Peru: Climate Scientists Offer Ways Global Warming Can Be Controlled

Highland Motmot in the Amazon basin. There are 1,700 species of birds in Manu National Park in southern Peru, more than the US and Canada combined. Image by Justin Catanoso. Peru, 2013.

After three days of hiking mostly through dense jungle, we are rewarded with a vista of the Kosnipata Valley in Manu National Park in southern Peru. Image by Justin Catanoso. Peru, 2013.

Peruvian PhD biology students, who all assist Wake Forest biologist Miles Silman in his climate-change research in the Amazon basin, prepare to go into the field. From left: Richard Tito, William Farfan Rios and Alex Nina. Image by Justin Catanoso. Peru, 2013.

In 2003 Silman installed the first eight 100-meter-square research plots down a steep gradient of the Andes in the Kosnipata Valley. Each plot holds mostly different tree and plant tree species. This is plot 8 at about 5,000 feet elevation. Image by Justin Catanoso. Peru, 2013.

Farfan Rios, a PhD student in biology at Wake Forest, marks a tree in plot eight. Silman’s team tracks the growth, reproduction and migration rates of more than 1,200 tree species in its various plots, which spread out down into the tropical lowlands. Image by Justin Catanoso. Peru, 2013.

Silman and Farfan Rios discuss the progress of a tree in plot 8. One scientist called the plots “the equivalent of physics’ particle accelerator” – an extraordinary scientific resource open to all in the tropical biology community. Image by Justin Catanoso. Peru, 2013.

WFDD Correspondent Justin Catanoso. The walking stick was cut on the trail by Silman, who wielded a machete the entire way down the mountain. Image by Justin Catanoso. Peru, 2013.

Early morning view of the Kosnipata Valley of Manu National Park from a wilderness area called San Pedro. Image by Justin Catanoso. Peru, 2013.

The forests and jungles of southern Peru are recognized at the most biologically diverse place on earth. The abundance of animal and bird life was more evident at lower elevations. Here a capuchin monkey sits in a bamboo tree. Image by Justin Catanoso. Peru, 2013.

There are 1,700 known species of birds in Manu National Park, more than all of the United States and Canada combined. Image by Justin Catanoso. Peru, 2013.

The rare and spectacular Wire-crested Thorntail hummingbird flew into our camp in San Pedro one morning. Image by Justin Catanoso. Peru, 2013.

The birds species in the lowlands of the Amazon basin – especially in the biology preserve Villa Carmen – are particularly abundant and radiant, like this loud trio of macaws. Image by Justin Catanoso. Peru, 2013.

The Villa Carmen Biological Station and Reserve spreads out over 7,500 acres in southern Peru and spans elevations from 4,000 feet down to 1,700 feet. Silman has research plots there, and conducts experiments in the field and in its lab. Image by Justin Catanoso. Peru, 2013.

This article accompanied part four of a five part radio series. To listen, visit WFDD's website.

Climate scientists paint a grim picture of life on earth in just a few generations given the steady march of global warming. Melting ice caps, rising sea levels and dying tropical forests are a part of that scene. What can be done to slow things down or turn them around?

Greg Asner, a tropical ecologist from the Carnegie Institute of Science at Stanford University, says more attention has been on the impact of global warming at the poles than on tropical forests because they're famously difficult to access. "Tropical regions have been mostly inaccessible to science, whether it’s on the ground or difficult terrain, or rough jungle."

Tropical biologists such as Miles Silman of Wake Forest, and his international colleagues with the Andes Biodiversity and Ecosystem Research Group, have been penetrating those remote jungles in the Amazon basin for some 20 years. Their research on the ground makes up much of what science knows about how tropical forests are coping with rising temperatures.

Asner has been augmenting that research from the skies. His team flies the Carnegie Airborne Observatory over Peru’s vast tropical forests. The light plane is tricked out with laser technology that creates a computerized picture of the jungles and helps estimate how much carbon from greenhouse gases is stored in the trunks, limbs and roots of individual trees. To a country like Peru, that stored carbon could one day be as valuable as the oil buried underground. That’s the hope anyway.

Ken Feeley, a tropical biologist at Florida International University, explains how that would work. "Developing countries that want to emit carbon pay a developing country to not cut down their forests," he says. "It’s a carbon offset. A lot of people think this is a win-win. You’re reducing net carbon emission and you’re reducing deforestation at the same time.”

The United Nations has been promoting this concept of carbon offsets since 2009. It’s been slow to catch on. Ecuador recently asked the international community for $3.6 billion to preserve 4,000 square miles of rain forest. There were virtually no international investors. Ecuador plans to drill in that rain forest for oil instead, mainly because China appears eager to buy it. Still, Asner is undaunted. He says world environmental leaders continue talking, and they're asking questions like, "How much does it take for a landowner to switch from cattle ranching or agriculture to carbon storage?”

The questions in the United States tend to be more simplistic. Is global warming real? Are human forces the cause of it? The tropical biologists in Peru ask tough questions of themselves and their research findings. But they have no doubt that the earth is warming too fast, and that there’s no time to lose in dealing with that fact on an international scale. But there are tall barriers. For example, the world's biggest emitters of greenhouse gases – the United States and China — continue to take only modest steps to curb those emissions. Skeptics say we still don’t know enough, or we don’t know exactly what to do.

“There are many moving parts, but that doesn’t mean we don’t know what levers to press," says Silman. "We do know what levers to press. You keep the temperature from going too high. You keep large tracts of forest. And you keep the animals in the forest that make the forest a forest, instead of a bunch of trees. We’re done. We walk away."

When asked why we need to do that, Silman says it's so we have an earth that has the same kinds of ecosystem services and biodiversity and the ability to explore new drugs and agriculture and things like we’ve had throughout our civilization. If not, he says, "we move the world into a state that we’ve never experienced before--and with enormous negative consequences for people, the poorest people on the planet.”

But Silman doesn't believe that global warming has advanced too much for us to slow down or reverse its worst effects. "And even if you’re a pilot,right, the only chance you have, is you fly it into the ground. 'Cause you might just pull it out.”