When Trees Go Bad – NY Times Op-ed


Who knew that forests were actually bad for the environment? That should be good news, because we can always use more subdivisions and agricultural land. Let’s check out this recent NY Times op-ed.

First the title…”to save the planet, don’t plant trees.” I get it, it’s hard to write a headline that’s absolutely accurate. I think Matthew and I had a discussion about one of mine a while back. But climate change is only one thing that is bad for the environment. And, of course, “the planet” will actually be fine, with or without trees, humans, or cockroaches. At the worst of potential climate change, we will have made conditions more favorable for some creatures and less favorable for others, including (some of) ourselves. Anyway, ’nuff said on title-pickin’.

Now, like many on this blog, I am not an atmospheric chemist or modeler but I have been observing both forests and scientific idea-slinging for the last long time period. It seems like the idea of the pieces is that “more forests might not be good.” I think it might be hard to argue that “more forests might not be good for climate” without including “converting forests to brushfields or agriculture or homesites might be good for climate.”

Here’s a link to the op-ed and here’s a link to a scientist’s rebuttal. Now it seems that the climate industry is having some big doin’s this week which appears to be why this op-ed showed up.

so let’s just go through the arguments from an observer’s perspective.

In these paragraphs there is some history:

AS international leaders gather in New York next week for a United Nations climate summit, they will be preoccupied with how to tackle the rising rate of carbon emissions. To mitigate the crisis, one measure they are likely to promote is reducing deforestation and planting trees.

A landmark deal to support sustainable forestry was a heralded success story of the last international climate talks, in Warsaw last year. Western nations, including the United States, Britain and Norway, handed over millions of dollars to developing countries to kick-start programs to reduce tropical deforestation. More funds are promised.

Deforestation accounts for about 20 percent of global emissions of carbon dioxide. The assumption is that planting trees and avoiding further deforestation provides a convenient carbon capture and storage facility on the land.

That is the conventional wisdom. But the conventional wisdom is wrong.

“Wrong” is perhaps different from “only true based on our models (?) in some places and not in others.”
The author goes on to explain:

In reality, the cycling of carbon, energy and water between the land and the atmosphere is much more complex. Considering all the interactions, large-scale increases in forest cover can actually make global warming worse.

Of course, this is counterintuitive. We all learn in school how trees effortlessly perform the marvel of photosynthesis: They take up carbon dioxide from the air and make oxygen. This process provides us with life, food, water, shelter, fiber and soil. The earth’s forests generously mop up about a quarter of the world’s fossil-fuel carbon emissions every year.

So it’s understandable that we’d expect trees to save us from rising temperatures, but climate science tells a different story. Besides the amount of greenhouse gases in the air, another important switch on the planetary thermostat is how much of the sun’s energy is taken up by the earth’s surface, compared to how much is reflected back to space. The dark color of trees means that they absorb more of the sun’s energy and raise the planet’s surface temperature.

My first question would be “how “large-scale” do the sums of money we are talking about mean in terms of afforestation? Are we taking, say, the soybean fields of Indiana or the wheat fields of Alberta and converting them to trees? Because if we look down further we find it’s not the Amazon the we are talking about, but rather temperate areas…

Climate scientists have calculated the effect of increasing forest cover on surface temperature. Their conclusion is that planting trees in the tropics would lead to cooling, but in colder regions, it would cause warming.

If this is the case wouldn’t it be logical only to fund efforts in the tropics?

say handed over millions of dollars to developing countries to kick-start programs to reduce tropical deforestation. More funds are promised.

But isn’t that consistent with what was said above? Is anyone planning to give millions of bucks to say, Colorado, or the Ukraine?

The science says that spending precious dollars for climate change mitigation on forestry is high-risk: We don’t know that it would cool the planet, and we have good reason to fear it might have precisely the opposite effect. More funding for forestry might seem like a tempting easy win for the world leaders at the United Nations, but it’s a bad bet.

But that’s not strictly speaking, true is it, if you just spend the bucks in developing tropical countries.????? So confusing!

I actually agree with the author.. I would like the all the climate change funds to go to get poor countries low-carbon energy to bring up the energy availability to the poor people there. But I think you can make that case without maligning trees and their associated VOC’s.


  1. yes, I think the models are about albedo, but she also mentions VOC’s which could make the idea of afforestation or avoided deforestation worse, but not sure they really know (uncertainty about how much) and not sure whether it’s already in the models.

    Worse, trees emit reactive volatile gases that contribute to air pollution and are hazardous to human health. These emissions are crucial to trees — to protect themselves from environmental stresses like sweltering heat and bug infestations. In summer, the eastern United States is the world’s major hot spot for volatile organic compounds (V.O.C.s) from trees.

    I also think that there’s a lot of uncertainty about climate models, depending as they do, on projections of economic issues that are uncertain. So… the concept that we shouldn’t make investments because we’re uncertain is attractive but you could say that about a lot of climate change issues…

  2. Cooler and wetter when you are in the forest. It has been scary dry, warm, and noisy in the forests the last two months. Snags dry out, lose the coefficient of adhesion of water holding spent fiber together, and make a hell of a lot of noise when they fall. Scary. The drier and less humid it gets, the more you can hear stuff falling. Tonight, with the equinox southerly hitting the coast, lots of stuff will fall in winds up to 50 knots.

    But above the mean annual level of snow accumulation, snow that falls of treeless ground is one dimensional, an insulating mat over prior snowfall, and with a much less surface exposure to sublimation and of course, the basis for albedo. Trees limit the accumulation of snow for spring and summer melt, thus altering the timing of the freshet and the duration of the freshet and its strength. All the “rocks and ice” that have been a point of criticism as to value and diversity in the sense of public land holdings, might really be the most valued aspect of their being on a world wide climate basis.

    I don’t know how to make it snow more, but evidently that is somewhat possible with cloud seeding. I do know that the missing element in the present climate in our end of the world is snowfall and temperature at elevation. The is a very recent introduction of science that says most of the temp and rainfall issues on the lee shore of the Pacific are the fault of varying wind currents and that has nothing to do with carbon in the atmosphere. Of course, there is blow back from some areas of concern and turf protection in the broader science community. I imagine that will increase as more is learned, and more is found to be faulty in the science sense. Sort of how the history of it all works.

    If forests are advancing uphill, heading for more elevation and north (or south), I do wonder what part a change in wind is having on that progression, if there is a change in wind patterns. If the world has gotten warmer, how has that affected change on wind velocities, temps, and elevations of wind. Has the jet stream lowered a few thousand feet or raised? How high, now, does the marine air have to be elevated to cool enough to discharge some or all of its water load? And is it water or ice? Or just virga, and nothing hits the ground.

    Of course, the discussion of “the change of winds” also asks the question if the winds do, at some point, come around to where they once were, and the repeating pattern of weather cycles lands us in a former groove where we much more comfortable. And a great sigh of relief.

  3. In an email exchange with Dr. Unger she admitted to me that her purpose was to maintain the primary focus of international climate policy on fossil fuels (which many forest conservationists would likely agree with). However, instead of saying that forests can play a small but significant role in mitigating climate change, she instead insinuated that forests are immaterial or even bad for climate, which is just nonsense. It really does matter how the biosphere is managed. Forest conservation helps reduce global warming, while logging emits carbon and makes warming worse.

    Somebody named Michael Kellet collected a number of critical reviews and responses to Dr. Unger’s confusing opinion piece:

    Here are a few responses that you may find of interest:

    Woods Hole Research Center responds to misleading NY Times op-ed on climate change

    On forests’ role in climate, New York Times op-ed gets it wrong

    Scientists rebut NYTimes op-ed ‘To Save the Planet, Don’t Plant Trees’

    “Don’t plant trees as trees warm the planet” – or how the selective use of science can advance your science agenda

    Dr. Unger’s Four Scientific Fouls

    Misleading New York Times Op-Ed on Forests, but Real Progress on Ending Deforestation

    NY Times forests oped is out on a limb: protecting trees still key to solving climate change

    • 2nd- thanks so much for rounding up these op-eds!

      I am no carbon-nerd fer sure, but I think “logging emits carbon and makes global warming worse” is not necessarily true.

      I’m not a big fan of “consensus science” but according to this op-ed

      As the IPCC states, “In the long term, a sustainable forest management strategy aimed at maintaining or increasing forest carbon stocks, while producing an annual sustained yield of timber, fiber or energy from the forest, will generate the largest sustained mitigation benefit.”

  4. Will afforestation in temperate zones warm the Earth?
    For decades, forest researchers have known that planting trees on cropland or pastures (that is, afforestation) can lower the surface albedo and that landscapes with low albedo absorb more solar radiation than more reflective surfaces. Consequently, afforestation will typically darken the Earth’s surface (when compared to grasslands or deserts). In spite of this knowledge, many believe that afforestation will cool the Earth’s atmosphere since wood is composed of carbon molecules. Therefore, there are two schools of thought on how afforestation affects global climate. The “CO2 School” believes that afforestation will have a cooling effect, regardless of the location of the planted trees. In contrast, the “Holistic School” believes the climate is a complex system affected by numerous variables, including clouds and the surface albedo. Many from this School say that afforestation in boreal zones could warm the Earth. This paper reviews some papers from the “Holistic School” and asks the question: will afforestation in temperate zones warm the Earth?

    • There is a way of removing the carbon AND the trees, in one fell swoop. Or, we could maintain some sort of equilibrium, removing some of the carbon, and some of the trees at different times, keeping temporal diversity in those stands for eternity. It does seem like multiple forms of carbon sequestration, including reducing the use of coal, is key to a long-term plan to climate stability, through forest management. Drought-stressed forests produce less oxygen than a restored forest.

      Regarding pastures and farms, if that land is still fertile, it should become productive, again. I really don’t have any ideas on how to go about making and maintaining high albedo landscapes in an ecologically-viable way. In most cases, it will come down to a “balance of harms” thing. Boreal clearcutting is a hard-sell to the general public.

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