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.”