“On the seventh day, “ so says the Old Testament, “God rested.” A major reason the Almighty could afford to relax is that he created plants on the third day, approximately 3 billion years ago, designed to sustain Earth’s protective atmosphere forevermore. Until quite recently, these plants — trees in particular — have been doing God’s work to near perfection, inhaling carbon dioxide in silent service to nature and mankind, playing their providential role as “the lungs of the planet.”
Over the last weeks, the devastating fires in the Amazon forests have captured the attention of a global audience, making a significant portion of the American public aware of our longstanding dependence on forests, especially tropical forests, that soak up and store the carbon that humans keep sending into the atmosphere.
As the Brazilian forests burn, then, we are witnessing not just another devastating forest fire but the destruction of nature’s age-old shield against the warming of the planet. It’s happening at the same time that warming’s effects are mounting: ferocious hurricanes, record high temperatures, dying coral reefs, melting glaciers, increasing floods and droughts. More than Donald Trump’s latest gaffe, or the poll numbers of the Democratic candidates for president, this is the real breaking news now: “Rainforests go, and so do we.”
Rainforests — from the Tongass in Alaska to the heart of Borneo in Indonesia — are the most carbon-dense forests in the world, but of these, it is tropical rainforests that are the designated champions of absorbing and storing our carbon emissions now. Taken together, the forests of the Amazon, the Congo Basin and the Indonesian archipelago store half of global forest carbon and absorb an additional 3 billion metric tons of carbon annually, offsetting a third of our fossil fuel emissions. They do this for free. Their global respiration is evident in images from NASAshowing their intake of carbon dioxide exhaled from the world’s industrial centers.
Over the last half-century, as carbon emissions have increased dramatically, the earthly trinity of these tropical forests has also increased its rate of carbon sequestration. It is almost as if the trees are talking to each other, urging themselves to try harder to accomplish their preordained mission, sensing they are losing the battle.
Once we recognize that we have such potent natural allies in our quest to save civilization, it follows that we need to up our effort to protect forests in general, and especially tropical rainforests. Think of the earthly trinity as a global trust fund for our grandchildren, Earth’s built-in natural climate solution. If these forests are protected and expanded, the fund achieves naturally what we are currently spending billions in geoengineering research to achieve technologically, thus far with mixed results and, therefore, ominous implications.
Another way to think of the tropical rainforests is as our global commons. The forest trinity represents the three places on Earth we all have a vested interest in defending — a gift from God entrusted to us as stewards. All member nations at the G-7 meeting in France in August, save one, seem to grasp what is at stake. Financial support for sustaining tropical forests needs to become an international responsibility and a priority.
Protecting and restoring forests is sometimes framed as too costly, , but innovative approaches can and should accommodate both people and nature. In Madagascar, community mangrove stewardship protects a crucial carbon repository and the villagers who depend on the mangroves for multiple uses. In Mississippi, rural landowners are financially rewarded for restoring bottomland forests, which benefits people, wildlife and the waterways. And in the tropics, new modes of sustainable forest management are coming online to permit logging with limited impact on carbon storage.
Alone, trees cannot save us. In fact, they are losing the battle against the resurrection of their own ancestors in the form of fossil fuels. Salvation will require us to stop burning long dead trees and make the transition to renewable forms of energy. In the meanwhile, living trees will continue their preordained role of breathing for all of us, if we let them.
Peter W. Ellis is a forest ecologist. Joseph J. Ellis is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American historian.