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The Amazon’s Climate Tipping Point

Tropical forests have long been a crucial hedge against catastrophic climate change. They hold roughly a quarter of the world’s stored carbon and until now have been absorbing more CO2 from the atmosphere than they release. But this powerful tool for blunting the effects of rising greenhouse gas pollution is under threat as the incentives to clear land and grow food for the global market increase.

Two landmark studies point to the growing evidence for a tropical forest tipping point. The first, published in Science in September, 2017, found that humans have destroyed so many trees that tropical forests now release more carbon than they store. The other, from March 2018, says deforestation in the Amazon could permanently transform much of the region from forest to savannah. Together, they’re a stark warning—for the forests and local people who depend on them and the imperative of reversing global warming. These forests are essential to limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius—the more ambitious target in the Paris Accord. It’s one of the most urgent but least publicized environmental challenges of our time.

Eaton’s reporting along Brazil’s notorious “arc of deforestation” documents the complex global forces behind deforestation, the increasingly violent battle over the land, and new efforts to create a green economy for the Amazon that values healthy forests as a global public good.