Trees Are the Ark That Can Save Us

The earth’s climate is a finely balanced dynamic system. Excess carbon emissions are about to rip it over. Here’s what we know that can rescue our world.

June 3, 2013    BY Kelpie Wilson

In the beginning, all life was in the ocean. Sometime later, our ancestors crawled out onto the land, and before long, they became tree-dwellers. We humans have always loved the shelter of trees and felt at home in forests.

Trees have found a place of honor in almost every sacred tradition. Ancient yogis lived deep in the forest, and Patanjali is known as the “jungle physician.” The Buddha found enlightenment under a fig tree. Maypoles and Christmas trees are remnants of a European culture that celebrated trees in every season, an echoing reminder of the ancient Druids who worshipped in sacred groves. The Greeks built temples supported by columns shaped like tall cedars with their fluted bark. And after cutting down the Druid groves, Christians toiled to raise imitation forests in stone, called cathedrals.

In the 1980s, in Oregon, a group of activists formed to save the last “cathedral forests” of the region. People who came to the heart of these ancient forests gazed up at the canopy and saw stained glass windows in the quality of light filtering down, vaulted ceilings in the lofty branches, and mighty pillars in the tall trunks. They felt what many before them had felt, that trees are the living link between heaven and earth, and they were filled with happiness.

The sacredness of trees had come full circle and people now realized that what remained standing of the ancient forests must be preserved.

Forest in Critical Danger

Those Oregon forest activists, of whom I was one, mounted a successful, long-term campaign to save the last pristine forests of the Pacific Northwest. Unfortunately, most of the protections won were not permanent gains, and with the political changes in the year 2000, the new administration began to unravel the net of protection. And although we had seen some progress in the United States, unlogged old-growth forests around the world continued to disappear at an alarming rate.

As citizens, we can learn about the forests in our area and join the groups that are working to protect them.

Forests harbor much of the world’s biodiversity. They soak up water and seed rain clouds; they inhale carbon dioxide, storing carbon in their flesh; they exhale oxygen for us to breathe. They are essential to life, but sadly, despite the growing consciousness about the importance of forests, we continue to lose around 13 million hectares per year (an area the size of Greece).

Forests are lost to logging for timber and consumer products, to land clearing for agriculture, and increasingly, to palm oil and other biofuel plantations.

As concern about global warming grows, the role of forests in combating it is becoming better understood. Here is what we know:

  • About one-fifth of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide come from land clearing and deforestation—more than from the entire transportation sector.
  • Immediately when forests are logged, disturbed soils release carbon dioxide and methane. Then more gases are released over time as leaves and twigs decay.
  • Different types of forests store carbon in different ways. Tropical forests cover the most acreage and store more of their carbon in the mass of their living vegetation than in soils.
  • The northern forests surrounding the pole, known as boreal forests, comprise the largest single reservoir of carbon on the planet. Most of this carbon is buried in deep layers of permafrost, frozen peat accumulated over thousands of years.
  • Temperate forests of the mid-latitudes contain about a third as much carbon as found in tropical forests and less than one sixth of the amount stored in boreal forests and their soils.
  • As the climate warms and dries out, some forests are starting to release more carbon than they absorb in their annual growth cycles. At the same time, there is an increase in the number and severity of forest fires. Although the exact climate impact of forest fires is disputed, the loss of carbon storing adds significantly to global warming.

The timber industry has promoted the idea that young, growing forests do a better job of taking carbon out of the atmosphere than an intact old-growth forest, but scientists are finding that is not true. After an old-growth forest is logged, the site continues to release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere for many years as the remaining organic material decomposes. It may take many decades, even centuries, for new trees to reach their full size and carbon-storing potential. Even in forests that have been only selectively logged rather than clear-cut, it can take decades before a newly planted forest attains the same carbon-absorbing ability as the forest it replaced.

As Brendan Mackey, a professor of environmental science at the Australian National University, has assessed it: “One hectare of mature, tall, wet forest can store the equivalent of 5500 tonnes of carbon dioxide, about the same as the annual carbon dioxide emissions from 1300 cars.” Mackey says,“Forests that are commercially logged store about 30 to 40 percent less carbon than unlogged forests.” The World Resources Institute reports under 20 percent of the world’s original, unlogged forests remain.

The Amazon Ark

Scientists also can tell us that tropical forests are especially important to maintaining climate stability, and that the most important forest on the planet is the Amazon. The Amazon basin is about the size of the continental United States. It is home to one-fifth of the world’s plant and animal species and more than 200 indigenous cultures. According to the Woods Hole Research Center, trees in the Amazon store the carbon equivalent of more than a decade’s worth of global fossil fuel emissions in their bodies.

The Amazon is also a powerful rainmaker. Forests soak up moisture and then release it through the process of transpiration. Trees in the Amazon seed the clouds that water the fields and pastures of South America and the Caribbean. Researchers are finding that clouds and air currents originating in the Amazon can drive weather patterns as far away as the North Atlantic. The Amazon is one of the earth’s primary climate engines.

And yet each year in the Amazon basin, an area of forest bigger than Massachusetts is lost.

Global warming is proceeding so rapidly that scientists now think that we are on a trajectory to hit one or more of what they call “tipping points.” The earth’s climate is a finely balanced dynamic system. A climate tipping point is where the balance is lost and the system shifts into a new mode.

We really have no choice now. We are drowning our planet in carbon emissions, and we must save the trees, because trees are the ark that holds our climate together.

The Australian scientist Tim Flannery, who has written an important book on global warming called The Weather Makers, fears that the first major tipping point we are likely to encounter will lead to the demise of the entire Amazon forest. This is because the El NiÒo weather patterns that bring drought to the Amazon are increasing in frequency and duration.

Forest ecologist Dan Nepstad at the Woods Hole Research Center, in Massachusetts, has studied drought in the Amazon and concluded that after only two years of drought, trees start dying. Further drying promotes forest fires. Beyond a certain point, the forest won’t recover from the fires, and then the amazing Amazon would be displaced by fire-prone scrub vegetation, accelerating global warming across the planet.

We really have no choice now. We are drowning our planet in carbon emissions, and we must save the trees, because trees are the ark that holds our climate together. Preserving trees, along with big changes in our high-consumption lifestyles, can save us from the disaster of global warming.

A Few Modern-Day Noahs

The biblical story of Noah provides an interesting parallel. Science now tells us that, in fact, there were great floods around the world at the end of the last ice age, some ten thousand years ago. So it is not surprising that stories of an ark have come down to us. Noah built his ark out of wood to save living creatures from the flood. As we face the rising waters once again, we must recognize that today’s Noahs are called upon not to cut down trees to build an ark, but to preserve the environment’s ark by saving forests.

Last year, the respected British economist Nicholas Stern issued a report on global warming that finally proved to much of the world that the cost of ignoring climate change would be far higher than the cost of taking action today. One of Stern’s recommendations was to quickly put an end to the destruction of forests. He said that paying countries to keep trees standing was likely to be one of the cheapest and easiest ways to slow down global warming.

The World Bank is now launching the first program to reward developing countries for forest preservation. Called the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility, it will be part of the bank’s Global Forest Alliance Fund. The United Nations will consider ways to bring avoided deforestation into carbon trading schemes at its next climate change conference, set to be in Bali, Indonesia, this December.

Kevin Conrad, the United Nations Representative from Papua New Guinea and a committed advocate for the new programs, sums up the challenge simply: “The world markets want our wood, they want our coffee, they want all these agricultural products, but for us to provide this almost always results in deforestation…” He adds: “The only money coming to these communities is when they destroy the forests. The challenge is to get a new philosophy.”

There are different ways to approach the challenge of paying to keep forests whole, but when you examine the details of implementing any program, it almost makes Noah’s job look easy. Rounding up all those animals and marching them two by two into the ark seems simple compared with the task of lining up all of the different actors needed to save forests: heads of government, financial institutions, bureaucratic hierarchies, timber corporations, manufacturers who use wood and paper, agri-business giants, small farmers, loggers in need of jobs, and consumers.

According to World Bank figures, over 90 percent of the 1.2 billion people who live in extreme poverty depend on forests for some part of their livelihood. At the same time, the global forest products trade is worth over $270 billion. Land tenure in many forests is confused among national, private, and tribal ownership, and timber theft is everywhere.

The reality of many developing countries is that corruption and lawlessness reign. Elites often turn a blind eye to timber theft because they are getting kickbacks. For instance, the logging watchdog group Global Witness has released a report on Cambodia’s government describing it as a “kleptocracy.” The report presented evidence that “corruption and nepotism by high-ranking officials in the Cambodian government has facilitated extensive illegal logging in Cambodia…” Cambodia lost 30 percent of its forest cover over a five-year period. During this same period, the World Bank and other aid agencies were overseeing Cambodia’s development, yet they failed to tackle the ongoing corruption.

If corruption can be overcome, the avoided deforestation payments could be used to help governments combat rampant illegal logging. An estimated 73 percent of all logging in Indonesia and 80 percent of logging in the Brazilian Amazon is illegal. Unless it is stopped, illegal logging could wipe out 98 percent of the remaining forests on Sumatra and Borneo by 2022. On Borneo, the indigenous Penan tribe continues to blockade logging roads into a critically important rain forest, their ancestral forest. Perhaps the day is coming soon where the Penan and people like them will receive compensation for acting as guardians of the forest, while preserving their traditional, non-destructive use of the forest.

The Very Forests Sustain Us

The Penan and other forest people already know that the forest sustains them. Living in the cities, towns, and suburbs, our connection to trees is less obvious. But our role in building the forest ark is just as important, and there is a lot we can do as consumers and as citizens.

As citizens, we can learn about the forests in our area and join the groups that are working to protect them. It can also be very effective to lend our support to forest protection groups working on the ground in developing countries. In addition, we must continue to pressure the United States government to join the international community in the Kyoto climate change agreement.

As consumers, our role is more difficult because when we buy products from faraway places, it is very hard to know how they were produced. Recently, forest activists have become concerned that the organization that certifies sustain-ably produced forest products, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), has not been able to guarantee that its standards are being met.

Chris Lang, an environmental researcher who runs a website called fscwatch.org, says that, while the FSC is better than all the other certification schemes, it has certain structural weaknesses nonetheless. By his account, “There is a conflict of interest within the FSC system. The companies that carry out the assessment to decide whether a certificate can be awarded or not are paid for by the forestry company that wants the certificate. If the assessors apply the FSC principles very strictly and get a reputation for rejecting operations for certification, they are less likely to be employed in the future.” The inability of FSC to guarantee its standards has led the Norwegian government to conclude that it cannot rely on any certification system to help implement its new ethical procurement policy. Instead, the Norwegian authorities have decided to ban all use of tropical timber in public buildings.

Chris Lang says that another problem with green certification is that because it appears to provide timber and paper products that are “sustainable,” it diverts attention from the issue of over-consumption. “Out with the old, in with the new” is a very American, yet very wasteful creed, for instance.

Our biggest challenge as consumers is to learn how to satisfy our need and not our greed. To determine where that line is, we must first educate ourselves about the earth and its limits, and then go within to understand ourselves and our true needs.

From the Heart of a Tree Hugger

In my years as a frontline forest activist, I was fortunate to live in the forest I was trying to save. Whenever the conflicts and pressures got to be too much for me, I could walk outside and put my arms around a giant sugar pine six feet in diameter and 150 feet tall. These massive beings are solid, yet they still sway in the strong winds that blow over the ridge during storms. Their strength is amazing, and hugging them always filled me with strength, too.

Try hugging a tree sometime. It doesn’t have to be a big tree. Take a walk in the woods and press your heart against a tree and see how it makes you feel.

Hugging trees might seem silly, but it’s not. For all they do for us, you can’t deny the feeling that the trees are hugging us back.

Wood-User’s Guide

To make the best environmental choice you can when buying or using wood, start at level one, the best option, and only descend to the next level if the better way fails. This guide for consumers has been adapted from material by Friends of the Earth at www.foe.co.uk

Level 1 Repair, restore, or adapt something you already have. You may need professional help but it could still be cheaper than something new and it’s far better for the world’s forests.

Level 2 Buy secondhand, recycled, reclaimed, or waste timber. A better environmental choice than buying new.

Level 3 Buy locally produced timber products that are Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified. If you can’t recycle, buying locally produced timber products means less fossil fuel is used in transportation. Although not perfect, its certification is the best currently available. All FSC-certified wood carries the FSC logo.

Level 4 Buy FSC-certified products from farther afield.

Forest Protection

There are many worthwhile forest protection groups that deserve your support. Here are a few that are especially concerned with indigenous people as protectors of tropical forests.

Kelpie Wilson
Kelpie Wilson is a solar engineer and author of a novel, Primal Tears. She is also an enironmental columnist at Truthout.org.

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