AIR Adventures is excited to announce that it will be featuring a series of guest articles throughout the year, penned by leaders in global conservation efforts. Our first guest blogger is none other than Dr. Anne Hallum, the President and Founder of the Alliance for International Reforestation (AIR). Under her leadership, AIR has planted nearly 5 million trees in some of the most heavily deforested parts of Central America. In this piece, Anne writes about some alarming recent trends in climate change – and our best solution for addressing them.
It’s Time to Get Serious about Planting Trees
By Anne M. Hallum
Founding President, Alliance for International Reforestation
Chances are, most of you reading this blog entry are already aware of climate change and the impacts that is already having on our land and weather. Did you know, though, that climate change is actually accelerating? Just this month, NASA, NOAA and JMA released data for 2016 showing that for the third year in a row, Earth has had the warmest year on record. Scientists attribute the accelerations in climate change to two key factors:
- The ongoing persistence of fossil fuel emissions; and
- What scientists refer to as “feedback loops”: vicious cycles that accelerate warming trends. One example is ice melt: because ice is light colored and reflective, it bounces back most of the sun’s rays, limiting warming. As more ice melts, however, it reveals darker colored water or earth below – which actually absorbs more of the sun’s rays, and contributes to faster warming, which in turn leads to faster ice melt.
The implications of these trends are significant: Just last fall, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) of the United Nations reported that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere reached the milestone of 400 parts per million on a global average for the year 2016. In regards to ice melt, the most dire predictions are that coastal flooding and displacement of 150 million people will occur within decades, and increased severity of droughts, fires, and storms will continue—even if we sharply cut carbon and methane emissions today.
So at this point, one may be asking the question of what can we do? The answer is a lot, but we must act quickly, and we must think big. How so? The answer is a simple, two-pronged approach:
First, we must continue and speed our shift to solar and wind energy. Second, and just as urgently, we must plant trees to absorb current greenhouse gases already circulating in our atmosphere.
One important – and simple – strategy in tree-planting efforts is called “regenerative farming,” which involves sustainable farming techniques including terracing, and inter-planting trees with agricultural crops. Additionally, regenerative farming involves replacing chemical fertilizers with cattle manure—plowing this waste into the ground instead of releasing its potent, harmful methane. Members of the World Agro-Forestry Centre, the Alliance for International Reforestation and other non-profits working in developing countries have been training farmers for years in sustainable farming. Now developed countries are being called upon to shift from industrialized farming that contributes to climatic problems to wide-scale sustainable farming that will sequester carbon while it feeds us. At the Paris climate talks, about 16 percent of the official participants (25 countries) pledged to promote regenerative farming. (For more information on this solution waiting in the wings, see Eric Toensmeier, The Carbon Farming Solution: A Global Toolkit of Perennial Crops and Regenerative Agriculture Practices for Climate Change Mitigation and Food Security, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2016).
Of course, planting trees through regenerative farming is not enough. We need to plant millions – billions – of trees in order to secure our future for future generations. This means planting not just on farms, but in national parks. City parks. And city blocks, as some community revitalization efforts are already doing. Your block.
Before you dismiss this as an impossible dream, I remind readers that in the United States, we have done this before: In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a works program created to give short-term jobs to 500,000 unemployed persons. This program succeeded in planting 3 billion trees in less than ten years! The nation had been virtually deforested to build railroads, mining shafts, towns, and for “slash-and-burn” farming, as countless old photographs will show. Observant hikers in state and national parks will notice that old-growth mammoth trees are few and far between, while the majority of trees are roughly the same age—planted in the 1930s by the hard-working heroes of the CCC. (See Jeanne Nienaber Clarke and H. Cortner, The State and Nature: Voices Heard, Voices Unheard in America’s Environmental Dialogue, pp. 141-53, Prentice Hall, 2002.)
It is important to visualize the scale of this accomplishment and to be inspired to do it again. Before the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, world athletes and officials demanded that the Chinese government do something about the debilitating carbon pollution. The UN Environmental Programme concluded that China rose to the occasion: One of their steps was to enlist everyone from the military to school children to plant over 30 million trees and bushes in the city center . This was an impressive achievement, and the Beijing Olympics helped to change the attitudes of the Chinese government officials regarding the crisis of climate change. However, those 30 million trees planted in China are just one percent of the 3 billion trees the CCC planted under Roosevelt’s leadership during the crisis of deforestation in the United States.
Here is some good news we should all remember: State and local governments and environmental non-profits do not have to wait for Washington—each one of us can contact our governors, state legislatures, and mayors to take the lead in combatting existing climate change. Here are some ideas:
- Enlist university forestry programs to map areas of the state that have been stripped of trees by mining, storms, or fires and to identify the best native trees for carbon sequestration to plant in those areas. (Perfect grant opportunity!)
- Work with environmental nonprofits, land trusts and private citizens to obtain private land not only for trails, but for reforestation. Reforesting pasture lands would be ideal.
- Begin student programs in public schools and universities to plant 25,000 seedlings each.
- City governments should enact strict ordinances against clear-cutting for development; or at least require mitigation of an equal or larger number of replacement trees.
- Enlist National Guard details to reforest areas denuded by mudslides or forest fires.
We are making exciting strides towards a future of clean energy—just look at the work of Elon Musk and massive solar-power plants opening in India and China and Nevada. But trees and regenerative farming will sequester existing carbon. We have reforested our nation before, and as our planet and atmosphere are reaching critical junctures, we must do it again – and quickly!