Forest Fires Have Globally Declined By 25% Since 2003 Thanks To Economic Growth

“The whole world is burning”, has been the repeated headline in The New York Times, CNN, and mainstream media outlets around the world in recent days.

The Amazon could soon “self-destruct” reported The Times. It would be “a nightmare scenario that could see much of the world’s largest rainforest erased from the earth,” Max Fisher wrote, “some scientists who study the Amazon ecosystem call it imminent.”

“If enough [Amazon] rain forest is lost and can’t be restored, the area will become savanna, which doesn’t store as much carbon, meaning a reduction in the planet’s ‘lung capacity,’” reported The New York Times.

The New York Times also claimed that it’s not just the Amazon, though. Africa, Siberia, and Indonesia are also apparently going up in smoke. A report noted, “in central Africa, vast stretches of savanna are going up in flame. Arctic regions in Siberia are burning at a historic pace.”

Any follower of the New York Times and other mainstream media outlet would probably believe that forest fires are on the rise globally, but they aren’t. In reality, according to NASA, there was a whopping 25%  decrease in the area burned from 2003 to 2019. The area burned in Africa between 2003 and 2015, declined by an area equivalent in size to Texas (700,000 square kilometers or 270,000 square miles).

Contrary to the dreary picture painted by celebrities and the mainstream media especially social media, that declare that fires around the world are caused by economic growth, the truth is quite the opposite. The amount of land being burned is declining owing to development and urbanization. This is so because the amount of land being converted into ranches and farms has been steadily going down, not up, and more ground-clearing work being done with machines than with fire.

The land area burned by fire has declined 25% from 2003-2019 thanks to economic growth. NASA

In the last 35 years, the world has been re-foresting extensively leading to the fact that new tree growth has exceeded deforestation. The area of our planet covered with forest land has increased by an area equivalent to the combined size of Texas and Alaska.

Globally, less land is being converted into agriculture in part as farmers are growing more food on less land. Most of the reforestation is occurring in deserts and tundra that had been barren due to human-led reforestation initiatives in China and Africa to combat global warming. Warmer temperatures have allowed forests to grow in originally tundra regions.

But strangely, the mainstream journalists have botched this story. They should be aware of the decline in burning since scientists published a major study in the Science journal in 2015. Even NASA had promoted the Science article by writing an update confirming a continuation of the decline in fires on August 20, 2019.

And even then, the mainstream journalists have continued to push the apocalyptic version in their coverage of fires in Amazon and Africa in a bid to link them to climate change.

Consider this instance of how The New York Times misrepresented global fires earlier this week. Kendra Pierre-Louis wrote, “Their increase in severity and spread to places where fires were rarely previously seen is raising fears that climate change is exacerbating the danger”.

Fact Check- this is wrong. In truth, the climate-fire nexus carries good news as the decline in area burned has offset much of the risk of increased fire from global warming, as told by Doug Morton, co-author of the 2015 Science study and a forest scientist at NASA’s Goddard Institute.

Niels Andela of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center said “When land use intensifies on savannas, fire is used less and less as a tool. As soon as people invest in houses, crops, and livestock, they don’t want these fires close by anymore. The way of doing agriculture changes, the practices change, and fire disappears from the grassland landscape.”

Morton said, “Climate change has increased fire risk in many regions, but satellite burned area data show that human activity has effectively counterbalanced that climate risk, especially across the global tropics. We’ve seen a substantial global decline over the satellite record, and the loss of fire has some really important implications for the Earth system.”

NASA notes, “Regions with less fire saw a decrease in carbon monoxide emissions and an improvement in air quality during fire season. With less fire, savanna vegetation is increasing—taking up more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.”

But all this positive information has been completely overshadowed by the apocalyptic pronouncements of the New York Times, CNN, Leonardo DiCaprio, Rep., Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Madonna, Senator Bernie Sanders, French President Emmanuel Macron, Senator Kamala Harris who continue to spread misinformation. Even after the images shared by them on social media were proved fake and belonging to the 2019 Amazon fires, they have not deleted their posts about the Amazon.

The New York Times’ Kendra Pierre-Louis even repeated the myth “lungs of the world” myth in her August 28 story. Celebrities along with the mainstream news media have advanced an apocalyptic narrative of fires in the Amazon as violent intrusions on nature. This picture is also false.

The senior author of a major Science paper about the decline of fires, Jim Randerson of the University of California, Irvine, said, “Fire had been instrumental for millennia in maintaining healthy savannas, keeping shrubs and trees at bay and eliminating dead vegetation,”

In truth, the decline in burning has given rise to new challenges.

Morton explained, “For fire-dependent ecosystems like savannas the challenge is to balance the need for frequent burning to maintain habitat for large mammals and to maintain biodiversity while protecting people’s property, air quality, and agriculture.”

According to the George Mason University environmental philosopher, Mark Sagoff, the catchy myth of the Amazon as the “lungs of the Earth” providing “20% of the world’s oxygen,” seems to have been invented by a Malthusian Cornell University scientist in 1966.

Sagoff elaborated, “In the 1960s, when ‘lungs of the earth’ was the big reason to save the rain forest,” “I got interested in it as a scientific question. I found no evidence that any tropical rainforest contributes to the net oxygen budget of the world.”

Sagoff even shared a 1966 article by Cornell University scientist LaMont C. Cole in the journal BioScience where he claimed that, as a result of burning  fossil fuels, “the oxygen content of the atmosphere must start to decrease.”

This claim was proven incorrect and debunked in 1970 by climatologist Wallace S. Broecker who wrote for Science in June 1970 that, “ In almost all grocery lists of man’s environmental problems is found an item regarding oxygen supply. Fortunately for mankind, the supply is not vanishing as some have predicted.”

Broeker explained that he wrote his article because the mainstream media was spreading Cole’s myth, “Hopefully the popular press will bury the bogeyman it created”.

Unfortunately, it didn’t. It is no wonder that public trust in the news media has been declining over the years with most Americans today say they do not trust it.

The statistic that 69% of the public say that trust can be restored is good news for the news media. A good start in this direction would be for CNN, The New York Times, and other media outlets to correct their misrepresentation of the forest fires, and start covering the issue of the fires fairly and accurately.

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