By Chris Lang
A recent paper, published in Science found that 1.5°C of global heating risks crossing five climate tipping points. These are: Greenland ice sheet collapse; West Antarctic ice sheet collapse; Tropical coral reef die-off; Northern permafrost abrupt thaw; and Barents Sea ice loss.
The paper starts with a description of the urgency of the problem:
Climate tipping points (CTPs) are a source of growing scientific, policy, and public concern. They occur when change in large parts of the climate system – known as tipping elements – become self perpetuating beyong a warming threshold. Triggering CTPs leads to significant, policy-relevant impacts, including substantial sea level rise from collapsing ice sheets, dieback of biodiverse biomes such as the Amazon rainforest or warm-water corals, and carbon release from thawing permafrost.
Amazon tipping point
The authors’ best estimate for the temperature at which the Amazon is likely to tip from a rainforest to a savanna is about 3.5°C (within a range of between 2°C and 6°C). But their assessment of the Amazon tipping point did not include the impact of deforestation. “The combination of the warming and the deforestation could bring that a lot sooner,” the lead author of the paper, David Armstrong McKay told the Guardian.
In August 2022, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon jumped 11%, covering a total of 1,661 square kilometres. Deforestation increased 81% compared to August 2021. About 80% of the deforestation took place in Pará, Mato Grosso, and Amazonas.
Deforestation in the month of August 2022 is the second highest since 2006. The highest was 2019, when Amazon fires hit the headlines worldwide.
Lauren Gifford, a Postdoctoral Research Associate at University of Arizona’s School of Geography, Development and Environment, wrote that the 2019 Amazon fires “mark the end of REDD+”:
As the Amazon rainforest burns, and reaches what some scientists have called a “tipping point,” beyond which it might never recover, it is time to unequivocally call an end to the experiment that is REDD+, the development mechanism designed to offset carbon dioxide pollution via investment in tropical forest conservation. The attempt to Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation has failed.
Bolsonaro denies forest destruction
Since President Jair Bolsonaro became took office at the beginning of 2019, deforestation has dramatically increased in the country.
But on 22 August 2022, the day that 3,300 fire alerts were recorded, Bolsonaro gave an interview to TV Globo’s Jornal Nacional. Reuters reported that Bolsonaro denied that deforestation has increased:
Bolsonaro dismissed reports that deforestation in the Amazon has surged on his watch because he has dismantled enforcement policies.
Instead, he charged that the government’s environmental protection agency Ibama has committed abuses by destroying heavy equipment that is usually seized in the rainforest from illegal gold miners.
Bolsonaro added Brazil’s Amazon was the size of Western Europe and the country preserved 66% of its green areas. “Brazil does not deserve to be attacked this way. We will try to improve (Brazil’s image abroad),” he said.
If Bolsonaro were serious about protecting Brazil’s forests, he would support Indigenous Peoples’ rights. There is a large amount of academic research that supports the position that Indigenous Peoples are the best protectors of biodiversity. A 2019 study found that Indigenous managed lands in Australia, Brazil, and Canada have equal or higher biodiversity than protected areas. A 2020 paper found that 36% of the world’s remaining intact forest landscapes are found within Indigenous territories.
Another 2020 study found that Indigenous control of lands reduces deforestation as much or better than protected areas. And a 2021 study found that, “despite increasing resource extraction pressure and growing violence against IPLC [Indigenous Peoples and local communities] who are defending their territories and resources, biodiversity is declining more slowly in areas managed by IPLC than elsewhere”.
Far from supporting Indigenous Peoples’ rights, Bolsonaro has made a series of racist and offensive statements about Indigenous Peoples in Brazil. In 2020, for example, he said that, “The Indians are evolving, more and more they are human beings like us.” In the same interview he said,
“The Indians don’t speak our language, they don’t have money, they don’t have culture. They are Native peoples. How did they manage to get 13% of the national territory?”
Point of no return
A report published earlier this month, titled “Amazonia Against the Clock”, states that “Amazonia is in the midst of a tipping point crisis as deforestation and high degradation combined have already reached 26% of the region.”
The research was carried out by the Amazonian Network of Georeferenced Socioenvironmental Information (RAISG), and the report was published together with Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin (COICA) and Stand.earth.
Marlene Quintanilla at RAISG told New Scientist that, “The ecological response of the forest is changing and its resilience is being lost. We are at a point of no return.”
About 86% of the deforestation in the Amazon has taken place outside protected areas and Indigenous Territories, which cover about half of Amazon (48%). The remaining land (52%) consists of “undesignated areas that are in danger of disappearing and without which it is impossible to avert the tipping point”.
The organisations behind the report are part of an alliance calling for 80% of the Amazon to be protected by 2025:
We, the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin, through our ancestral knowledge and traditions, have protected the Amazon for millennia. Allies from environmental organizations, the human rights and the scientific communities have joined this resistance. Today, we unite in calling for a global agreement for the permanent protection of 80 percent of the Amazon by 2025 as an urgent measure to avert an imminent tipping point and the planetary crisis, and to reach a transformative change. It is time for the international community (governments, civil society, businesses, etc.) to join us in our effort to protect the planet.