Cristiano Ronaldo is a Portuguese expert on forests who also plays football, so when he shared a picture online of a recent forest fire in the Amazon, it went viral. Perhaps he was in a rush that day to get out of the laboratory to football training, because it later transpired that the photograph was actually taken in 2013, not this year, and in southern Brazil, nowhere near the Amazon.
But at least his picture was only six years old. Emmanuel Macron, another forest ecologist who moonlights as president of France, claimed that ‘the Amazon rainforest — the lungs which produce 20 per cent of our planet’s oxygen — is on fire!’ alongside a picture that was 20 years old. A third bioscientist, who goes under the name of Madonna and sings, capped both their achievements by sharing a 30-year-old picture.
Now imagine if some celebrity — Donald Trump, say, or Nigel Lawson — had shared a picture of a pristine tropical forest with the caption ‘Amazon rainforest’s doing fine!’ and it had turned out to be decades old or from the wrong area. The BBC’s ‘fact-checkers’ would have been all over it, seizing the opportunity to mock, censor and ostracise.
In fact, ‘Amazon rainforest’s doing fine’ is a lot closer to the truth than ‘Amazon rainforest — the lungs which produce 20 per cent of our planet’s oxygen — is on fire!’. The forest is not on fire. The vast majority of this year’s fires are on farmland or already cleared areas, and the claim that the Amazon forest produces 20 per cent of the oxygen in the air is either nonsensical or wrong depending on how you interpret it (in any case, lungs don’t produce oxygen). The Amazon, like every ecosystem, consumes about as much oxygen through respiration as it produces through photosynthesis so there is no net contribution; and even on a gross basis, the Amazon comprises less than 6 per cent of oxygen production, most of which happens in the ocean.