By Chris Lang
Dahr Jamail is a journalist who, since 2003, has reported on the realities of war in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. For the past several years, he’s written about climate change. On Truthout, he writes the Climate Disruption Dispatches – a summary of the month’s science and reporting on climate change. The most recent is titled, “We Are Destroying Our Life Support System”.
In the interview, Jamail explains what’s wrong with relying on rainforests to store the carbon that we emit from fossil fuels. In short, as the global climate warms, the rainforests are more and more at risk of going up in smoke.
In his book, Jamail explains that with 2°C warming, 40% of the Amazon would be lost within a century. With 3°C warming, 75% of the Amazon would be lost. 4°C warming would see 85% of the Amazon rainforest gone.
A freight train of runaway climate destruction
Jamail points out that, “The oceans have absorbed 93% of all the heat that humans have added to the atmosphere. That’s enough heat for example, that if they hadn’t been absorbing that heat the temperature of the atmosphere would be 97 degrees [Farenheit] hotter than it is right now.”
Hedges responds by saying, “But it means, as you point out in the book, if we stop all carbon emissions all greenhouse gases today, we still get this freight train of runaway climate destruction.” Even if we stopped all greenhouse gas emissions now, we would still see 3°C warming – which would result in three-quarters of the Amazon rainforest going up in smoke.
In the interview, Jamail talks about his visit to the Amazon:
So I was privileged to get to go the Amazon, to Camp 41, founded by Dr Thomas Lovejoy. He’s known as the godfather of biodiversity. He started researching in the Amazon back in 1965 and he created what he called a forest fragmentation study, because forests around the planet, and rainforests as well, are becoming fragmented, meaning because of development, or roads, or wildfires, or whatever reason they are being cut off from themselves….
So, this forest fragmentation shows us what happens to an ecosystem when you cut it off from itself. And essentially what happens is you see biodiversity loss, you see a drying out of the area because water systems are interrupted as well, and other impacts [on species]. So, this is happening globally, that’s what Dr Lovejoy is showing us in the Amazon.
And troublingly enough, given that this is the single most biodiverse place on the planet, we’re seeing massive loss already. For example, there are certain birds that have seen 95% declines, water systems are being shifted.
Hedges interrupts with a question about undiscovered species going extinct. Jamail continues:
The risk of letting the Amazon go, and what’s happening now, especially with Bolsonaro being elected, is that we, you know, how much of our medicine comes from there? And we don’t even know what we’re losing. And that’s I think one of the scariest parts about losing the Amazon.
Hedges points out that medicines for high blood pressure come from the Amazon.
The importance of the Amazon
“We should be clear of the importance of the Amazon,” Hedges says. “As you write, forests pull one-third of our excess CO2 out of the atmosphere every year. But then you write, they could well become a net contributor of CO2 to the atmosphere. Why? You explain why in the book.”
With drying, then, the vital roll for climate change that the Amazon and other forests play is they literally sequester CO2. So we talk about now a mitigation strategy, let’s come up with technology to do that.
Well, we really, if we took care of the forests, it’s already there, they are already doing their job. They literally pull CO2 out of the atmosphere.
As they dry out, as they are chopped down, as they burn from new wildfires, as they experience ever increasingly severe droughts, as I outline in the book, they become instead of sequestering carbon, they become net emitters.
Hedges talks about the beetle infestation in the US north-west. In Yellowstone National Park, 80% of the trees are affected, he says. And the dead trees provide tinder for fires. Jamail responds:
That’s right. This is another example of what we discussed earlier, of a runaway feedback loop. You warm the temperatures, these beetles, over 98% of them usually get killed during the winter, and now it’s not cold enough for that to happen. So some of them are even getting two life [cycles] in a season instead of just one. It’s taking out more trees, here’s all these dead trees standing there dead, dry, bring on the wildfires. And that’s why, one of the reasons we’re seeing such a dramatic increase in wildfires across the country.
They talk about beetle infestations even affecting ancient sequoias. Hedges says, “We should be clear, as you write, that if global temperatures could be held to an increase of 2°C, still as much as 40% of the Amazon would be lost within a century. 3°C would mean three-quarters of the Amazon would disappear. 4°C would mean a loss of 85%.”
And that’s staggering to think about, especially considering the fact that right now, best case scenario, if every government on the planet mandated every mitigation strategy possible and we got off a fossil fuel economy, and did all of things that we should have been doing decades ago, we have 3°C baked into the system as it is, no matter what.
REDD cannot save the Amazon from climate breakdown
3°C means losing three-quarters of the Amazon rainforest. REDD proposes storing carbon emitted from fossil fuels in rainforests, including the Amazon. How can that make sense? It’s like a carbon capture and sequestration scheme that successfully captures carbon, only to release it back to the atmosphere a few years later.
Of course, we should do everything we can to limit deforestation in the Amazon. The Amazon is home to indigenous peoples, it regulates the water cycle, it is habitat for a huge range of animal species, many unknown to science. And the destruction of the Amazon rainforest is releasing vast amounts of carbon, which is accelerating climate breakdown.
But to prevent the Amazon from going up in smoke, we have to address climate breakdown. And that means leaving fossil fuels in the ground.
PHOTO Credit: “From forest to field: How fire is transforming the Amazon”, NASA, 2004.