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A protester holds a placard in front of the Brazilian Embassy during a demonstration organized by Extinction Rebellion activists in Brussels, Belgium, on Monday.
Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Images

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EDITORIAL: 3,500 miles from Amazon fires, Chicago is feeling the heat

What happens in the Amazon rainforest is sure to do damage to the climate and quality of life here.

Should Chicago care about fires burning roughly 3,500 miles away in the Amazon rainforest?

Without a doubt.

What happens there is sure to do damage to the climate and quality of life here.

The Amazon rainforest has been called the lungs of the planet, and our lungs are burning.

The United States — and every responsible nation — must continue urging Brazil to stop the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, about 60% of which lies in Brazil. We also must adopt environmental policies here at home that can mitigate the damage being done.

The Amazon fires threaten to speed climate change around the world — more carbon dioxide washing over an already overheating planet, more extreme storms, more rising oceans swamping coastal cities, more loss of species, more droughts, more flooding.

On Saturday, Brazilian troops prepared to head to the Amazon to fight the widespread fires. But environmentalists remain skeptical that real help is on the way because President Jair Bolsonaro reportedly has declared that the Amazon rainforest should be used to enrich Brazilians by being burned away to open land for farming.

It is no surprise that Brazilian government experts have reported a record number of wildfires in the Amazon basin this year, especially in the last three weeks.

Many of the fires were set by farmers and ranchers clearing existing grazing fields and farmland, but other fires are burning through thousands of square miles of previously undisturbed rainforest during the July and August dry season.

Illegal fires set by farmers also are consuming rainforest in nearby Bolivia.

A stressed planet that has just experienced its hottest month on record can ill afford more assaults on its environment.

The Amazon rainforest is the source of a significant share of the world’s oxygen. It stores a quarter of the world’s carbon, which contributes to global warming when it is released through fires. And it is a center of biodiversity.

“The Amazon basin is home to the largest tropical forest on the planet, and it is a crucial part of the global climatic system,” Douglas Stotz, senior conservation ecologist at the Field Museum of Natural History, told us Monday. “Deforestation has been going on for a long time. It is not new, just on a scale we have not seen in the past.”

In travels to the Brazilian rainforest, Stotz has seen soybean fields planted right up to roads, without any trees or other environmental buffering. The areas that are more heavily burning now are those that most likely will be used to plant more soybeans, he said.

Some Midwestern farmers draw a direct line of blame from President Donald Trump’s trade war with China to the burning rainforest. As soybeans here sit unsold in storage because China won’t buy them, Brazil is busily expanding its soybean crop for the Chinese market, they complain.

“We are all part of a global destiny, and what happens in the Amazon does affect us,” said Gerald W. Adelmann, president & CEO of Openlands. “When it comes to our air and carbon, they don’t respect political boundaries.”

Once rainforest is lost, it does not really bounce back. Without a canopy to hold moisture, the drier land below is more susceptible to new fires. The soil changes, mechanized agriculture and large-scale, multiple burns drive away the plants that would be the sources of seeds to regenerate the rainforest.

At the weekend G7 Summit, leaders from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States agreed to spend $20 million fight the Amazon fires. That’s a drop of water in the fire bucket. Every nation should be committing to much more.

Because Chicago and Illinois have little influence over what happens in Brazil, it’s up to us to do all we can to reduce our own greenhouse gas emissions and to make more land available for trees and other plants that take carbon dioxide out of the air and release oxygen, environmentalists say. We should continue to push for more clean energy sources in Illinois and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.

Also, eating less beef would reduce demand for converting rainforest to pasture or farmland to grow crops to feed cattle.

The fires raging in the Amazon are far from home. But the effects of a changing planetary climate will be felt by all of us.

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