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Media Double Down On False Claims Climate Change Driving Amazon’s ‘Unprecedented’ Drought


Last week my colleague Linnea Lueken published a detailed rebuttal to a story in the New York Times claiming a recent drought in the Amazon was caused by climate change, saying:

Several mainstream news sources, including The New York Times (NYT) and BBC, claim that a new study shows that recent severe drought conditions in the Amazon rainforest were “fueled” or driven by climate change.

The stories are false on two fronts. First, the study in question merely says the drought was made more likely due to climate change, but more pressing, the study does not get into a detailed analysis of the causes of the drought, and real-world data show that severe drought is not becoming more common in the Amazon.

This week, additional media outlets picked up the story and made the same mistakes that the BBC and New York Times had made. [emphasis, links added]

Al Jazeera claimed ‘Global warming drove record Amazon rainforest drought, study finds’, while the Associated Press opined ‘Global warming was [the] primary cause of unprecedented Amazon drought, study finds.’

Each of these news outlets ignored or at a minimum displayed ignorance of the fact that an even worse drought occurred in 1865, well before climate change was even an issue.

Peer-reviewed research published in September 2023, titled Drought and Flood Extremes on the Amazon River and in Northeast Brazil, 1790–1900 reports:

“These extremes in the tree-ring estimates and historical observations indicate that recent high and low flow anomalies on the Amazon River may not have exceeded the natural variability of precipitation and streamflow during the nineteenth century.”

In other words, the Amazon has experienced floods and droughts of similar or greater severity in the past when the Earth was cooler.

They write in the paper abstract:

The “Forgotten Drought” of 1865 was the lowest wet-season rainfall total, reconstructed with tree rings in the eastern Amazon from 1790 to 2016, appears to have been one of the lowest stream levels observed on the Amazon River during the historical era according to first-hand descriptions by Louis Agassiz, his Brazilian colleague João Martins da Silva Coutinho, and others.

The figure below, also from the paper, shows clearly that in 1865, an even worse drought occurred in the Amazon River basin.

As the chart also shows, several other years in the historical record were as bad or worse than the drought being experienced today.

Figure 1. Tree-ring-reconstructed wet-season precipitation totals for the eastern Amazon, plotted for 1790–2016, along with the multidecadal waveform [from Granato-Souza et al. (2020)]. The upper and lower 10th percentile thresholds calculated for 1790–1900 are highlighted. The driest and wettest years during this interval are indicated (with exceptional years in larger font). Source: Journal of Climate 36, 20; 10.1175/JCLI-D-23-0146.1

Clearly, these media outlets failed to do their homework, preferring instead to immediately blame the present drought on climate change as if it were unprecedented.

It isn’t. In addition, as Lueken pointed out, they also failed to examine other, more direct contributing factors to the present drought like deforestation changing rainfall patterns, and shifting El Nino/La Nina cycles.

It’s yet another example of how badly the media is complicit in pushing a specific climate narrative of worsening conditions rather than examining the facts and history in full, putting current conditions in context.

This is why Climate Realism exists: to show media malfeasance in its climate reporting.

Read more at Climate Realism

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