Originally published in Semana Sostenible  

By: Angelica Beltrán, Researcher at Ambiente y Sociedad

The environmental disaster arising from fires in the Brazilian Amazon place us face-to-face with the new realities of globalization. We can no longer just talk about theories; Gaia by Lovelock, The End of History by Fukuyama, and so many others social, economic, ecological, and cultural theories. This time, it is something specific, you cannot not see it; in fact, it can be seen from satellites in space, social medial is following it, there were marches, collections were organized, and opinions appeared from all the sides. And now? 

Well, now we need to shift into action, the fires must be controlled and we must act in relation to the causes: deforestation, the policies that allowed deforestation to happen, the market chains that backed it, the responsibility of each person; and looking to the future, we must act on risk management.

Why risk management? This is the point where nature teaches us about globalization. These fires will affect the entire planet, in different ways, at different times, and on different scales. First, it reminds us that borders are imaginary when something as real as a wildfire is raging. There is an imminent risk that the Acre (Brazil) fires spread to Madre de Dios (Peru), as has already happened with Bolivia.

However, as Dr. Erika Berenguer tells us, the fires in the Amazon are not natural. They were started by human beings, basically, to open the agricultural frontier jungle was cut down, left to dry, and then burnt. Before, the jungle itself regulated fires: in an ecosystem cataloged as very humid, a fire doesn’t catch easily and here when can see how the many years of burning have changed the local climate and the jungle’s capacity to recover. The standing trees didn’t have normal levels of humidity, and thus caught fire and, the most concerning element, according to that same researcher, the region’s actual “dry season” begins in October. We must prepare for and manage this risk.

Researcher Antonio Donate Nobre, of the Brazilian Instituto Nacional de Investigación Espacial (INPE. National Space Research Institute), talks about “flying rivers.” Basically, the Amazon jungle evaporates an important amount of water, it also receives and condenses enormous volumes of water coming from the ocean, which travels with the wind and reaches places like the Amazon foothills of Colombia.

During an interview with Mongabay, Donate shared his concern about the destiny of these “rivers.” This time, due to the fires, the clouds were filled with soot and ash, enough to darken the Sao Paulo afternoon sky; they held sufficient water for a downpour, but it actually rained very little. Why? The soot and ash generated dissipative cloud systems, that is to say, they hold water, but due to the high levels of particulate matter water drops do not form that are heavy enough to fall. And rain did not fall where we needed it. But, everything that goes up must come back down. Where and when? That is the question that risk management must respond to in the (probably) short term. And, in the future? We won’t have the jungles that ensured these “rivers.” Will we face droughts?

In the medium term (which is becoming shorter), we must think about climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned in its report 1.5° C that if we hope to keep global warming below this level (with a high reliability) to reduce the negative impacts on humanity and the ecosystems, we must emit no more than 420 Gt of CO2 between 2018 and 2100. That means that emissions must be reduced by 2020 and reach a neutral point by the end of the century, but the trend is in ascent. What happens with the amount of CO2 that has been freed by these fires? And how about if we add the other fires in the Andes, in Indonesia, in the Arctic?

The IPCC just released their report on climate change and land. Regarding this issue, in a statement made by the Alliance CLARA, Pegg Putt said: protecting forests and other carbon rich ecosystems, as stable and resilient carbon reserves, is a response that is as vital as restoring degraded natural ecosystems. These are essential mitigation and adaptation actions, in addition to jointly addressing the climate and biodiversity emergencies.

So, there is data, there is research, there is evidence, we can see it. Praying is fine, but now, as citizens we need to be asking questions, demanding answers, taking time to be informed, reflecting critically on the existing information and, most importantly, we needed those we make international, national, and local policies to base decisions on science and to use it actively and effectively.

The UN Global Climate Change Conference is coming. This year it will be held in Chile, between December 2nd and 13th. Its an example of a participation space, a space where we can demand a real commitment from governments, which can become actions that allow us to mitigate and adapt to climate change.