Disparate Lenses Focus Views of Forests and Climate

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President and Senior Scientist Dr. Eric A. Davidson

We all view the world through the lenses of our own personal experiences, and that couldn’t have been truer of the panelists of a recent side event at the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties in Durban, South Africa. We at the Woods Hole Research Center had the honor of cosponsoring this event with the Green Belt Movement, a grassroots organization from Kenya devoted to helping villagers, especially women, benefit from planting trees around their villages. The trees not only provide timber and fuelwood, but they also provide fodder for goats, prevent soil erosion, and make it easier for rainwater to percolate into the soil and to feed the springs upon which the villagers depend for drinking water. Two of the speakers representing the Greenbelt Movement offered heart-felt accounts of changes in their villages because of climate change and deforestation. Mercy Karunditu, Senior Project Officer of the Green Belt Movement, spoke compellingly of how tree planting has allowed the village women of Kenya to earn money and to shorten the distances that they must walk in search of water and wood for cooking. However, climate extremes, such as floods and droughts, can imperil this progress, as described by Constance Okollet, Chairperson of Osukuru United Women’s Network, who spoke of her village in Uganda that has not yet recovered from a giant flood in 2007. That flood washed away their homes, food reserves, and livestock and was followed by several years of severe drought. They no longer have enough food, clean water, or firewood, and their harvests are poor.

Next up were WHRC scientists, Glenn Bush and Nadine Laporte. Glenn spoke of the ways in which economists try to measure how people value forests. Glenn’s presentation put into numbers the values that Constance and Mercy had expressed with their narratives. Nadine provided yet another perspective as someone who spends hours “seeing” forests through the images taken by satellites orbiting the earth, and then combining those satellite data with measurements made on the ground of tree diameters to map out the biomass of forests. Nadine also recounted the way in which her team had trained local workers and young scientists in countries like Uganda, Kenya, Bolivia, and Vietnam to make those measurements of trees and to use the resulting maps. Indeed, our co-organizers from the Green Belt Movement also helped make those measurements and are now putting them to work to help account for the carbon being taken up by the trees that their village volunteers have planted.

I would add to the various lenses through which we view forests the tables and graphs that my WHRC colleagues and I use to report the amount of carbon stored in the world’s forests, the rate at which forests are being cut down, and how that affects the global climate. We report our findings in scientific journals and cite them as rationale for why the negotiators at Durban should be taking aggressive steps to conserve both the world’s forests and its climate.

All of these lenses through which we view forests – from the search outside the village for water and fuelwood to the calculations of changing global forest biomass – converge on the crucial importance of forests. Of course there are other lenses that reach opposite conclusions, such as the view that the economic costs of doing something meaningful about forest conservation and climate change are too high. However, Constance dashed any doubt that the economic costs to her family and her village of doing nothing about climate change are already too high; Mercy showed that planting trees yields profits, both monetary and nonmonetary; Glenn put all of that in terms that economists can understand; and Nadine mapped out the impacts on the globe. While I hear that we should not be optimistic about any breakthroughs in the official intergovernmental climate negotiations at Durban, I feel that we made a breakthrough in merging the narratives of people who live closely to their forests with the scientific and economic analyses that quantify the importance of forests for policy makers. I don’t know how long it will take for the insights gleaned by merging views through such different lenses to carry the day at the negotiating tables, but I am convinced that the views of people who need forests and the views of sound science will ultimately prevail. I am convinced of this because these views are so compellingly based on truth, experience, and reason.

We do science for the public good, and the public welcomes good science. The Green Belt Movement and the Woods Hole Research Center have combined to make a powerful narrative for conserving forests and stabilizing climate.