22 August 2019

We Have Your Backs: Supporting the Work of Brazilian Earth Scientists

Posted by Joshua Speiser

By AGU Past President and Director/Professor at the Appalachian Laboratory of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science

Eric Davidson, AGU Past President and Director/Professor at the Appalachian Laboratory of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science

Where scientific findings have not conveniently fit into the ideological preferences of political leaders around the world, science and scientists are increasingly under attack.

In a symposium on human rights threats to scientists at the 2018 AGU Fall Meeting in Washington, DC, an Iranian environmental scientist shared a chilling story about learning of his imminent arrest if he were to return home from an international trip. Other participants shared stories about how authoritarian governments in Eastern Europe and the Middle East have increasingly threatened academic freedoms. And here in the United States, the clear warnings by experts contributing to the U.S. National Climate Assessment of the current and impending impacts of climate change on U.S. and global economies were recently dismissed by President Trump with four short words: “I don’t believe it.” Politicians are feeding misinformation about vaccine safety for measles, ebola, and human papilomavirus.

As chronicled in a recent Eos article, the latest and no less troubling development is in Brazil where a new president is cutting off funding for science agencies, federal universities, and graduate student stipends, while calling the results of deforestation findings by the Brazilian Space Agency (INPE) “lies.”

Remote sensing has become one of the most powerful tools used by our Earth science community to study our planet, including changes in ice cover, aquifer depletion, air pollution emissions, rainfall and other climate patterns, primary productivity in oceans and estuaries, buried archaeological features, land use change, and many more issues of scientific import. It is fair to say that Brazil has the most sophisticated and most effective remote sensing system for rapid detection and annual quantification of deforestation rates. Its two-pronged approach includes:

  • Annual estimates of deforestation areas by PRODES (Programa de Cálculo do Desflorestamento da Amazônia) using imagery with high spatial but low temporal resolution; and
  • Pinpointing in real time where current deforestation is occurring by DETER (Sistema de Detecção do Desmatamento em Tempo Real) which uses imagery with low spatial but high temporal resolution. The recent uptick in detection by DETER of places where deforestation is occurring has led to a provisional projection of a large increase in area of deforestation in 2019 which PRODES is scheduled to quantify in its annual report.

These accomplishments in remote sensing science were the result of at least three decades of careful research by Brazilian scientists and their collaborators. Thanks to this research and the technology that it enables, along with other investments in higher education, agricultural research, funding for enforcement agencies, a vigorous civil society discussion, and partnerships with agribusiness groups, deforestation rates in the Brazilian Amazon were declining from 15,000 – 30,000 km2 per year before 2005 to 5,000 -7000 km2 per year in recent years. This progress has enormous implications for the regional climate of Brazil and surrounding countries, the global carbon cycle, conservation of local and regional biodiversity, and for sustainable economic development of the region. The impressive decrease in deforestation since 2005 is attributable to many socioeconomic factors, but the contribution of high quality remote sensing science to locate and measure this change is undeniable.

I was fortunate in the 1990s and 2000s to be part of an international, interdisciplinary science project sponsored by the Brazilian government and led by Brazilian scientists called the Large-Scale Biosphere-Atmosphere Experiment in the Amazon (LBA). The DETER methodology was partly a result of remote sensing scientists working together during that great collaboration. Equally important and hugely gratifying to me and other LBA team members, we also trained a generation of Brazilian students in remote sensing, atmospheric science, meteorology, biogeochemistry, physical climate, and human dimensions of land use change. Those former students are now the early and mid-career scientists forming the core of the Brazilian geosciences and bearing the brunt of the current attack on Brazilian science. I believe I speak for many of my colleagues from LBA and from AGU, to express our resolute support for our Brazilian colleagues and to their students. We want you to know that the global community of Earth and space scientists has your backs as you face domestic challenges to the quality and value of your science. We admire your dedication to science for the betterment of humanity. We honor your scientific integrity. And we encourage you to persevere in speaking truth to power.

Support for science should be unwavering, regardless of political views and priorities. As the ousted Director of the Brazilian Space Agency, Ricardo Galvão, so aptly stated in the Eos article: “The leader of any country should be aware that in scientific matters there is no authority above the sovereignty of science.”