Top scientists warn of an Amazon ‘tipping point’

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As the Amazon burns, it seems like everyone is in search of someone to blame. Nearly 100,000 fires have been detected, but who or what is to blame? (Sarah Cahlan, Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

Deforestation and other fast-moving changes in the Amazon threaten to turn parts of the rainforest into savanna, devastate wildlife and release billions of tons carbon into the atmosphere, two renowned experts warned Friday.

“The precious Amazon is teetering on the edge of functional destruction and, with it, so are we,” Thomas Lovejoy of George Mason University and Carlos Nobre of the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil, both of whom have studied the world’s largest rainforest for decades, wrote in an editorial in the journal Science Advances. “Today, we stand exactly in a moment of destiny: The tipping point is here, it is now.”

Combined with recent news that the thawing Arctic permafrost may be beginning to fill the atmosphere with greenhouse gases, and that Greenland’s ice sheet is melting at an accelerating pace, it’s the latest hint that important parts of the climate system may be moving toward irreversible changes at a pace that defies earlier predictions.

The speed of the transformation in some key systems, such as Greenland’s ice and the Arctic’s permafrost, has “indeed been underestimated by climate science,” said Stefan Rahmstorf, the head of Earth system analysis at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany. “And that’s partly because we cannot really capture them well in our models.”

A burned area of the Amazon rainforest is seen in Prainha, Para state, Brazil, on Nov. 23, 2019. (Leo Correa/AP)

In interviews, Lovejoy and Nobre said they decided to sound a dire alarm about the Amazon after witnessing the acceleration of troubling trends. The combination of rising temperatures, crippling wildfires and ongoing land clearing for cattle ranching and crops has extended dry seasons, killed off water-sensitive vegetation and created conditions for more fire.

The Amazon is 17 percent deforested, but for the large portion of it inside Brazil, the figure is closer to 20 percent. The fear is that soon there will be so little forest that the trees, which not only soak up enormous quantities of rainwater but also give off mist that aids agriculture and sustains innumerable species, won’t be able to recycle enough rainfall.

At that point, much of the rainforest could decline into a drier savanna ecosystem. Rainfall patterns would change across much of South America. Several hundred billion tons of carbon dioxide could wind up in the atmosphere, worsening climate change. And such a feedback loop would be tough to reverse.

That point of no return, commonly referred to by scientists as a tipping point, “is much closer than we anticipated,” Nobre said in an interview. MORE

Our house is on fire


Illustration by Katie O’Rourke

The Amazon provides an astonishing 20 per cent of our planet’s oxygen, and gives home to about a million indigenous people and countless irreplaceable ecosystems. These ecosystems absorb millions of tonnes of carbon each year, but by burning and slashing, we release that carbon. With enough dieback and deforestation, we threaten to hit a tipping point where the Amazon becomes a carbon source rather than a carbon sink. If this happens, the consequences for runaway climate breakdown will be unthinkable.

That’s one of the reasons why it’s so frightening to see deforestation rates reach an area the size of Manhattan every day, along with a record 72,000 wildfires this year alone – an 84 per cent increase on last year. Some scientists estimate that if we lose another fifth of the Amazon, it will trigger a complete system collapse which no human intervention could stop. When Swedish activist Greta Thunberg said “our house is on fire” in her famous speeches, she probably originally meant it as a metaphor. Now it is actually true.

Because of the lack of media coverage of this brutality, it can be easy to think that the wildfires of the Amazon are just a freak aberration, a natural disaster, or the tragic consequence of an already warming world. Undoubtedly, our climate emergency is fanning the flames, just as it ignites the rising number of wildfires across the planet. But make no mistake about one thing: this is part of a deliberate attempt to destroy the Amazon, by the fascist president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro.

Where most of us see one of the world’s most precious ecosystems, Bolsonaro and his government see an opportunity to make a quick buck. They want to raze the forest as quickly as they can, to open up the space for ‘development’ – which is to say cattle, soy crops and mining. Pleas about the climatic impacts of such a policy will go unheard, because Bolsonaro is also a loud and proud climate denier. He will destroy the whole rainforest without a second thought, and leaked documents secured by democraciaAbierta confirm that this is precisely the plan. If anything is what Polly Higgins had in mind when she was calling for ecocide to be made a crime, it’s this.

The indigenous peoples of the Amazon have shown strength, determination and resilience in the face of colonisation and destruction for generations, and they lead the fight against this latest assault today. How best can the international community show our solidarity at such a pivotal time for our planet? I believe Polly’s call to make ecocide a crime in international law is an idea whose time has come – in fact, it’s desperately overdue. Yes, there are some immediate actions Governments could take to protect the Amazon, from blocking the Mercosur trade deal, to imposing sanctions on Brazil. But few actions would be more swiftly effective than the application of an ecocide law. SOURCE

Bolsonaro and ecocide in the Amazon – some questions answered

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We’ve received a lot of panicked emails over the last few days from many people asking similar questions… so here are a few answers.

Can the adoption of ecocide law be speeded up?

An amendment to the Rome Statute of the International Court must be proposed by a Head of State more than 3 months prior to the Assembly of States Parties in December making next year (2020) the earliest possible opportunity to do this. We are well aware that the time is ripe.

Can you prosecute Bolsonaro at the International Criminal Court (ICC)?

We can’t, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, (unlike in civil litigation) individuals and organisations don’t prosecute crimes, states do – or in this case the international community via the ICC, which must have a detailed communication submitted for preliminary examination in order to commence the process. This is not something that can be put together overnight.

Secondly, although we absolutely support the broadening of existing law to include ecological and climate concerns, we are not a practising law firm but a legally focussed non-profit campaign, working to practically progress the adoption of future law. Our mission is ultimately a diplomatic one and we do not take on specific cases or represent clients in court.

The Amazon situation highlights that ecocide is MISSING from the list of prosecutable offences at the ICC. It’s why our organisation exists, and why the ICC is at present powerless (with some wartime exceptions) to directly prosecute ecological destruction, however massive.

But what about Crimes Against Humanity?

We are aware that there are possibilities for including environmental crimes under some existing provisions of Crimes Against Humanity and we are conducting studies to examine this, but we are not in an evidential position to apply it to Bolsonaro ourselves (see also previous answer). Others may be. MORE

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France’s Macron says real ‘ecocide’ going on in Amazon

Merkel backs Macron’s call for G7 talks on Amazon fires

Angela Merkel has backed Emmanuel Macron’s call to put the fires in the Amazon on the agenda at this weekend’s G7 summit, after the French president said the situation amounted to an international crisis.

Steffen Seibert, a spokesman for the German chancellor, told journalists in Berlin on Friday: “The extent of the fires in the Amazon area is shocking and threatening, not only for Brazil and the other affected countries, but also for the whole world.

“When the G7 comes together this weekend, then the chancellor is convinced that this acute emergency in the Amazon rainforest belongs on the agenda.”

…But  international concern continued to be expressed over the scale of the fires. The UN secretary general, António Guterres, said he was deeply concerned: “In the midst of the global climate crisis, we cannot afford more damage to a major source of oxygen and biodiversity.”

London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, tweeted that the fires were being “aided and abetted by the Brazilian government”. The burning of the rainforest was “an act of shocking environmental vandalism with global consequences”. MORE

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