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The Amazon Is Not the Earth’s Lungs (theatlantic.com)
139 points by mpweiher 6 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 140 comments



It might be that burning down every living tree would not make a dent in the oxygen supply, but having the earth temperature go up 5 degrees would kill most phytoplankton, and that would end the oxygen supply (eventually).

This type of articles is the last thing we need right now, it all piles up on the narrative that the consequences of climate change are really not that bad and there is no real urgency in doing anything about it.

Especially if that implies a change of behaviors like eating less meat. Nobody wants to give away their cheeseburgers as Elizabeth Warren factitiously says, this how you make headlines and get elected for office, tell people what they want to hear, stay away from the truth.


Adherence to the truth is more important than adherence to a narrative. Promoting a good cause by allowing falsehoods to spread may seem helpful in the short term, but in doing so you're building a house on a foundation of sand. When you promote trivial falsehoods instead of calling them out, you allow your opposition to be the one who calls out those falsehoods, and thus undermine your cause.

When somebody on your side says something well-meaning but wrong, you should be the one to call them out. In doing so, you deny your enemy the opportunity to do so.


Yea, you shouldn't deny a reality because you believe in the noble lie.

And to be fair, climate change is turned into a crazy red hearing of a political issue. There are lakes of sludge outside factory cities in China, insane amounts of plastic particulates in the oceans, tons and tons of textile waste. There are so many many forms of pollution much worse than CO2, and when you focus on just CO2, you get carbon laws like those enacted in Australia briefly that caused more fuel expenditure in moving ore to China for processing instead of processing it domestically.

There needs to be a huge change in consumption. We need cell phones that last 10 years, not 2~3. We need to end the constant replacement cycle. Intel's shareholders should be glad when sales are below projections because the old chips are lasting longer.

But this is not how our economy or industry works. It's all based about infinite growth, selling you new things, sending your e-waste to Africa to be harvested by kids and be smeltered in recycling shops without OSHA requirements or respirators, sending textile waste to Africa to be sold (but mostly burned), etc. etc.

Until there is a major collapse globally and people recognize the scale of our folly of consumerism and over-consumption, people will not recognize the real changes needed to build a more sustainable world. And reducing overall consumption will also reduce CO2 emissions ... along with all types of other emissions. But it will take reduction. We cannot spend and buy our way out of environmental damage.


> the scale of our folly of consumerism and over-consumption

Consumerism, over-consumption, and the economic growth these behaviors drive are impossible to eliminate without crippling the global economy. But I think there actually is a way to have our unlimited cake without toasting the planet, it just requires us to divorce the concept of value from physical items (or increase the fidelity, and thus value, of digital items). This is already taking place, with the data economy being the obvious if controversial first step. Similarly, I see the explosion of digital marketplaces and microtransactions within social and mobile gaming platforms as another example of this concept.

There will inevitably be externalities to a shift toward primarily virtual consumption, but I don't think it's unreasonable to imagine compelling virtual products diminishing the draw of many physical item, along with the need for infrastructure to support their production and dissemination.


> Consumerism, over-consumption, and the economic growth these behaviors drive are impossible to eliminate without crippling the global economy.

Then let's ask the question. What are the medium (5-20) years and long (100 years) consequences of such crippling in your view? I am not an economist so any insight from an expert would be good.


Near term, the radical contraction or failure of most businesses that directly or indirectly depend on consumerism and over-consumption as the prevailing social behavior. In America, that's a lot of businesses. In China, that's a lot of businesses. And much of the world effectively serves consumerism in these large nations.

Long term... depends? Maybe people figure out a different mechanic to drive growth and re-orient. Maybe people abandon growth as a goal and shift toward a steady-state model (this would be interesting, but would have big global power implications unless every nation signs on). Maybe people suffer for a bit before rediscovering how powerful consumerism is as an economic engine and get back into it for a while until the costs start catching up to them again.

As the foremost expert on "my view", you can depend on these predictions to capture with total accuracy what I believe to be the crippling consequences mentioned earlier.


> people will not recognize the real changes needed to build a more sustainable world

I'm a bit more pessimistic. Consumerism and over-consumption is an open-eyed march toward doom. Educating (even by collapse) doesn't change the failure to coordinate. When the incentives are structured to trade values for temporary rosperity "The process continues until all other values that can be traded off have been – in other words, until human ingenuity cannot possibly figure out a way to make things any worse." [1]

https://slatestarcodex.com/2014/07/30/meditations-on-moloch/


> There are so many many forms of pollution much worse than CO2

CO2 will end life much faster than any of the other undesirable things you mentioned. It's objectively more dangerous.


Localized pollution and climate change are different issues. Both are bad, but you can’t equate “lakes of sludge outside factory cities in China” and the dramatic changes expected if the models are correct. Whataboutism isn’t helpful here (or anywhere, really). Climate change IS an issue, and it’s only going to get worse. Ten-year cell phones won’t make a lick of difference if we continue burning fossil fuels, and lakes of sludge will seem like Club Med in comparison to rising global temperatures.


If a true fact is playing in to a false narrative, there is a problem with how it's being presented. Calling that out is just as important as calling out falsehoods.


The article contextualizes the truth in terms of the pro-climate narrative,

> "Losing the Amazon, beyond representing a planetary historic tragedy beyond measure, would also make meeting the ambitious climate goals of the Paris Agreement all but impossible. World leaders need to marshal all their political and diplomatic might to save it."

So what exactly are you calling out? Better the Atlantic be the one to call out this falsehood, than Fox News. No?


The article does not explain why losing the Amazon would have an large effect on global climate, it just makes this assertion. Why would it?


Because of the sequestration of carbon in the forest. If you burn the forest down, all of the carbon in the forest is released into the atmosphere in the form of smoke.


I was thinking it must be that, but I was too lazy to try to quantify it. Thank you.


Why does it matter who calls out the falsehood?

Otherwise, while the article may come out acknowledging climate change, the headline comes across as click-bait that could easily be pushed into a climate-denier narrative. Better to have a more neutral title like "The Amazon's Role in Global Oxygen Production". That stops the facts from being decontextualized.


"Why does it matter who calls out the falsehood?"

Because facts aren't usually discussed in isolation. If a climate change denialist were the one to point out the fact, they would frame it with something like: 'Lies the climate establishment are telling you!' If it slows down the process of convincing people of the seriousness of climate change for The Atlantic to report a headline like this, it doesn't slow it down as much as a climate denialist group beating The Atlantic to the punch.

"Better to have a more neutral title like "The Amazon's Role in Global Oxygen Production". That stops the facts from being decontextualized."

Maybe. But the more direct headline helps with the issue listed above. Many (but not all) climate change denialists do not argue in good faith, and it's more important to head off any claim of a cover-up or bias that they might have than to keep the narrative pristine.

Realistically, the alternative to the OP's headline is not something more neutral, but something like this real headline from Forbes:

https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelshellenberger/2019/08/26...


The title initially appeared to be clickbait, but as soon as I saw it was The Atlantic I knew it was going to be a serious reply. The title is a direct reference to all the meme journalism happening recently.


This. But who cares in this attention hunting, consumerist world -- More clickbaity(and controversial) the title is, more shares all leading to more profit.


> Why does it matter who calls out the falsehood?

Because if Fox News were to call out this particular falsehood, they may very well sum it up with some bullshit like "and that's why liberals are dumb and we should burn more coal." With the Altantic, we instead have reasonable pleas to remember that climate change is a very serious issue.

As for the matter of the given title: https://twitter.com/PeterBrannen1/status/1166446298897289216


Hah, yes, good to know it at least wasn't the writer's fault for the headline.

As for who calls out the falsehood, I was thinking more in the vein of "all else being equal", but I suppose you're right and all else wouldn't be equal between the various news sources.


Probably the clickbaity title -- It's only partial truth. How many do you count would read the entire article? Losing Amazon is a disaster, and as the OP mentioned it will eventually lead to diminishing oxygen supply sooner or later(though not much later).


But its not a falsehood to call the Amazon "lungs of the Earth" - its an illustration of the fact that the Amazon, until perhaps recently has been the "largest residual terrestrial carbon sink on the planet"[1]

The article opens with this headline which is false: "Humans could burn every living thing on the planet and still not dent its oxygen supply."

If every living thing was burnt, the planet would cease to resupply oxygen and most of the free oxygen reserves in the atmosphere and oceans would be consumed through geological processes. It would take millennia to complete but its not an outcome which is valid to describe in an educational or truth straightening context as "not a dent".

[1]https://www.nature.com/articles/nature14283 "Long-term decline of the Amazon carbon sink"


If every living thing was burnt, the planet would cease to resupply oxygen and most of the free oxygen reserves in the atmosphere and oceans would be consumed through geological processes

Over what timescale? If you burned every speck of organic matter on the planet, and then you came back in 10,000 years, how much O2 would be in the atmosphere? The article under discussion seems to suggest about 20%.


I dont know if it would take ten thousand years or ten billion years for all the free oxygen in atmosphere, hydrosphere and lithosphere to be depleted. But all of it is here and maintained by the sum total of interconnected living things and it would all go without it.


It's been really interesting to me to see how the concept that lying in support of your preferred narrative is the correct way to engage publicly with a problem has evolved over the last few years. It seems like only a few years ago that people who admitted to this strategy were roundly condemned. Now, it's a completely normal view to go out of your way to openly endorse lying about eg science as a moral course of action (this is far from the first time I've seen this expressed, and it extends to journalists and other figures with reputations to think about). I wonder if in a few years, we'll have tipped fully over to condemning those who publish or report science that doesn't fit a preferred narrative (though this already happens to some degree, as with Case and Deaton's study on white working class mortality).

It's of a piece with the general decline in liberalism of the last 10 years (as another example, take the reputation of free speech as a concept), but I guess what I'm describing is how grotesquely fascinating it is to see a society and its institutions so rapidly lose their connection to basic decency and honesty. I'm not naive enough to think this was some hyperstable equilibrium, but it's fascinating to see how rapidly it happens.


“Put simply, our first suggestion is _don’t expect to counter the firehose of falsehood with the squirt gun of truth_.”[1]

Climate denialism is the proverbial firehose of lies. Finely parsing words to maintain some Panglossian notion of a market dominated by rational choice of information-rich actors is not going to turn us away from disaster.

[1] https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/perspectives/PE10...


Thank you, this is a thoughtful response. That being said, the argument you're linking to, while quite sound, doesn't disagree with me. It's saying that, when rebutting concerted propaganda, simply making the truth available in an undirected manner and hoping people will find it isn't enough: you have to make an effort to get it to the right places at the right time. There's no endorsement therein of suppressing or falsifying facts.

Slavish dedication to narrative over truth is putting the cart before the horse: any number of movements that we now remember as grotesque, "alternative facts"-driven impediments to society's progress started out on relatively sound epistemic footing and failed to adapt. The beauty of the scientific method (and the scientific establishment, when it's functioning well) is that it allows us to gracefully transition away from narratives that are increasingly anachronistic or incompatible with our observations.

To go back to your link, consider what defines "propaganda": is it disliking conclusions, or is it indifference towards truth? I'd argue that your link defines it as the latter. For many of us, the conflict isn't between the good set of lies and the bad set of lies, it's between those who intentionally embrace and propagate lies and those who strive for an accurate model of the world. Anyone who's skimmed a history book can tell you that the "good" and "bad" labels don't tend to be very persistent... (the 20th century and it's hundred million dead of utopianism is rich with examples of this).


I don't disagree with this, and I'm not advocating for creating or perpetuating “noble lies.” But look at the framing of the OP article. It is the perfect example of the squirt gun of truth. The headline refutes a metaphorical statement, not a factual claim. There are ways one could counter particulars or improve the quality of the metaphor without altogether tossing it in the bin. Saying the Amazon rain forest is the Earth's lungs has lots of metaphorical applicability. It speaks to people's intuition about how forests cycle water around the planet as a quasi-respiration organs, very much like gas- and water-exchanging lungs. And with similar importance to the “organism” of Earth's biosphere.

The author could have focused on expounding the ways in which the metaphor holds to underlying scientifically-verifiable truth, taking asides here and there to correct misinformation. As it's framed, and as the headline emphasizes, that approach is ignored in favor of the “gotcha!” truth-telling that, despite its couple of meager attempts to point out how critical the Amazon is to life on Earth, allows the reader to walk away with the impression that things really aren't as bad as they previously thought, and so maybe they can just ignore the issue or deprioritize it a little but longer. And the skimmer looks at just the headline and is justified in their status quo understanding that there is a climate “debate” with two sides that really should be considered by someone, somewhere.


> Saying the Amazon rain forest is the Earth's lungs has lots of metaphorical applicability. It speaks to people's intuition about how forests cycle water around the planet as a quasi-respiration organs, very much like gas- and water-exchanging lungs. And with similar importance to the “organism” of Earth's biosphere.

I've always heard the metaphor accompanied tightly by the claim that it's a significant fraction of the Earth's oxygen production, and denying the metaphor seemed to me to imply nothing further than the refutation of this fact, particularly in light of the first paragraph's strong claims that avoiding deforestation is important. I just don't see why it's critical that he emphasize that point in the firm of holding up the existing metaphor. I read the article (and I think the author intended it) as a pretty classic popular-science case of "here's a common misconception", and as shallow as that may be, it has value.

At any rate, it ounds like we're on roughly the same page overall, and our remaining differences are starting to inch towards pedantry. Thanks for the conversation!


> It's been really interesting to me to see how the concept that lying in support of your preferred narrative is the correct way to engage publicly with a problem has evolved over the last few years. It seems like only a few years ago that people who admitted to this strategy were roundly condemned.

I often think of the election of Donald Trump in this sense...in a way, he is showing us crystal clear how our political dialogue, if not our entire perception of reality, is illusory. Who would have thought that someone could run for president largely on a platform of obvious lies and one-dimensional platitudes? Well, now we know.

And rather than the left being shocked into a higher state of consciousness and considering they may need to rethink their overall political strategy, instead it seems they've essentially decided to double down with more of the same theater. I hoped there would have at least been some serious consideration of a strategy consisting of campaigning on the actual truth (to the best of their ability), rather than just "more true".

So many people, particularly those on the left I would say (the right tends to be in their own little world), think politics is based on a battle of facts, when really it is a battle of memes. It doesn't have to be, but someone righteous has to be allowed to make it through the Democratic primaries if we hope to ever move forward in this respect.


> And rather than the left being shocked into a higher state of consciousness and considering they may need to rethink their overall political strategy, instead it seems they've essentially decided to double down with more of the same theater.

Every time I think I've found the first mover, there's a justification that goes further back. I'm a solid left-liberal, represented most closely by Obama, who discovered through the left's increasing embrace of dishonesty/bigotry/other dirty tactics that his liberal identity was more important than his leftist one. This was years and years before Trump ever entered the scene, and I know people on the right who consider Trump almost as much of a monster as I do, but also consider him to be a necessary fight-fire-with-fire evil against the left's dirty tricks.

And of course, many leftists who embraced illiberalism in that period can reasonably point to something that GWB did as their justification for further weakening norms. And so on and so on ad infinitum.

Anybody with a brain and a history book understands that that's a positive feedback loop that's caused untold amounts of suffering over the course of history, and the social technologies we call liberalism smooth out the tendencies of this cycle to escalate and sublimate the "kill everyone you disagree with" impulses of most of history into progressively gentler forms of resolving conflicting ideas of how the world should be, while still allowing for progress.

That isn't to say that norms and institutions are always sacrosanct and that sharp breaks are never a good idea, but thinking that this started with Trump betrays a misunderstanding of the way these things work and why liberalism exists in the first place.


Oh of course it didn't start with Trump, or Obama, or GWB, and so on, but my point is that while those on the left consider themselves more righteous than those on the right (a reasonable belief), at the same time most seem utterly incapable of seeing that their leaders are also playing a game largely based on deceit. It's not unreasonable at all to say you have to fight fire with fire, but that so many find it uninteresting and unimportant that our entire (both sides) political process essentially consists of lies and misrepresentations just seems very odd to me.


I wonder to what degree weaponized propaganda is aimed at liberalism and its component beliefs directly. Perhaps this could explain to some extent the speed of dissolution? Or has it always been this way?


> Adherence to the truth is more important than adherence to a narrative.

Yeah but some narratives of the truth can become absurd. And so is this article. The problem right now is not an undersupply of O2 but an oversupply of CO2. In that sense the Amazon is actually part of the earth's lung. Unfortunately the article leaves out the information to which proportion forest contributes as CO2 sink. And also that alternative uses of the area might turn it actually into a CO2 source. That's maybe not intentional but not exactly relevant and therefore misleading.


This is incredibly naive in a reality, where the POTUS can contradict himself on social media – with traceable evidence dating back often not more than a week – and absolutely nothing coming of it.

Right now, when it comes to public opinion and action, volume clearly beats a good signal/noise ratio. This is not an isolated issue, this happens all around the globe. Populism is on the rise. Simple beats true.

Yes, you can argue this is not the way it is supposed to be, but it is how it is. But if you really care about making a change for the better, then this is most definitely not the time for deliberate narratives.

You might have the peoples attention, but not their patience. If you want change, do not squander it.


Fighting lies with more lies is short term thinking. You will ultimately erode the public's ability to recognize the truth at all. When the truth can no longer work for you because you've either divorced yourself from it or rendered the public unable to recognize it, then what do you have left?

Nothing matters more than the truth.


You can't fight populism with populism because main draw of populism is an assertion that "everything you suspected about those people is correct, you are not doing anything wrong, all your problems are the fault of elites and all those sacrifices they want you to make are not needed, I have 3 simple fixes that would solve everything without any hardship or change whatsoever".

When the core of your message is the opposite of that there is no way to phrase it in those terms. You can't join the race to the bottom and get where you need to go.


Maybe we should take this as evidence that fighting lies with lies doesn't work, and in fact makes the problem worse?


> This type of articles is the last thing we need right now

We always need the truth.

If your agenda can't handle the truth, it's maybe not that great to begin with.


It might make you feel good to write that, but there are much bigger lies being told. For example, tons of people believe that CO2 released by human activity does not cause global warming, and tons of people are promoting that idea. Arguing over just how much photosynthesis the Amazon is responsible for seems like a stupid article in light of that. Perhaps we can be selective over what we argue about and what we pay attention to. On the net, the claim "the Amazon is the Earth's lungs" being true or not is not really meaningful. We still shouldn't burn it down, and climate change is still bad and getting worse. Creating debate over trivialities is usually the aim of these types of pieces, and it's best not to allow ourselves to be manipulated so easily.


The reason it is bad is that you will lose control of it. Even if you have a handle on the truth now you will lose it if lying for the sake of narrative is expected and widespread and nuanced discussion is suppressed to avoid hurting you cause.

What you lose is ability to detect when it is time to change the cause (because it is fixed or something else even worse comes up or unintended consequences are uncovered).

It is akin to setting a course and then closing your eyes as to avoid any distractions on the way.


We shouldn’t burn the Amazon down, but the amount of effort we should expend in trying to prevent that is absolutely important, and articles like this help shape the assignment of resources.

Fighting climate change requires using limited resources (taxes, labor, public empathy, etc.), squandering them on useless projects (like the plastic straw ban) hurts the overall cause.


there are much bigger lies being told

This is always true, for everything. Scientific method must be applied consistently. The instant agenda enters into the picture and dictates what truths are lies because bigger lies exist, all is lost.


> It might make you feel good to write that, but there are much bigger lies being told.

if you held the opposite position in this debate, you would probably call this "whataboutism".


No, lying is bad and for whatever critiques you can have of my point, it's not whataboutism. You can say it's cynical, but I believe people lie all the time and I should be economical with my precious time when arguing on the internet. But if you think the categorization of the Amazon as the Earth's lungs is above that criteria for you, then I will not stop you even though I will think it's ridiculous.


arguments of the form "this is bad, but there are much worse incidences of {bad thing} we should be talking about instead" are whataboutism. you are arguing for an exception because you've run into an issue where you find yourself on the opposite side.

it's one thing to decide not to spend your mental energy on a small deceit/inaccuracy. you are actively trying to shut down the discussion.


No, I actually don't give a crap. This meta discussion aside, I actually know that my time on this planet is finite and as a result my attention is finite. Whether of not the Amazon is the Earth's lungs is a pedantic point. If it is or not, it doesn't change my stance on preserving it. So, while the article is true, I can safely ignore it because it is not meaningful. Not sure how much you know about agriculture and the Fischer-Tropsch process, but the Amazon soil is not particularly fertile and requires a bunch of nitrogen fertilizer which in turn is generally produced by fracking. Further, a bunch of that soy goes towards feeding cows. So burning the Amazon down is mostly pointless and contributes to furthering the global warming crisis in several important ways. It's important I don't lose sight getting engaged in a pedantic argument over trivial details. You see the same dynamic in gun control debates when someone re-polarizes a discussion by turning it towards a misidentification of a particular gun or whether "assault rifle" is a valid categorization of guns. Polarizing the discussion is the point, so I choose to ignore true points that are used to distract people from more meaningful conclusions. It's a very basic and easy technique to resist disinformation.


> Polarizing the discussion is the point, so I choose to ignore true points that are used to distract people from more meaningful conclusions. It's a very basic and easy technique to resist disinformation.

I'm honestly kind of shocked to see someone admit that this is their intention in so few words.


What is he/she admitting? Other than they feel there are numerous reasons to keep the Amazon, whether or not the lungs, is not enough of a negative to not


> But if you think the categorization of the Amazon as the Earth's lung is above that criteria for you,

It is, if your stand is from a country that destroyed its own natural forest and now demand that a country of 200million people should not use 60% of its own territory to save the world while half of its people is poor.


The problem seems to be that there's quite a bit of nuance in the article, but most people won't remember that if they even manage to read through it. They might however remember and pass on the clickbaity headline as it conveniently fits their climate change denial agenda.


Not the parent, but one reading of that comment is that the concern is not that the truth shouldn't be shared. I think being truthful is important, but the spin of the article minimizes the impact of climate change.


People already don't believe the truth and I struggle to think of a time in history when they did.


Truth is an abstract concept. We only ever get an interpretation, and this interpretation needs to be properly apprehensive of how information is disseminated and interpreted. Proper editorializing is far more important than you realize.

There's nothing inherently wrong with the contents of this article. It does not undermine the climate change (read: scientific) "agenda" in the slightest. However, considering the sheer amount of people who only read article titles and form rigid opinions nonetheless, this article's title specifically is potentially harmful.


> This type of articles is the last thing we need right now, it all piles up on the narrative that the consequences of climate change are really not that bad and there is no real urgency in doing anything about it.

Actually it does the opposite. The climate change deniers have for so long hinged on the fact that people openly lie about the climate to push an agenda. You can't fault them for that...and having people who are proponents of doing something calling out the nonsense/lies that their allies say, actually emboldens the climate change position. If you can't even hold your own viewpoint accountable how are you going to hold deniers accountable or change their minds? People have focused so much on shoving a viewpoint down people's throats that they have completely forgotten how persuasion works and that you need a social movement to have a political one.


> Actually it does the opposite. The climate change deniers have for so long hinged on the fact that people openly lie about the climate to push an agenda.

Actually, you're both right.

The title and the facts upon which it are based, will to some degree reinforce those who are resistant to or skeptical of the climate change message, in that it once again demonstrates the fact that the messages broadcast in the "leftist" media contains factual inaccuracies, also known as fake news or lies. Of course, if they actually read and properly integrated the entire contents of the article into their worldview, this type of article "should" make the world a better place, since it is informative and ~truthful. But that's not how human minds work, as we all know when we're specifically discussing an article about human psychology and cognition, but so easily forget (or under-appreciate) while having discussions on other topics.

You're right that telling the truth should be the correct path, but considering the complexities of reality, I reckon the grandparent is probably more strategically correct. It seems logical that the more truthful message should win out in the end, but if you're not willing to be truthful all/most of the time (how would this even be coordinated?), then it may be a sub-optimal strategy.


Um, the oxygen component is a red herring and distraction to the climate debate. It took many millennia of a tiny oxygen excess to get us the atmospheric mix we know.

It's CO2 (and species and habitat loss) that matters, and the Amazon is hugely important for those, and for the climate of the region.

Which the article seems pretty clear on. So how is it presenting an impression climate change isn't that bad, or there's no urgency?


> It took many millennia of a tiny oxygen excess to get us the atmospheric mix we know

It actually took a few billion years: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Oxidation_Event


I don't think HN User "vfc1" read the article.

That happens with troubling frequency on HN.


> having the earth temperature go up 5 degrees would kill most phytoplankton, and that would end the oxygen supply (eventually)

The global average temperature has been higher than that in the past, and there was plenty of oxygen in the atmosphere.


Yes, but the temperature rose to those levels over millenia, not just hundreds of years. Ultimately, life on Earth will adapt - it's just that we might not survive long enough to witness the adaptation.


I'm curious how you picture the scenarios in which humanity doesn’t survive even +10F average over the next 200 years? Let’s also say a population of several billion.

I see the sentiment often, even in journalism, and I don’t see a realistic path even absent the inevitable new technology.


Right, so I don't think we would completely die out. As always with almost any catastrophe, there would always be small pockets of humans surviving somewhere and I think it's reasonable to say they would rebuild eventually.

I'm just thinking that if the oxygen levels drop a few percent that won't kill us, but it will start affecting our cognitive levels - so I'm imagining that those who can afford it will just carry portable oxygen bottles with them. Offices/homes will be equipped with oxygen disperses through the ventilation systems, just so we can feel "normal". I imagine that would cause massive unrest with people who cannot afford this.

But hey, this is just speculation. Maybe we will find a technological solution long before this happens.


> the temperature rose to those levels over millenia, not just hundreds of years

We don't actually know that. The time resolution of the data is not good enough to tell us. It's quite possible that it happened faster in the past as well.

> we might not survive long enough to witness the adaptation

Quite honestly, I don't understand why people think our ability to adapt is so poor. We already have more than 5 C variation in average temperature across different regions of Earth, yet people adapt to living in all of those different regions.

Also, all the alarmist rhetoric about the supposed impacts of changes in temperature is not based on actual knowledge or on models with demonstrated predictive power. It's based on very crude extrapolations of trends that assume that people will do nothing at all to adapt. In other words, they assume people won't adapt and then complain that we can't adapt.

What's more, the two main things we can do to adapt are things we should be doing anyway: (1) bring more people out of poverty--the richer people are the easier they can adapt to change; and (2) make our infrastructure more robust. The second, in particular, is exactly what "green energy" should be marketed as--making energy more decentralized, which makes the entire system more robust. And doing those things benefits us regardless of what kind of change happens--whether it's climate change or any other kind of change.


> "The time resolution of the data is not good enough to tell us."

Is that actually true? What's the sampling rate and subsequent Nyquist frequency? It's my impression that the sampling rate given by ice core samples is surprisingly high (something in the neighborhood of year-by-year.)


> It's my impression that the sampling rate given by ice core samples is surprisingly high (something in the neighborhood of year-by-year.)

Ice cores only cover hundreds of thousands of years into the past (I think the oldest is about 800,000 years). I'm talking about times millions of years ago.


Agreed, that seems like the sensationalism he’s willing to ignore. Which as everyone else pointed out is harmful.

Can GP explain if these plankton did not exist in these times of higher temperatures? Because I don’t know. Maybe they didn’t, but we’ve had whales and plankton separately for millions and millions of years over drastically different climates. So I’m curious how they are making such absolute statements.

I don’t know nearly enough about plankton, maybe someone could explain?


> The global average temperature has been higher than that in the past Yes > there was plenty of oxygen in the atmosphere. Well, citation needed.


>there was plenty of oxygen in the atmosphere. Well, citation needed.

Isn’t that entirely the basis of the giant flora and fauna we know existed?


The loss of formatting is a problem for understanding your comment, but you seem to be arguing that there isn't evidence that the level of oxygen on the atmosphere is steadly going down since the Great Oxidation Event. If, so, there's plenty of evidence.


>it all piles up on the narrative that the consequences of climate change are really not that bad

Does it? I read the article to be saying "you should be much much more concerned with the burning of fossil fuels than a forest." I read the article to be an attack on sensational journalism distracting people from the crux of the discussion. Its further point is that being concerned about oxygen and not temperatures rising is a logical error.


In terms of giving people a reason for skepticism, simply telling the truth (for once) is a drop in the pan compared to all the bald-faced, dishonest, say-anything "activism" performed by various groups (e.g. the entire neoliberal media establishment) pertaining to global warming. I think climate change is a serious issue and a threat to the species, just by the way.


> but having the earth temperature go up 5 degrees would kill most phytoplankton, and that would end the oxygen supply (eventually)

Isn't the point of the article that you could kill every living thing besides humans (including plankton) and not disrupt the oxygen supply?

Also, another point of the article is that burning fossil fuels is the primary driver of oxygen decline, which seems urgent.


Breathing too hard would also end the oxygen supply eventually, but trying to make any one factor the cause for the end seems to be a waste. You might as well be trying to find which one reason is responsible for the collapse of Rome. Or maybe you find that one thing about the USA that makes it intolerable in your opinion, but it will always pale to the multicausal.


> having the earth temperature go up 5 degrees would kill most phytoplankton

See... but this is the kind of thing that leads to this kind of both-sides-ist article in the first place. In fact there are innumerable species of phytoplankton and other primary photosynthesizers, lots of which would be very happy to migrate toward the poles as the oceans warm. The planet may be warming rapidly, but it's been warmer in the geologic past and the microbial ecosystems did just fine.

Obviously bigger organisms are going to be terribly disrupted (and for bigger fauna the beginning of a mass extinction already seems to be under way). This is, y'know, outrageously bad.

But predictions of the end of life on earth are just feeding the right wing meme that liberals are irrational and opening the door for journalists to push this kind of "It's not so bad"[1] article as "balance". We need to be serious with our criticism. Urgency doesn't require sensationalism.

[1] To be fair, not having read the complete thing yet: the text of the article seems really quite good. It's not whitewashing anything I can see. But the theme and headline are still a variation on "environmentalists are idiots".


I don't think the article is a critique of environmentalists so much as lazy pop science news that inacuratly simplfies and conflates issues. "Lungs of the Earth" stories distract from the very real problems with a inaccurate bumper sticker slogan.


posts like this decrease the credibility of climate change activism.


If average temps go up 5°C (the current fear is that 2°C is the deadline, and at 3°C we're experiencing CATASTROPHIC DAMAGE including major loss of breadbasket regions, mass famine leading to mass revolt (think Arab Spring x 100)) then we are long, long past the current idea of modern civilization, billions of humans etc. At 5°C I bet 75% of world population has died to either lack of resources or wars over scarce resources.

https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/chapter-3/

I'd link more to IPCC but their website appears down, so sorry.

I will say that the 5 degree scenario is called the "RCP 8.5" and is basically the worst disaster scenario published here https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10584-011-0149-y


Related: the fires in the Congo, Africa, this week resulted in bad air-quality in the northeast of Brazil. That made the national news.

Sadly it's not only the Amazon that is cutting down on trees. Besides the fires in Africa, Canada was also in the news some time ago. Apparently that prompted the Canadian government to put up a page to deal with the issue: https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/our-natural-resources/forests-forest...


One Strange Rock, a nature documentary hosted by Will Smith (stay with me) actually goes into this in some detail and I would definitely recommend a watch. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt7651892/


I saw it, a bit skeptic about Will Smith but the production is high Quality, I suppose with Will the show is pointing younger generations.


Haven’t watched it myself but often times these kinds of documentaries use voice actors to read the script and lend a good voice to their content. James Earl Jones, Leonard Nimoy, etc.


He is not just voice acting, he is presenting. And a lot of astronauts (Chris Hadfield is the only one I can remember right now). I haven’t finished watching though.


Isn't he 50 years old?


Somehow he still looks 35


He's a role model in many ways, this is one.


This is a great point. An important aspect of this is that most of the Amazon's deforestation is land owners developing their land and adding to the agricultural sectors of South America.

If we want to stop them, we need to stop the excessive consumption of these goods. This doesn't just mean stopping over eating, it means changing what you eat and paying more for goods sourced locally.

Unfortunately, that means from countries with higher labor costs and higher taxes because of higher subsidies.

It's a hard sell for most consumers. How do we accomplish that?


From what I've read most of the agricultural production in Brazil goes directly or indirectly towards beef and biofuel. So cutting down on beef consumption seems like a great step. I personally have cut down my meat consumption dramatically, but how can we move that further as not only a society, but a species? If I stop eating beef, but nobody else does, nothing is won. If the US cuts down on beef consumption, other countries will be happy to buy the now cheaper beef.

Collective action problems are a problem...


> ...but how can we move that further as not only a society, but a species?

The answer is simple, the execution is hard and will piss a lot of people off: start treating red meat as a luxury item, and slowly introduce taxes on top of its price, like we do for alcohol and tobacco. Nothing drastic of course, just a few cents extra every half a year or so to make people reconsider their eating habits again and again.

But if we're talking about the US specifically, that's not even necessary. Just removing subsidies that are already handed out to the meat industry will achieve the same result.


The correct solution is, of course, to tax things according to their externalities. So beef produced with methods that result in less CH4 should be cheaper than more polluting beef.


Do we have time to do it "just a few cents extra every half a year or so"? From what I read, that would have worked if we started in the 80's or so.


I personally believe that there's no way we'll undo the damage. Unless some drastic change happens in a way we govern ourselves really quickly, the best we could hope for is to minimize the negative effects of our actions.

As such, any positive action is better than none.


There are other measures that could help, like actually policing the region and promoting economic alternatives for local population. Sadly, the currently Brazilian government decided to stop both of them


I dislike the Brazilian government, but the rest of the world shouldn't wash their hands of the problem either. If the Amazon is important to the whole world, the whole world should be giving that government a damn good deal to convince it to prevent deforestation.

As an European, I was quite disgusted by the reactions of the "EU leaders".


I wholeheartedly agree, but Bolsonaro has made it so that every step in that direction is extraordinarily difficult. There is a fund (Amazon Fund) that both provided material resources to IBAMA[1] and financed sustainable economic practices. Earlier this year, the government fired the board of directors of that fund and ended its transparency efforts. The money mostly came from the Norwegian and German governments, to the tune of about US$1.2 billion total[2]. Now both countries have stopped donating to the fund[3]. When Macron offered US$ 22m to help with the fires, Bolsonaro responded by first accusing him of being a “colonialist”[4]. He then proceeds to call Macron's wife ugly because WHY NOT?[5]. His finance minister, who was supposed to be one of the more moderate forces in this government, repeats the insult in a conference[6]

This was all “free money”, only strings attached was oversight of its usage

1: Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, one of two federal agencies in charge of conservation

2: http://www.amazonfund.gov.br/en/donations/

3: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/aug/16/norway-halts-a...

4: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/27/world/americas/brazil-ama...

5: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/aug/26/macron-rebukes...

6: https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/internacional/en/business/2019...


you don't have to tax beef. merely remove the subsidies given to it's producers and let the free market cut down the consumption


How much are those subsidies? Would it really be enough to raise the price sufficiently to drive change?


Did you read my second paragraph?


"If the US cuts down on beef consumption, other countries will be happy to buy the now cheaper beef." This only results in no change if there's an infinite demand for beef at the current market price. If the US reduces beef intake, world beef intake clearly goes down.


Stupid idea: tax meat and use the money to purchase tracts of farmland in the Amazon and such places, preventing them from being explored. That would reduce the drop in prices, by increasing the cost of productive land.


The main export destinations of Brazilian beef are Hong Kong, China, Egypt, Russia, Iran and Chile.

https://www.datamyne.com/blog/markets/brazilian-beef-exports...


America banned beef imports from Brazil a couple of years ago. Leather could still come from Brazilian cattle though.


A lot of the deforestation is caused not by landowners who are engaged in agriculture, but as a result of land speculators letting good land sit idle, and forcing impoverished homesteaders into the rainforest where they engage in clearcutting out of desperation.

There is likely an "environmental kuznets curve" where developing countries cause an environmental burden as they develop up until a certain point, after which further gains in general wealth begin to improve the environment. It is only when people are wealthy that they start to be willing to do things like reduce pollution.

Wealth in general is the key to solving our environmental issues. It encourages sustainable fertility rates, and makes people rich enough so that they don't have to resort to desperate measures like using fire for clear-cutting.


If we increased the cost of transportation from far away producers, it seems that we kill two birds with one shot. I'm not an economist and I don't know what ramifications this would have, and not exactly what form this "increase in cost" would take.


Not least because lungs take in oxygen and output carbon dioxide. I guess while the Amazon is on fire it acts a bit like lungs.


Well from the point of view of your body, your lungs bring oxygen in and take carbon dioxide out.


Ha, nice one! So if the Amazon is like lungs in this sense, where is it bringing the oxygen in from?


Released as waste via photosynthesis when it breaks apart CO2 in order to use the carbon to build plant matter?


If I recall my bio class right, the oxygen in the CO2 goes into the production of carbohydrates. The oxygen released as waste comes from split water molecules (photosynthesis requires both CO2 and H20.)


Photosynthesis: 6CO2 + 6H2O → C6H12O6 + 6O2

In English: 6 carbon dioxide molecules and 6 water molecules become 1 glucose molecule and 6 dioxygen molecules.

So for each CO2 molecule in, there is one O2 molecule out. Now it's entirely possible that some of the O in O2 comes from the H2O molecules. At most half of it if I know how to count up to twelve.

Edited for clarity.


> At most half of it if I know how to count up to twelve.

I thought so too, and this would be true if the reaction happened exactly as the equation describes.

But it turns out there are a bunch of intermediate steps.

The first set is pure hydrolysis:

2H2O + light + depleted energy carriers -> 2O2 + 2H(+) + filled energy carriers (that include 2H)

That oxygen is excreted and ends up in the atmosphere. Then, there’s the transpiration process that takes in CO2 and makes sugar and water again:

3CO2 + filled energy carriers (that include 6H total) + 6H(+) -> C3H6O3 + depleted energy carriers + 3H2O

So really what happens is this:

6CO2 + 12H2O -> C6H12O6 + 6O2 + 6H2O

All the O2 output comes from the 12 H2O input. The 6 H2O output are recreated with half the H from the input 12 H2O but oxygen from from half the 6CO2 input, while the other half of the CO2, combined with 12 H from the 12 H2O input, make the sugar.

Fascinating stuff.

One upshot: all that crap about the water molecules being the same molecules the dinosaurs swam is crap. Any water that’s been through photosynthesis is reconstituted on the molecular level!


It definitely doesn't matter, but I recall my bio teacher getting quite pedantic on this point. It's moderately interesting trivia I guess.


And then the glucose is what becomes the building block for cellulose, lignin, etc, right?


And amino acids [1], and anything organic synthesized by plants, through many many intermediary steps. But I am neither a biologist nor a chemist, so please do not take my word for it, I may be wrong.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amino_acid_synthesis


Photosynthesis releases as many O2 molecules as it takes in CO2 molecules. It also uses water and produces sugar.

I’m not sure if the released oxygen comes from the water or the carbon dioxide but it doesn’t much matter!

Edit: looks like it comes from the water. Cool!


from the air that it takes in, just like lungs do


Thinking that exposing the objective truth to the general public is always the best course of action is at best naive and can at times lead to tragedy... You can do this to a greater extent if your nation is small and has a high amount of highly educated citizens (ie Scandinavian countries) that are able to understand implications and distinctions and place limits to their personal volition for the sake of the community. Tell to Joe down the road that the recycling truck at times dumps everything together for technical reasons and you will dramatically diminish the care and effort to properly separate waste.


I thought the Amazon was called Earths lungs because of how it sucks moisture from the ocean across land.

(Please correct me if I am wrong) its my understanding that the area would be quite dry, but the plants manipulate the atmosphere with particulates to draw in water from the oceans and create precipitation across the continent. I thought it was this 'sucking' that gave its name 'earth's lungs'.

I also dont like the focus on Co2. that's not the only way the world cools, warms. the water being converted to gas, to water, and gas again takes up energy and cools the planet. beyond c02, if the Amazon were to go away, I think the earth would get warmer to some extent.


“Does the Amazon provide 20% of our oxygen?” discussion from a couple weeks ago:

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20789771


Doesn't mean we shouldn't care; It's amazing how people always view things with a negative and destructive not-my-problem mindset; Humanity in general right now is much more destructive than constructive; We must always strive to make a positive impact for others and for the entire planet, leaving things better than they were before us, not the contrary;


Duplicate of https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20928439 ? (I don't know which one should stay.)


News just in: the metaphor is not the thing


The article isn't nitpicking the metaphor, it's saying that the factual claim underlying the metaphor (ie that the Amazon provides 20% or some appreciable amount of our oxygen) is false.

If you click the link at the top of the page, it takes you to an article that you can read. I recommend doing so before commenting on a post in general


This feels like a simple strawman. The problem is called global warming, not global deoxygenation.


Strawman of what? The article isn't titled "there is no problem with deforestation, go nuts". The first paragraph describes the hypothetical loss of the Amazon as a "planetary historic tragedy beyond measure", and says that it'll make the Paris climate goals impossible to reach.

None of this contradicts the premise of the article, which is that a commonly-held and - expressed belief about the Amazon's role in our oxygen supply is not supported by the science.

Strawman doesn't mean "talking about a different topic than I'd prefer".


This feels like a simple strawman.

Maybe feels like it, but the argument being attacked here is just the false 'amazon = world's lungs' claim, not something else, not global warming, so I don't think it qualifies as strawman according to it's definition? (Plus note that the article specifically mentions burning down the amazon is a tragedy)


The above link is a paragraph and a click-through link. This is the actual article: https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2019/08/amazon-f...



Some are motivated to hyperbolize about the wildfires in Brazil in order to craft a narrative that Bolsonaro is ushering in the apocalypse. There’s wildfires in Bolivia but no one is blaming socialism (Evo Morales).

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/sep/02/bolivia-evo-mo...


Brazilian Amazon deforestation went up 222% in August, compared to the same time last year[1]. Bolsonaro has a very anti-conservation agenda. He has:

- Appointed a climate denialist conspiracy theorist as his foreign minister [2]

- Appointed as minister for the environment a man convicted of forging documents in favour of mining companies [3]

- Contradicted the National Institute for Space Research, responsible for satellite tracking of deforestation, when it published preliminary data that showed the increase (as it had done every year), then fired its director[4]

- Then went on to blame the fires on conservation NGOs [5]

This is just off the top of my head (I'm Brazilian), links provided are just the first search results from reputable sources in English. Happy to provide more info to anyone who needs it.

That said, I have no love for Evo nor do I know the specifics of the situation across the border, but Bolsonaro is terrible for the environment and the world should be concerned, not in the least because 58.4% of the Amazon is inside Brazil's border. In contrast, 7.7% of it falls within Bolivia

1: https://www.dw.com/pt-br/desmatamento-na-amaz%C3%B4nia-em-ag...

2: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/nov/15/brazil-foreign...

3: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-brazil-politics-minister/...

4: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-brazil-environment-job/br...

5: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/aug/21/jair-bolsonaro...

[edited to add size of Bolivian Amazon]


Not anymore it isn't.


Please refrain promoting deforestation


The article does not promote deforestation.

> Losing the Amazon, beyond representing a planetary historic tragedy beyond measure, would also make meeting the ambitious climate goals of the Paris Agreement all but impossible.

It discusses a misconception that has been propogated lately.

> The Amazon is a vast, ineffable, vital, living wonder. It does not, however, supply the planet with 20 percent of its oxygen.

> As the biochemist Nick Lane wrote in his 2003 book Oxygen, “Even the most foolhardy destruction of world forests could hardly dint our oxygen supply, though in other respects such short-sighted idiocy is an unspeakable tragedy.”


Characterizing 6% of the oxygen supply as “more or less zero” (as the author does) seems to signal approval of deforestation to me.


Let's leave aside how ludicrous it is to ignore the author's half-paragraph of passionate description of deforestation as tragedy and read the tea leaves to determine he's a deforestation fan, and ignore how absurd it is to criticize a factual claim on the basis that it hurts or helps a narrative: you're not even reading the article's claims correctly.

> The Amazon produces about 6 percent of the oxygen currently being made by photosynthetic organisms alive on the planet today. But surprisingly, this is not where most of our oxygen comes from. In fact, from a broader Earth-system perspective, in which the biosphere not only creates but also consumes free oxygen, the Amazon’s contribution to our planet’s unusual abundance of the stuff is more or less zero.

The Amazon produces 6% of oxygen produces by photosynthetic organisms. The proportion of total oxygen produced by these organisms (let's call it P) is relatively small enough that the Amazon's contribution, 0.06*P, ends up being negligible.


The article is a classic mixed message propaganda. Too much “is it really THAT bad though?” mixed in with the mainstream opinion that it’s really bad. This is how consent is engineered. Not surprised at all that people fall for it though.


There are multiple paragraphs of the strongest possible language describing how horrible deforestation would be. I've looked through the entire article and can't find a single thing that would be considered "is it that bad", beyond the basic factual claim the article is premised on. Is there any way that your claim is falsifiable at all? Ie, what would an article debunking the "20% of oxygen" myth look like without being "mixed message propaganda engineering consent". The author clearly went to some pretty great lengths to head off the frothing paranoia that he knew people would bring to the issue, and it's not clear to me what else he could have done.


Where did you get that? I think you misread that paragraph from the article. The author did not equate 6% to zero.


Did you actually read the article, or are you just kneejerking to the title? Because it's quite-anti-deforestation in there.


Titles are important, and titles can be irresponsible.




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