Five things to know about the Amazon rainforest fires

The surge in wildfires raging through the Amazon rainforest is posing a threat to the environment beyond Brazil's borders.

Environmental experts say the destruction of the rainforest could make it harder to combat climate change on a global scale.

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That's because the rainforest — a source of 20 percent of the earth’s oxygen — has served a vital role in carbon storage, absorbing a substantial amount of the 2.4 billion metric tons captured each year by forests worldwide. An increase in fires and deforestation in that region could markedly accelerate warming climates beyond South America.

The environmental crisis also has political implications, particularly for Jair Bolsonaro, who's in his first year as president of Brazil. The far-right politician and climate change skeptic came into power in January vowing to limit fines for damaging forests and open up the area for commercial exploitation.

Images of wildfires and plumes of smoke hovering over parts of Brazil prompted international alarm this week, shining a spotlight on the region and raising concerns about the broader damage.

Here are five things to know about the rainforest fires.

Experts warn it could thwart major environmental goals

Nearly 200 nations in 2016 signed the Paris agreement to combat climate change. As part of the pact, countries pledged to cap global warming at “well below” 3.6 degrees before the end of the century.

But maintaining that goal may become nearly impossible due to a rise in deforestation and wildfires, as well as changing weather patterns, in the Amazon.

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“If you continue to deforest… you are releasing this huge amount of carbon to the atmosphere,” Paulo Moutinho, a senior fellow at the Woods Hole Research Center, told The Washington Post, noting that climate change would accelerate if the region were to release more carbon than it absorbs.

Anna Cederstav, program manager for Latin America at the environmental advocacy group Earthjustice, told The Hill that the fires are “worsening the already severe climate crisis, which in turn causes more natural disasters not just in Brazil but internationally.”

Deforestation is accelerating

Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) released data earlier this year showing deforestation had increased by 88 percent in June compared to the same month last year.

Additionally, fires in Brazil are up 85 percent this year compared to 2018, with a majority occurring in the Amazon, INPE said.

While the summer months can be a contributing factor to fires in the Amazon, experts say the dry season has not been extreme enough to cause such a drastic increase in wildfires.

“The typical system in Brazil and in all Amazonian countries is that people cut down trees … before setting it on fire in order to clear the land for agricultural purposes,” Carlos Nobre, a senior researcher with the Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of São Paulo, told German broadcaster Deutsche Welle. “So this is a very common phenomenon."

"But what we're seeing this year is more deforestation," he added. "We estimate that the forest areas in the Brazilian Amazon have decreased something between 20 percent and 30 percent compared to the last 12 months.”

Most of the land-clearing that takes place in the Amazon is done illegally for agricultural purposes. Environmental groups argue that Bolsonaro’s rhetoric has emboldened farmers and ranchers to start fires without fear of punishment.

The advocacy group Greenpeace Brazil told The Hill that fires have increased in areas most affected by rises in deforestation.

Spotlight is on Bolsonaro

Bolsonaro, who once said that Brazil's environmental policies were "suffocating" its economy, took office pledging to open up the Amazon rainforest to business development.

He reportedly cut the main environmental agency’s budget by 24 percent, and has expressed plans to allow the mining of protected indigenous reserves.

Earlier this month, his government disbanded the steering committee for the Amazon Fund, which aims to combat deforestation. The move prompted Norway and Germany to suspend their donations to the fund.

Bolsonaro also fired INPE Director Ricardo Galvão after Galvão defended agency data showing the rate of deforestation rising in the nation, calling the statistics "lies."

Earlier this week he accused nongovernmental organizations of starting the fires in a plot to tarnish his image, saying "everything indicates that people went there to film and then to set fires." He did not offer evidence to back up his allegation.

“You have to understand that the Amazon is Brazil’s, not yours,” Bolsonaro told reporters last month when addressing international scrutiny of his environmental policies, according to The Guardian. “If all this devastation you accuse us of doing was done in the past the Amazon would have stopped existing, it would be a big desert.”

The Amazon is home to a diverse ecosystem

Deforestation and climate change pose a threat to the millions of species of plants and animals that live in the region and could lead to a 58 percent decline in Amazon tree species richness by 2050, according to a study by Nature Climate Change.

The study found that under a worst-case scenario, about half of the Amazon's tree species would be threatened with extinction. It also indicated that climate change may become a greater threat to tree species than deforestation.

“The study should be seen as a big warning,” Ima Vieira, a researcher at the Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi and a study co-author, told Mongabay, an environmental science conservation news platform. “It shows that if deforestation is currently the biggest cause of habitat loss in the Amazon, over the next 30 years it will probably be surpassed by climate change."

The fires are prompting a global response

The devastation from the fires prompted a range of responses from politicians around the world. French President Emmanuel MacronEmmanuel Jean-Michel MacronBudowsky: Donald, Boris, Bibi — The right in retreat Whistleblower Edward Snowden calls on Macron to grant him asylum in France Trump to meet with India's Modi in Texas, Australia's Morrison in Ohio MORE, whose country is hosting this weekend's Group of Seven summit of world leaders, called on nations to address what he branded as an emergency.

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersOvernight Health Care — Presented by Partnership for America's Health Care Future — Pelosi unveils signature plan to lower drug prices | Trump says it's 'great to see' plan | Progressives pushing for changes Krystal Ball calls on Sanders to follow Yang's lead on war on drugs Buttigieg calls Warren 'evasive' on Medicare for all MORE (I-Vt.), a Democratic presidential candidate, condemned “Bolsonaro and his corporate cronies” and accused them of “burning the Amazon rainforest for personal profit and jeopardizing our planet's survival.”

London Mayor Sadiq Khan echoed that sentiment, saying the burning of the Amazon is “seemingly aided & abetted by the Brazilian government.”

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres also expressed alarm, tweeting that he was “deeply concerned by the fires.”

“In the midst of the global climate crisis, we cannot afford more damage to a major source of oxygen and biodiversity,” he said. “The Amazon must be protected.”

Bolsonaro and his allies have pushed back against the criticism. The Brazilian leader accused Macron of exploiting the issue for political gain, saying his “sensationalist tone” will do nothing to solve the problem.

Though he also appeared to acknowledge the magnitude of the issue.

“The Amazon is bigger than Europe, how will you fight criminal fires in such an area?” he asked reporters on Thursday, according to Reuters. “We do not have the resources for that.”