"Climate change is a fact," President Obama said in his State of the Union address on January 28, 2014, "and when our children's children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say, 'Yes, we did.'" In the speech, he also talked about using his authority "to protect more of our pristine federal lands for future generations."
The President has taken helpful actions to address the climate crisis, including tightening standards on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and vehicle fuel efficiency. His environmental record is checkered, however. Only two years ago, he said, "... I've directed my administration to open up millions of acres for gas and oil exploration across 23 different states. We're opening up more than 75 percent of our potential oil resources offshore. We've quadrupled the number of operating rigs to a record high. We've added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the Earth and then some."
Author and environmentalist Bill McKibben, reflecting on the President's remarks, said, "He will be remembered, at the moment, as the president who produced more carbon than anybody thought possible, unless he begins to act now with real power."
At this point, it is questionable whether President Obama could honestly tell his grandchildren he did all he could to fix the climate crisis. But, from this point forward, he could start doing all he can: by simultaneously curtailing combustion-based energy, promoting clean energy, increasing energy conservation and efficiency, and preserving forests.
He could combine his aspirations for climate protection and land protection by stopping commercial logging on federal lands so forests can capture more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. He could challenge state and local governments to follow suit.
We're losing trees fast, and not just in tropical rainforests. Satellite imagery documents the devastation. Dr. Bruce Railsback of the University of Georgia has compiled damning photographic evidence, which Google Earth images of national forests in the United States and Canada reinforce. Trees in the southeastern United States are being chopped, chipped and exported to European biomass power plants. In my home state, after a hiatus of several years, the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation is reopening public land to commercial logging, despite public comments overwhelmingly opposing this move. Loggers are preparing to clear-cut intact forests in the Quabbin Reservation, the largest tract of public land in southern New England, which surrounds the main water supply for the metropolitan Boston area.
Climate disruption may turn out to be the seminal IQ test for our species. Life on earth will go on -- but will we? Are human institutions, policies and individuals adapting quickly enough, or will we go down in a mess of wrangling, bureaucracy, ineptitude and greed? A 2012 study by 50 scientists and policy experts from around the world estimates that climate disruption kills nearly 1,000 children every day. How many more must be killed before we get serious?
We must immediately solve a two-part equation. One part is reducing new emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, through energy conservation, efficiency and increased reliance on our toolbox of solar and other energy technologies that do not involve combustion. The other part is mitigating the greenhouse gases that have already been emitted, by removing them from the atmosphere.
Photosynthesis is one of only two significant mechanisms for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere (the other being dissolution into water, leading to destructive ocean acidification). Carbon dioxide is released when trees are cut down, and deforestation accounts for at least 15 percent of global carbon emissions. Thus, cutting down trees is a double-whammy because we not only lose carbon capture capacity, but we release more carbon, too.
An erroneous conventional view holds that young trees capture more dioxide than mature trees; therefore, we should cut down mature trees. However, for most species -- 97 percent of 403 tropical and temperate species -- the biggest trees increase their growth rates and sequester more carbon as they age. This conclusion is based on repeated measurements of 673,046 individual trees, some going back more than 80 years, on six continents.
Large amounts of carbon are stored in the living wood and the soil of old forests. Forests left undisturbed for 1,000 years or more continue to suck carbon into the soil. Recent studies show that Northern Hemisphere forests capture large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Forests in the United States sequester 10 percent of the total annual United States carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels. Uncut forests store more carbon than do forests that are logged, and the loss of carbon is proportional to the extent of harvesting. Over two-thirds of the total carbon in forest ecosystems is stored in forest soil, and significant release of soil carbon occurs from logging.
Trees are our climate saviors, and it takes decades or centuries -- time we don't have -- to recover from the mistake of cutting them down. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 60 percent of the global tree harvest is used for energy purposes, and wood fuels account for 7 percent of global energy consumption. Thus, an excellent way to preserve trees is to avoid squandering them as fuel for inefficient biomass power plants.
While the federal government dithers, some political entities are acting on their own, for example, by beginning to count the economic value of forests for climate mitigation. Outside the United States, programs paying people to preserve forests include the United Nations Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) Program. Closer to home, the State of California recently adopted a new forest protocol that provides financial incentives for increasing carbon storage. The protocol is one of the new policies sparked by the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, which mandates reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in the state to 1990 levels by 2020. The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), the first market-based regulatory program in the United States to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, is a cooperative effort among nine northeast states to cap and reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the power sector. RGGI recently adopted a forest protocol modeled on California's. Such programs represent a baby step, but they still allow logging and must be strengthened.
In Louisiana, the Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge Reforestation Project is reforesting a logged-over area and protecting it as a refuge with no further logging permitted. The deal has involved the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Trust for Public Land, Entergy Corporation, Carbonfund, and other entities in an effort to combine the science of capturing carbon from the atmosphere with land conservation.
Can developed countries like our own, with a straight face, ask less-developed countries to preserve their forests to mop up our carbon, while we're mowing down our own forests? We're the ones spewing out most of the carbon. Recklessly destroying our own forests sets a bad example worldwide and displays a lack of basic intelligence and fairness.
If we preserve forests, the logging industry will complain that jobs will be lost. But we don't have to lose jobs if we count the economic value of carbon capture by trees. We can transform the logging jobs into better jobs. Logging is the second most dangerous job in the United States, second only to fisheries work. Loggers could be retrained to monitor and document the health and growth of trees.
We need all levels of government to start preserving forests -- and fast. In addition to switching from dirty to clean energy, President Obama should halt commercial logging on federal lands, eliminate biomass power plant subsidies that drive forest destruction, and permanently protect forests for carbon capture (in addition to forests' many other public benefits). States need to do much more. Massachusetts, where I live, could become a state leader in forest preservation. Massachusetts was the first state to rein in undeserved subsidies for biomass power plants and is the most energy-efficient state in the country. Massachusetts has a tradition of innovation. The state already claims the nation's first public park, university, printing press, free public school, public library and regularly issued newspaper. It also hosted the first battle of the American Revolution, the first state constitution, the first abolitionist newspaper, the first national women's rights convention, the first public beach, and the first computer. Massachusetts' enlightened Governor Deval Patrick should immediately halt new timber sales on all public land in the state and then work to permanently safeguard forests.
One way our elected officials should preserve forests is by creating national parks, which writer and historian Wallace Stegner described as "the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst."
National parks create jobs; every dollar invested in the National Park Service generates $10 in economic activity, and national parks support more than a quarter million jobs. The average American household pays $2.56 in taxes each year for the National Park Service to operate, about the cost of a good cup of coffee. The process of creating national parks continues and drives economic growth. America needs more national parks, and if carbon capture is factored in, national parks become even more lucrative and job-creating than they are now.
President Obama and other leaders can answer to their grandchildren and ours if they stop commercial logging on public land. Citizens need to do their part by telling their leaders to do so, immediately.