Amazon Fires, Summer of the Shark, and the Unintended Consequences of Stupid Climate Policy (ie Ethanol Mandates)

I know I have told the story of the "Summer of the Shark" before, but I need to repeat it again because it is so relevant to the Amazon fire story

let's take a step back to 2001 and the "Summer of the Shark." The media hysteria began in early July, when a young boy was bitten by a shark on a beach in Florida. Subsequent attacks received breathless media coverage, up to and including near-nightly footage from TV helicopters of swimming sharks. Until the 9/11 attacks, sharks were the third biggest story of the year as measured by the time dedicated to it on the three major broadcast networks' news shows.

Through this coverage, Americans were left with a strong impression that something unusual was happening -- that an unprecedented number of shark attacks were occurring in that year, and the media dedicated endless coverage to speculation by various "experts" as to the cause of this sharp increase in attacks.

Except there was one problem -- there was no sharp increase in attacks.  In the year 2001, five people died in 76 shark attacks.  However, just a year earlier, 12 people had died in 85 attacks.  The data showed that 2001 actually was  a down year for shark attacks.

The Amazon fire story is like the Summer of the Shark stories back in 2001, except on steroids due to the influence of social media.  Just like with Summer of the Shark, everyone is convinced that this is the worst summer ever for Amazon fires.  And just like back in 2001, the media is bending over backwards to claim a trend without actually giving any trend data.

The Washington Post deftly avoided actually showing any trend data by having a couple of "experts" claim that this summer is the worst ever in their memory

“I cannot remember any other big fire episode like this one,” said Vitor Gomes, an environmental scientist at the Federal University of Para.

Ricardo Mello, head of the World Wide Fund for Nature’s Amazon program, struggled to find the words to describe his pessimism on Thursday.

“It’s historically — this is highest number [of fires] I’ve ever seen,” he said.

It turns out that trend data is actually pretty easy to come by.   NASA for example captioned a recent satellite photo of the Amazon fires by writing

 “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”

Wait, there is actually a global fire emissions database?  Wow, that seems like something that could be more useful to an article about trends than the anecdotal memory of two people.  It turns out the picture is complicated.  It is close to a 20-year high in the Amazonas region but much closer to average in the 9 other measured Amazon regions.   And with the exception of the Amazonas region, the basic picture is of the last 10 years having generally fewer fires than in the first decade of the century.  The level of fire is worrisome but far short of an unprecedented catastrophe.   As the Times wrote:

The number of fires identified by the agency in the Amazon region so far this year, 40,341, is about 35 percent higher than the average for the first eight months of each year since 2010.

The decade before that included several years in which the number of fires identified during the first eight months was far higher.

But the most interesting part is to consider the effect of short-sighted US climate policy.  It would be hard to imagine any climate policy stupider than ethanol mandates and subsidies.

One of the interesting things about the Amazon fires is that most folks agree the fires are largely limited to cleared farmland within the Amazon basin.  For example, here is the NY Times:

Natural fires in the Amazon are rare, and the majority of these fires were set by farmers preparing Amazon-adjacent farmland for next year’s crops and pasture.

Much of the land that is burning was not old-growth rain forest, but land that had already been cleared of trees and set for agricultural use....

Brazil was actually doing pretty well slowing the clearing of the Amazon

The new Brazilian President rightly deserves blame for increasing rainforest clearning

While campaigning for president last year, Mr. Bolsonaro declared that Brazil’s vast protected lands were an obstacle to economic growth and promised to open them up to commercial exploitation.

Less than a year into his term, that is already happening.

Brazil’s part of the Amazon lost more than 1,330 square miles of forest cover in the first half of 2019, a 39 percent increase over the same period last year, according to the government agency that tracks deforestation.

But one of the forces that has been at work for years has been US ethanol policy, essentially the government mandates and subsidies to divert a large amount of food and cropland to fuel production.  An article in Grist and Foreign Policy in 2010 discusses this issue in depth

In the FP piece, author Nikolas Kozloff jumps right to the point in his lead:

While sugar cane ethanol is certainly less ecologically destructive than some other biofuels, the industry’s boosters have overlooked one key fact: You’ve got to plant sugar cane somewhere. One couldn’t pick a worse place to harvest cane than Brazil’s Atlantic rainforest. There, sugar cane crops have led to deforestation and, paradoxically, more carbon emissions.

Both articles go on to discuss the shift in sugarcane from the Atlantic to the Amazon rain forests.  I would argue that by raising world food prices, corn ethanol in the US also has an effect, by creating the economic incentive to clear more farmland in the Amazon to plant crops essentially subsidized by US ethanol mandates.