Joseph J. Ellis is a Pulitzer Prize winning historian currently teaching at Williams College. Peter Ellis, his son, is a forest ecologist.
Tw o contradictory facts reign supreme with regard to climate change. The first is that the atmosphere and oceans of our planet are heating up . The catastrophic consequences of this reality are already baked into the environment, and most of New Orleans will be underwater 100 years from now. If Occupy Wall Street persists as a political movement till then, it will have to hoist its banners from kayaks .
The second is that the current Congress is incapable of leadership or legislation that reduces the flow of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. In 50 years, we will look back at this moment and compare our dysfunctional congressional leaders to those church theologians who convicted Galileo of heresy for insisting that the Earth was not the center of the universe. But, for now, the United States is politically gridlocked.
Our domestic paralysis also has an international equivalent that has stymied global reform ever since the U.N. climate conference at Kyoto in 1997. All attempts to reduce carbon emissions through binding international agreements have floundered because the world’s developing countries — chiefly China and India — are understandably reluctant to deny their populations a higher standard of living in response to requests from the West, which already achieved that higher standard by burning fossil fuels with impunity.
We are, then, in an awkward historical moment, waiting for the looming environmental catastrophe to get worse — goodbye polar bears and Greenland glaciers — and change the political chemistry for the better. For the foreseeable future, it seems clear that hurricanes, droughts and floods will intensify, and the political will to address the problem will lag behind the crises that occur.
In this stymied situation, the obvious question is: What can we do?
The three-word answer is an environmental version of the Hippocratic Oath: Do no harm. The one-word answer is forests. If the bridge fuel from coal and oil to renewables is natural gas, the bridge technology between today and the emissions reductions we need is nature’s most efficient carbon container: the tree.
At the upcoming U.N. summits on climate change in Lima (in December) and Paris (in 2015), we propose setting forest conservation as the global goal that most maximizes benefits and minimizes sacrifices. Conversations laying the groundwork for these negotiations will begin at the U.N. climate summit on Tuesday in New York.
Here are the numbers. We inherited a planet with 6 billion hectares of forest. About 4 billion remain. If we continue at our current rate of forest loss, (19 million hectares a year, an area the size of Washington state), we will have destroyed more than half of the Earth’s forests within a century. This destruction has a big impact. Every year, between 10 percent and 15 percent of the carbon released into the atmosphere (5 billion tons of carbon dioxide) comes from deforestation, about the same amount of pollution produced by automobiles, trains, ships and airplanes combined.
But here is the good news. When a tree is cut down, it releases carbon into the atmosphere; when it is allowed to grow, however, it continues to absorb carbon. The environmental impact of forest conservation is double-barreled. The more we cut, the more we compound our problem, but conversely, the more that forests regrow, the stronger our potential for recovery. If we stopped deforestation tomorrow, the total power of forests would offset a third of our human-caused carbon emissions. Until we are prepared to wean ourselves from fossil fuels, forests are a stopgap that allow us to minimize the damage and save us from ourselves.
The tropical forests of Asia and the Amazon and Congo basins are by far the most efficient carbon absorbers on Earth, and they are also the hot spots of forest loss. They constitute the planet’s best chance to avert environmental suicide. Preserving them should be high on the agenda at the Lima summit, and the United States and other rich countries should offer to foot the bill.
What we propose is not a solution to the global challenge posed by climate change. Rather, it is a feasible strategy to limit the damage until we are politically prepared to take more aggressive action, using the planet’s built-in defense mechanism to fullest advantage. It buys time and provides a decent interval for our children and grandchildren to devise a more adequate response to the climate crisis.
If we live up to the full meaning of the term “conservationists,” and save the forests, especially in the tropics, we will be able to say that we passed the baton in a race that was not already lost. That limited goal is currently the best legacy we can still leave.
A Climate for Change: