The rise of social media means that everyone has a voice. To some extent, this is an amazing thing. It elevates voices that may otherwise go unheard, such as that of Greta Thunberg, who is an outstanding example of how social media can revolutionise people’s thinking and mobilise thousands of people to strike for the climate. However, in a world where everyone has a voice, and opinion can be presented as fact, who is it that we are to believe?
Many people prefer to receive their news through social media sites due to its convenience. For example, many learnt of the recent fires seen in the Amazon rainforest, Brazil through rapid reporting on social media. However, some were quick to note that the importance of the beautiful rainforest was misreported across social media, with many news outlets reporting that ‘the Amazon rainforest provides 20% of the Earth’s oxygen’, suggesting the planet would ‘suffocate’ without it. These terrifying words induced a sort of Twitter frenzy, backed by more reputable sources from Sky News to Business Insider, leading to even French president Emmanuel Macron prior to the G-7 summit falling for it.
And yet, it isn’t true. There are many reasons that the burning of the Amazon rainforest is terrible, but the world is not going to suffer mass asphyxiation as a result of it.
This is a problem of miscommunication between scientists and the general public, and it is a problem that could have devastating consequences for the future of our planet. The G-7 offered $20 million to aid in the fight to put out these fires, an offer which President Bolsonaro rejected, saying that perhaps Macron should use it to ‘take care of his home and his colonies’. Bolsonaro dismissed the worldwide outcry as sensationalist, and with Macron himself repeating inflammatory and incorrect facts about Brazil, it is no wonder there is little trust between these countries. It is one thing for widely renowned celebrities to tweet years old images claiming they are of the Amazon to create a feeling of mistrust, and another for prominent political figures to do so. Letting these incorrect statements spread as far as diplomatic relations could be the difference in saving precious indigenous biodiversity and stopping large amounts of carbon dioxide being emitted into our atmosphere.
The Amazon is facing a tipping point and, consequently, it is vitally important to get our facts straight. The claim that 20% of the Earth’s oxygen is provided by the Amazon rainforest implies that the trees of the rainforest produce this oxygen, and if they burn, we will no longer have such means of production. Without making you feel as if you have been taken back to a school science lesson, let’s talk about what the rainforest is really doing, and where this claim comes from.
Plants produce their food to survive in a process called photosynthesis, taking in carbon dioxide and water, and turning this into oxygen and glucose with the help of sunlight. However, the Amazon then consumes about as much oxygen as it produces, with plants undergoing cellular respiration at night due to the lack of sunlight for photosynthesis. Microbes then consume any remaining oxygen when breaking down dead matter, such as leaves through heterotrophic respiration. This means that the net contribution of the Amazon rainforest ecosystem to the Earth’s oxygen is effectively zero. The 20% figure arises when we don’t look at the full picture – through photosynthesis alone, the trees in the Amazon do produce about 16% of the Earth’s oxygen on land per year. However, this production is not where we get the air we breathe.
Instead, the net quantity of oxygen in our atmosphere comes from millennia of geological processes, and we’re not going to run out of it any time soon. The problem facing humanity as the Amazon burns is not a lack of oxygen, but an increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The Amazon is a carbon sink, taking in large amounts of carbon dioxide, stored then as biomass. When it burns, not only is this carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, but no more carbon dioxide can be taken in – contributing significantly to the global warming of our planet. Its destruction doesn’t just threaten its rich biodiversity and indigenous people who have made the forest their home, but the whole world.
Furthermore, not only does the rainforest help define the composition of our atmosphere, but also influences the delicate balance of global water cycles. Mass deforestation of its canopies is speculated to cause mass drought across South America. This would ironically render farmers unable to water their crops, despite much of the deforestation occurring in order to clear land for more food production. The destruction could spread even further still, predicted to reduce snowfall in the Sierra Nevada mountains, and cause drought across California. The loss of the Amazon rainforest could evidently prove deadly for humanity, so why are we focusing on a statistic that isn’t true?
The intention of people who care about our climate, from celebrities to politicians and everyone inbetween, is to save our planet. However, it is clear we must be careful when reciting our facts. Likewise, scientists need to do better when informing the general public of the complex processes behind events that affect our world. Maybe then, we can start to trust what we read online.
Header image: Photo by Ueslei Marcelino/REUTERS