Practice of Science Friday: The Long Arm of Climate Funding and the Trillion Trees

There doesn’t appear to be much of a literature on how science funding streams can influence how we think about problems and the approaches we use. I’ve told the story of having dinner with a Station Director (boss of one of the FS research units) at which he told me that now that the Station had tapped into climate change research funds, they wouldn’t be doing the relatively mundane studies that stakeholders such as the National Forests might want. That was in 1988.

Flash forward to close to the end of my time with the Forest Service in 2011 or so. I received a phone call from a nice researcher at University of Montana who asked about what problems we might need help with dealing with climate change and the social sciences. I pointed out that we had lots of issues that needed attention that didn’t have to do with climate change. She said that my position was fairly common among stakeholders, but that’s what the funding was for..climate change research.. so that’s what was on the list for scientists to do.

I’ve been thinking about how those continuing big chunks of funding have affected how we can respond to issues biting land managers. For example, the growing problems of too many people in the woods, with some of them doing Bad Things. Our recent Covid round-up shows that more people are out there on our federal lands behaving badly, and we still don’t know why or how best to stop it. That’s what happens when there is a mismatch between research funding streams and real-world needs.

I came across this interesting discussion from the Yale Forest Forum about the Crowther Lab and their claims about planting a trillion trees.

Perhaps due to my experience in real-world reforestation, I’ve not as sanguine about tree planting as a solution for climate change. At its simplest, if we plant trees we don’t know if they will live. Because of competition, herbivores, old and new invasive or native pathogens and insects, drought, or frost, or other possible climate or weather factors and the interactions. How about having mycorrhyzae? How to grow them in the nursery so they survive? And so on..

We would be sinking much funding upfront into unknown outcomes- plus not using the land for the purposes we use it today, which also may have associated costs. Now, there might be places where reforestation makes a lot of sense (like after a large fire where there is no natural regeneration coming back, or replacing shelterbelts in the Great Plains, and just generally trees and woods are nice to have for wildlife and people), but I’d argue that modelling tree planting around the planet based on assumptions only does one thing..start an endless academic discussion about assumptions. Again, research under the Satellite Gaze tends to be funded well (uses satellites! applies to the Whole World!), but by its very nature is not informative to specific people in specific places, and of course, those people may not be involved nor their views considered.

The nice thing about the discussion is that because it’s among scientists, everyone is civil to each other and relatively respectful of opinions. But the Satellite Gaze seems to almost naturally invoke continued controversy because 1) it proposes something so big it attracts much fame/attention and 2) at the same time depends on hordes of assumptions that are easily questioned.

Wondering if this seems all too simple? Too straightforward? Perhaps too good to be true for forest lovers? Forty-six scientists certainly thought so in their “Comment on: ‘The global tree restoration potential”(link is external) (Veldman et. al, 2019) published in Science as a response to the Crowther Lab’s study (Bastin et al., 2019). Veldman et al. (2019) responded to Bastin et al. (2019) that the potential of one trillion trees is an overestimation. Veldman et al. (2019) argue that Bastin et al. (2019) overestimated three key areas of data: 1) overestimated soil organic carbon gains from increased tree cover, 2) modeled increased tree cover at high latitudes and elevations where new tree cover would reduce albedo and increase warming, and 3) included savannas, grasslands, and shrublands as areas for afforestation that have been maintained in their current states by fire and herbivores for millions of years. In all, Velman et al. (2019) claim that Bastin et al. overestimated the carbon intake of reforestation by a factor of 5.


Mark Ashton, Senior Associate Dean of the Forest School at Yale School of the Environment, who was a contributor to Crowther’s first landmark tree-counting study, is another skeptic at Yale. In a Grist article(link is external), Ashton doubts efforts to plant trees as carbon sinks are feasible if not done with security of land tenure and under ecologically appropriate conditions, as there is more economic incentive to cut these trees than to leave them standing. He goes on to say: “When you plant a tree, you have to invest in its security for the future. So I think it’s a bit of a red herring. The most important thing to do in terms of climate is to try and reduce emissions.” Ashton considers more nuanced forestry, such as providing incentives on private land for growing Douglas fir on longer rotations in the Pacific Northwest for long lasting timber products that would lock carbon into new construction to be an industrial ecology strategy for mitigation.

But people do show up in this quote from a social scientist:

Regarding the identified land for potential restoration, Dove says: “Trees are absent from these lands in most cases because of local, often varying and contested, preferences for other land uses. The billion-acre and trillion-tree campaigns only ignore these local politics in late-developing parts of the world, and they divert attention from the politics behind the real culprits of climate change, the oil and gas industries in the developed countries.”

But it’s not just late-developing parts of the world, I think it is true in the US as well- trees were felled for farms in the Midwest and they’re still growing crops. I’m not so sure, though, that people shouldn’t publish studies of ways of sequestering carbon because such studies “divert attention” from someone’s preferred way. It’s handy to paint one group as “the enemy”, but the world is more complicated than that. For example, about 44% of Connecticut households use fuel oil or other petroleum products for home heating and 36% rely on natural gas according to EIA.

2 thoughts on “Practice of Science Friday: The Long Arm of Climate Funding and the Trillion Trees”

  1. Remind me what you would prefer. Small studies that would address local conditions would probably attract only local funding. Also, don’t the priorities for funding reflect the degree of importance to the funders, which should reflect priorities of government, NGOs and capitalism? Why should the “relatively mundane studies that stakeholders such as the National Forests might want” carry more weight (if they haven’t coalesced into something that funders recognize as having broad enough benefits to fund)?


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