating to boost the Amazon Fund.
Claudio Angelo of the Climate Observatory told the Guardian that while de Bolle’s calculations are quite grim, the brief’s recommendations are very sound and “the points [she] made are quite real.”
“For all the madness, Bolsonaro did manage to make people talk about the Amazon.”