Editor’s Note: John D. Sutter is a CNN contributor and a National Geographic Explorer. He is director of the forthcoming BASELINE series, which is visiting four locations on the front lines of the climate crisis every five years until 2050. Visit the project’s website. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
Perhaps you’d forgotten Trump fancies himself an environmentalist?
Well, worry not. The American Polluter in Chief was kind enough to drop a little reminder into the State of the Union this week. We’re going to protect the environment, Trump told Congress and the nation. And (and!) we’re going to do it by … helping plant a trillion trees.
“To protect the environment, days ago I announced that the United States will join the One Trillion Trees Initiative, an ambitious effort to bring together government and private sector to plant new trees in America and all around the world,” Trump said on Tuesday.
Coming from this President, that’s near-nonsense.
Yes, it’s true that trees take carbon out of the air, and therefore planting trees and protecting rainforests truly are important tools in the effort to clean up the atmosphere.
And, yes, there is a notable (if flawed, and we’ll get to that shortly) global effort to plant one trillion trees in response to the climate emergency.
But no, you cannot at once abandon the Paris Agreement (a global effort to fight climate change), promote fossil fuels, pander to coal, as Trump has – and hope to be seen as Climate Jesus by hawking the idea of planting trees.
Consider a pub metaphor from Jonathan Foley. He is executive director of Project Drawdown, a group that has quantified solutions to the climate crisis (none of which, as he has told me, is a silver bullet, but 100 of which, all together, add up to something like “silver buckshot”). Imagine you saw someone sitting at a bar and slowly spilling beer on the floor, Foley said. You could grab a mop to try to start cleaning it up, but you wouldn’t get very far unless you also stopped the spill.
That’s sort of like the climate. Except we’re spilling something like 37 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere per year, and we’ve been doing it for decades.
We need the mop. But how about we stop the spill?
“Stopping pollution is the first and best thing we can do,” Foley told me. “Having trees gobble (the pollution) up over the next few decades is the next thing that you do.
“We’ve got to do everything, but you need to stop the pollution first.”
Teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg has summed this up diplomatically.
“Planting trees is good, of course, but it’s nowhere near enough of what needs to be done, and it cannot replace real mitigation or rewilding nature,” she said during the World Economic Forum, the meeting where Trump announced he would join the trees initiative.
“You can’t drill primary forest for oil and gas with your left hand while planting trees with your right,” Sean DeWitt, director of the Global Restoration Initiative at the World Resources Institute, an environmental advocacy and research group, told me.
Trump isn’t exactly leading the trillion-trees push, either.
Marc Benioff, the Salesforce CEO, Jane Goodall and Al Gore – reputable, prominent environmentalists, all of them – are on board. The World Economic Form launched a website, 1t.org, that intends to aggregate several efforts. The idea gained momentum after a study in the journal Science indicated that increasing forest cover could substantially reduce the amount of carbon that builds up in the atmosphere.
Congressman Bruce Westerman, a Republican from Arkansas, released a statement this week saying he is working on legislation that would call for the planting of 1 trillion trees by 2050, “with the goal of sequestering carbon and incentivizing the use of wood products.”
“This would benefit both southwest Arkansas’ and the country’s thriving forest industries, as well as change the mindset of future generations regarding environmental stewardship,” the statement says.
To be fair, I’d understand the inclination to give Trump and the Republicans credit here for joining in.
There are two problems with that thinking, however.
The first, as I’ve mentioned, is the degree to which Donald Trump, while claiming to be an environmentalist, has used his stature both in the media and as the President to promote the idea that climate science is bunk (it isn’t; for decades, scientists have examined the evidence and agreed that humans are causing dangerous warming by burning fossil fuels) and to back the fossil fuel industry.
I’m sympathetic to fossil fuel industry workers who are caught in a moment of painful transition as coal, oil and natural gas jobs are phased out for cleaner sources of electricity, like wind and solar. The workers are not the problem, and they deserve our understanding and support. But those fuels need to be all but eliminated by 2050 if we’re to meet international climate goals.
Not meeting those goals, meanwhile, means more of the horrors we’re seeing all around the world – mega fires in Australia, super damaging hurricanes in the Atlantic, drought-flood cycles in India. It’s a dangerous, expensive and deeply unjust world we’re creating. And Trump’s is the loudest voice in the “nah, no biggie” camp.
The second problem is that the math behind the trillion-trees idea has come under scrutiny.
I’ll spare you the details, which were outlined in a smart article in Wired, but researchers in the journal Science have been going back and forth over how much carbon those trees actually will pull out of the atmosphere, how many of them actually can be planted (and where) what happens to people in those places, and how long it will take for those trees to vacuum up carbon.
A 2019 estimate in Science of how much carbon the trees actually could absorb, which grabbed lots of public and scientific attention, “was much too high,” said Carla Staver, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale University. It gave the erroneous impression that trees could be the silver bullet needed to solve the climate crisis, she said.
“I understand the appeal of this,” Staver told me. “It is a much less difficult solution to climate change if it were to indeed work… Where it becomes insidious and problematic is that we have good evidence that it won’t work, and that it’s a distraction from the things that will work, (such as) making difficult decisions to cut emissions.”
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At best, it takes decades for the trees to be effective, said Foley, from Project Drawdown. That’s because trees grow slowly, amassing carbon in their structures as they grow.
Trees should be part of the solution, Foley said.
It’s bizarre – and hypocritical – to see this environmentalist pose coming from Trump.
Planting trees is “100% necessary, because we know that we need to pull carbon out of the atmosphere, not just reduce our emissions,” said DeWitt, from the World Resources Institute. “It’s commendable if it’s done appropriately. And — it’s grossly insufficient on its own. It has to be paired with sound conservation. It has to be part of an overall menu (of climate solutions) that includes decarbonization of our energy systems and transportation systems.”
Silver buckshot, not silver bullet.
Yes, we need to mop pollution out of the atmosphere.
But, first, the spill.