RAN Executive Director on the Connections Between Forests and Climate Change

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Illegal Fires in Tripa Blazing Again. Photo: www.EndofTheIcons.wordpress.com

Illegal fires in the Tripa rainforest in Indonesia. Photo: www.EndofTheIcons.wordpress.com

It has been an extreme summer. Droughts. Wildfires. Crop failures. Heat waves. Melting ice caps. We’ve seen these words so much this summer you may not feel any shock at the sight of them now. It is clear that we are no longer talking about climate change as a fearful phenomenon in the future; we are talking about the impacts of our climate changing today. This is what the climate crisis looks like here at home.

As I return from a trip to Indonesia’s rainforests, I can tell you that climate change is also taking another shape—acres upon acres of razed tropical forests and miles of industrial pulpwood and palm oil plantations that are literally choking the lungs of our planet.

As you know, our natural systems depend on everything fitting together just right. The relationship between the health of our rainforests and the health of our climate (and ultimately the health of our communities) is a particularly important synergy.

Each year, the world’s natural forests absorb 30 percent of all the carbon that we release into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels. In this way, healthy forests absorb and store vast quantities of carbon, helping to regulate temperature and generate rain. The “lungs of the planet” in action.

Horrifyingly, we are currently witnessing a devastating one-two punch to the climate and our forests. As fossil fuel emissions continue to climb, the changing climate makes standing forests more vulnerable to insect outbreaks, droughts and wildfires. Simultaneously, when our forests are destroyed their carbon is released back into the atmosphere, further impacting the climate.

Instead of maintaining rainforests, we are destroying them at unacceptable rates – an acre is lost every second due to global, corporate controlled markets for palm oil, cattle, biofuels, soya, wood and paper. And Indonesia’s rainforests are one of the most in jeopardy. Due to the uncontrolled clearing and burning of its rainforests and peatlands, Indonesia ranks third in total global greenhouse emissions just behind China and the United States.

Through corporate hubris, lack of value for the natural world, greed and shortsightedness, we are threatening the planetary web of life that sustains us, and we are seeing the results everywhere.

This understanding of the interconnected nature of our forests and our climate, this ecosystem approach, underpins all of Rainforest Action Network’s current work. RAN is one of the only groups working at the intersection of forest protection, climate change and human rights through our unique brand of corporate accountability campaigns—protecting rainforests around the globe and reducing fossil fuel emissions here at home.

This summer’s silver lining for me is that climate change has actually become a topic of discussion beyond the eco-choir. This hit a crescendo in July when Bill McKibben’s resounding piece on “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math” in Rolling Stone went viral.

More and more, we will be seeing words like drought, fire, and heat wave in the news, and we will see them connected to climate change. But we must be cautious not to get too comfortable with these words while we still have time to act. Despair is not the only possible destination. We cannot allow the natural numbing effect that will happen as we begin to see these words all too often. And as we feel the impact of climate change here, we cannot divorce it from the impact it is connected to across the globe.

I will say it again, because I believe it bears repeating over and over: the health of our forests depends on the health of our climate, and so too the health of our climate depends on the health of our forests. This is the web of life, and it’s what we need to protect.

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