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Leftist activists recently pounced on another opportunity to mischaracterize events, this time in the Amazon Basin, where recent fires were held to be unprecedented. The fires were also characterized as evidence of a massive conspiracy between capitalists and the new government of President Jair Bolsonaro to open the rain forest to commercial exploitation. Warren Meyer squares away the facts at this Coyote Blog post, which is where I found the chart above. Forest clearing in Brazil has been much lower over the past 10 years than during period 1988-2008. It stepped-up somewhat during the first half of 2019, but it still ran at a rate well below 2008. A key reason for the increase is fascinating, but I’ll merely tease that for now.

As for the fires, Meyer provides the following quote about this year’s fires from NASA in a statement accompanying a satellite photo:

As of August 16, 2019, satellite observations indicated that total fire activity in the Amazon basin was slightly below average in comparison to the past 15 years. Though activity has been above average in Amazonas and to a lesser extent in Rondônia, it has been below average in Mato Grosso and Pará, according to the Global Fire Emissions Database.

So what was the cause of all the alarm? Meyer points to a August 22 story in the Washington Post, though WaPo might not have been the first. The article was either poorly researched and “fact checked” or it was a deliberate attempt to raise alarm. The sloppy story was picked up elsewhere, of course, and distorted memes spread on social media condemning the Brazilian government and capitalism generally.

The burning that is taking place has been started by farmers preparing land for crops, a process that occurs every year. Meyer quotes the New York Times on this point, which noted that very little of the burning was taking place in old-growth forests.

What’s really ironic and crazy about all this is that U.S. environmental policy is responsible for some of the burning that is taking place in the Amazon. Meyer notes that U.S. ethanol mandates have subsidized a years-long trend of increased sugar cane production in the Amazon Basin. Of course, burning is a regular part of the normal sugar cane harvest. Moreover, that production has contributed to land clearance, offsetting some of the forces that have brought the rate of deforestation in Brazil down overall.

The whole episode dovetails with the ongoing narrative that fires are burning out of control across the globe due to climate change. We heard similar propaganda last year after several large fires in California. Michael Shellenberger does his best to set the record straight, demonstrating that the annual land area burned worldwide has declined by 25% since 2003. He contrasts that record with the hopelessly errant reporting by major media organizations.

As P.T. Barnum once said, a sucker’s born every minute. He might as well have been talking about the armies of well-meaning but gullible greenies who fall for every scare story told by the likes of Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio. And scare stories are exactly what these tales of a global conflagration amount to. Meanwhile, as Alexander Hammond explains, global reforestation has taken hold. In what is apparently a paradox to some, this is largely the result of economic growth. Hammond discusses the logical connections between economic development and environmental goods, including reforestation and biodiversity. The bottom line is that the best policies for reforestation are not those imposing obstacles to growth, as the environmental Left would have it. Rather, it is policies that promote development and income growth, which are generally more compatible with individual liberty, that will encourage growth in the world’s forests.