The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Want to stop climate change? Start by planting a trillion trees.

Matthew Greene, right, and Rene Antonio Contreras, left, plant a tree in Washington in 2018.
Matthew Greene, right, and Rene Antonio Contreras, left, plant a tree in Washington in 2018. (Allison Shelley/For The Washington Post)
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Sometimes, big problems can be solved simply.

At the moment, our biggest problem — climate change — could be ended by simply planting trees. Okay, so 1 trillion trees, according to a Swiss study published this month in the journal Science. But how hard is that, really?

An equally serious and related problem is disappearing bees. Those cute little black-and-yellow-robed buzzers are essential to our survival, but our pesticides, fertilizers and climate change are killing them along with the insects we hate. Without bees, our ecosystems would collapse, and thus our food supply.

Over-the-top? Apocalyptic? Let’s just say, no. This is reality, and we have the means to change it: Plant trees, save bees. Since bees also like flowers, let’s go ahead and make America beautiful again. An emerging theory to combat crime in some parts of the country is called “busy streets.” Research has shown how simple cosmetic changes to urban communities — such as planting flower beds — can help reduce violence. And improve a city’s aroma to boot.

For years, Republicans cast doubt on whether climate change was even occurring. Now, some Republicans acknowledge the existence of human-caused climate change. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Saving bees and trees by planting with purpose would kill two birds, so to speak. If this sounds like a modern version of the Emerald City of Oz, I have no problem with that. Bees love poppies, which, though they provide no nectar, are an excellent source of pollen. That’s nothing to sneeze about, by the way.

Most people know that trees are good for them. They absorb carbon dioxide, thus purifying the air for our breathing pleasure. Carbon dioxide is also one of the main greenhouse gases, which trap heat in the atmosphere, leading to rising temperatures and climate change.

Estimates are that about 15 percent of emissions come from deforestation. Trees also curb other harmful gases, such as sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide, again releasing pure oxygen into the air. If Congo’s 150 million hectares of forests were lost, it would generate about three times the world’s total emissions in 2012.

But scientists, including Thomas Crowther, a co-author of the trillion-tree study, were quick to point out that planting trees alone wouldn’t work. And how does one go about planting 1 trillion trees? And where should they be planted?

Although tree-planting is a simple solution — effective and cheaper than any other remedy currently in circulation — it isn’t simply a matter of planting trees helter-skelter. A forest in the wrong place could have detrimental effects by upsetting the ecological balance.

But this seems a relatively easy obstacle to clear.

The countries with the most land available for building forests are Russia, China, Canada, Australia, Brazil — and the United States. The Switzerland-based researchers found that adding 1.2 trillion trees would reverse 10 years’ worth of harmful emissions. Over the decades, Crowther says those new trees would absorb about 200 billion tons of carbon from the atmosphere.

Several countries have signed up for reforestation, including the United States, which has seen an increase in its forestland, thanks in part to the Forest Service’s tree-planting initiatives. But we have to figure that the wreath of rainforests that wrapped around the globe until relatively recently was surely there for good reason. Satellite images show that the Amazon rainforest — the world’s largest — is disappearing at the rate of 1 1/2 soccer-field-size parcels per minute. What such decimation means to the planet’s future can’t be good — unless ridding the world of humans is Earth’s ultimate survival measure.

No trees, no birds, no bugs, no bees, no food, no humans. That’s pretty simple, too.

This past winter, a record share — nearly 40 percent — of honeybee colonies in the United States died, but bees aren’t the only ones disappearing. Forty percent of all the world’s insect species are in decline, according to another recent study, leading scientists to declare that Earth is experiencing the Sixth Great Extinction. Nobody likes bugs — until they’re gone and their purposes finally appreciated.

Insects nourish birds and fish, and serenade us to sleep. Animals pollinate 87 percent of flowering plant species. If current trends continue, there may be no insects by 2119, with one likely exception — the indestructible cockroach, whose sole purpose is apparently to recycle our messes, thus guaranteeing its survival after all else is gone.

Read more from Kathleen Parker’s archive, follow her on Twitter or find her on Facebook.

Read more:

Letter to the Editor: For the bees’ sake and Mother Nature’s, embrace a little wild

Michael S. Engel: Butterflies aren’t expendable. Our brittle reality depends on them, too.

Helaine Olen: We’re in danger of killing off the biodiversity that makes our way of life possible

Kathleen Parker: Nothing in today’s headlines compares to the coming catastrophe

Kathy Love: The sage grouse’s future was starting to look bright, but then along came Trump

Eugene Robinson: Climate change is real. Welcome to the new normal.