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How the Amazon rainforest is faring under climate change

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

September in the Amazon is the burning season.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm actually walking on the remains of the forest right now. What was once verdant green is now reduced to this white powdery ash. There are tree trunks smoldering in front of me. Some are actually still shooting up flames.

That was me in 2015, when I went on an expedition to the Brazilian state of Rondonia to see what was happening to the rainforest there. Despite promises by Brazil to stop deforestation as part of their Paris climate pledge, under the far-right leader Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro in 2019 and 2020, forest fires and deforestation hugely accelerated, and that caused a global outcry. We're joined now by Antonio Nobre, one of Brazil's leading climate scientists. Hello.

ANTONIO NOBRE: Hi, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I spoke to you back in 2015, and this is what you told me then.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

NOBRE: This is already beyond the threshold - you know, the point of no return.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What are your thoughts now?

NOBRE: We are seeing what has been predicted by science since long time - the unfolding of the so-called civilization of the Amazon. There was a very influential paper that came out in Nature magazine a few months ago. They found that for a large chunk of the Amazon, almost half of it, the forest is losing the battle. Those forests are no longer able to cope with the lack of rainfall, the increase in temperature and the flammability of those areas as they grow drier and drier. And then trees start dying off. Then they start releasing carbon instead of sinking carbon. And they are no longer able to make the powerful biotic pump that keep the fabulous rainfall system functioning and therefore propelling the flying rivers. It's basically failing. And the consequences are also visible because most of South America is having to endure a very prolonged drought. And now we're seeing this effect in the Amazon propagating. Now those rivers are - in the sky are faltering, and the air is drying up. Brazil is facing a very serious energy crisis because most of the Brazilian electricity is produced by hydropower.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I just want to explain what you mean by those flying rivers because most people around the world think of the forest being the lungs of the world - right? - a carbon sink, as you describe it. But the Amazon creates its own climate by pushing water into the atmosphere and creating flying rivers that, of course, produce their own rain. And now, because of deforestation, it is no longer able to do that, hence why we're seeing these droughts and why we're seeing this change in the climate.

NOBRE: Precisely. So when we cut the forests, then you destroy this fantastic mechanisms of self-wetting or wet spots, and then the air starts drying up. The flying rivers are weakened, and the forest is - right now is being converted in a speed that it is not able to counter to survive.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, after the global outcry in 2020, I mean, things are better this year. Forest fires are down by half from last year. But what I'm hearing you saying is that it's just simply not enough.

NOBRE: No. And also from year to year, you have fluctuations which are natural with parts of the climate system. And a system that is alive, like on Earth - you have a live mechanism, provided by the biosphere, of all of the organisms, all the ecosystems. They tend to produce stability, and the abuse that we submitted through destructive and polluting behaviors are basically being absorbed by the capacity that the biosphere has to compensate, like our body. We can suffer quite a lot of abuse and still be OK. But then you have - a threshold is crossed, and then you have a tipping point where thereafter the system is no longer able to hold it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I wanted to talk to you because this is my last show for NPR weekend, and I've been able to report on so many stories around the world. But I think one of the most profound was getting to go to the Amazon and see firsthand what you're describing. I'm wondering, as someone who - from when you were very young, as you recounted to me - has loved and studied the forests, what you're feeling right now?

NOBRE: What can I say? What I see is that unfortunately for - not only for Brazilians, for humanity at this point, it seems that we need a big blow, like a major disaster, to wake up. Deforestation is not a problem of economics. It's a problem of ideology. People who are involved in clearing forests - they have the ideological mission to destroy that forest. And that includes many people who are now in power.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Antonio Nobre, one of Brazil's leading climate scientists. Thank you very much.

NOBRE: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.