Will we recognize the future? Forget about giant machines to suck out carbon. If you worry about the climate, you have to save tropical rainforests. We talk with the doyen of forest activism, Frances Seymour from the World Resources Institute. But first, one of the top American climate scientists, Dr. Jonathan Overpeck on science that warns the whole world will be reclothed in unpredictable ways as the climate goes out of control. How do we know? It has happened before, when the world warmed 5 degrees Centigrade. I’m Alex, and this is Radio Climate Shock.
JONATHAN OVERPECK: CHANGING THE PLANET’S GREEN CLOTHING WITH CLIMATE HEATING
With our current level of carbon emissions, scientists worry we could go over 4 degrees C. of warming in less than 100 years. The last time Earth warmed that much, the plants clothing the planet changed, along with the species. We know that – because of new research just published in the journal Science on August 31st, 2018. My journey through that paper was filled with exclamation marks and “Oh My God” notes.
Our guest Dr. Jonathan T. Overpeck was a major author in that work. Overpeck has been a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He has often briefed Congress on climate, in the days when Congress cared about such things. He advises governments, edits scientific journals, and organizes conferences. He has published over 200 papers on climate and the environment. After a long career at the University of Arizona, Jonathan Overpeck is now with the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan.
Dr. Jonathan Overpeck
The paper we discuss is titled: “Past and future global transformation of terrestrial ecosystems under climate change” – as published in the journal Science on August 31st, 2018.
The brief summary of this paper says:
“Terrestrial ecosystems will be transformed by current anthropogenic change, but the extent of this change remains a challenge to predict. Nolan et al. looked at documented vegetational and climatic changes at almost 600 sites worldwide since the last glacial maximum 21,000 years ago. From this, they determined vegetation responses to temperature changes of 4° to 7°C. They went on to estimate the extent of ecosystem changes under current similar (albeit more rapid) scenarios of warming. Without substantial mitigation efforts, terrestrial ecosystems are at risk of major transformation in composition and structure.”
The new paper in Science predicts unimaginable changes. It sounds like we are heading toward a different planet, where humans today would hardly recognize their surroundings. Is that possible? This new study calls it “ecosystem transformation”.
I note this one chilling phrase in the introduction: “Ecosystem change is accelerated by mass mortality of incumbent dominants…” They are talking about plant life, but given we need plants for food, I wonder if under the worst climate scenario, humans may also be “incumbent dominants” that experience “mass mortality”.
There are 42 authors listed in this paper, chosen from experts all over the world. Each was asked to describe the changes that took place after the last major glaciation, when the world warmed about 5 degrees C. Note this research is NOT based on climate models, but on hard evidence (like pollen records from lake bottoms and other biological signs).
As I understand it, long ago there was a warming of about 5 degrees Centigrade – about what the worst scenario is now for the year 2100. But it took about 7,000 years for that warming to take place. I ask how worthwhile are these study results, when we compare 7,000 years to 150 years of warming?
A CONSERVATIVE ESTIMATE
Just to be clear, the stunning ecological transformation found during the last great warming is just a “conservative estimate” of what we could be facing now. The paper states “High-precision time-series studies indicate that local and regional ecosystems can shift rapidly, within years to decades, under abrupt climate change“. That sounds terrifying. Stuff we all take for granted could just disappear in just years or decades.
The IPCC has defined different Representative Concentration Pathways, or RCP, for carbon dioxide emissions. According to the Supplement to this paper, quote, “Representative RCP 8.5 is a “business-as-usual” scenario that ends up with [about] ~1370 ppm CO2 equivalent and global average temperature increase of approximately 5°C.” That assumes a tripling of current atmospheric carbon, from about 400 parts per million now to around 1300 ppm!
THE TIME LAG
The new paper in Science also says, quote, “Although many ecological responses (e.g., species migration, colonization, and succession) will likely lag behind climate changes, ecosystem transformations will often be accelerated by disturbance and mortality events, land use, and invasive species.”
To me, this means that (a) the climate and conditions needed to support some species will have already been changed before they move or die, and…
(b) there will be nasty surprises, where plants we have always expected or counted on (say for building supplies, heating, or food) disappear.
After reading this paper, I realized we are entering a period of the great change of the plant world. And we may not reach a stable state of plant life “until the 22nd century or beyond.” The days of humans knowing and understanding their local biological environment are over for now, and for generations to come.
WHERE THE BIGGEST CHANGES HAPPENED LAST TIME
Note in Figure 1A in the paper, the greatest changes take place in North America and Europe, along with coastal areas of South America (especially W. Coast), Africa, Asia and Australia. There are fewer changes in central Russia, the Middle East and India.
“These changes were particularly evident at mid- to high latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere, as well as in southern South America, tropical and temperate southern Africa, the Indo-Pacific region, Australia, Oceania, and New Zealand.”
The paper finds the least change in the Neotropics. The term “Neotropics” is explained here.
And worry about this from the paper: “As mean annual temperature increases, other ecologically important variables will change, often in complex or counterintuitive ways, and ecological responses will often be episodic or nonlinear.” Plus this from the paper’s conclusion: “Many emerging ecosystems will be novel in composition, structure, and function, and many will be ephemeral under sustained climate change; equilibrium states may not be attained until the 22nd century or beyond.”
HIS 2008 PREDICTIONS ARE COMING TRUE NOW
In 2008, I broadcast a speech Dr. Overpeck gave at Washington University on expected climate impacts on North America. Now ten years later, his prediction of the drying of the West and stress to our forests is right before our eyes.
In that speech he also talked about rising seas and the majority of Americans who live within 50 miles of the sea coast. That seems pretty pertinent now with Hurricane Florence flooding the Carolinas and beyond. A record high storm surge just happened there.
Here is an easy-to-understand press release about this paper from the University of Michigan. On August 30th, Sarah Kaplan of the Washington Post released this article: “Climate change could render many of Earth’s ecosystems unrecognizable“.
WHERE WE BOTH COME FROM
Ending on a personal note, Overpeck worked with the NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies in the late 1980’s. Dr. James Hansen was the scientist who asked our guest to study the little understood impacts of global warming on the plant world – a role that has returned with this new paper about 30 years later.
From my own perspective, “widespread dieback events” were described in forests by Dr. Overpeck in his 2008 address we broadcast. Forest conversion is of particular concern to me, as I live in a generally forested provinces which just experienced it’s second year of wildfire emergency. On Radio Ecoshock, we’ve heard from Canadian wildfire expert Dr. Michael Flannigan that if (a) fires return within 6 to ten years to the same place or (b) fires burn with such intensity that they sterilize the ground – the forest may not survive and may convert to grassland or other scrub growth. Around 2007, I attended a presentation by a British Columbia forest scientist which showed their expectations that under climate change large areas of Southern B.C. would indeed convert to grassland under climate change. They knew then. Now it’s happening.
Even in the Amazon, as this article in MongaBay describes, wildfires are overtaking logging as a cause of rainforest destruction.
THE BIG CARBON MACHINE: TROPICAL FORESTS WITH FRANCES SEYMOUR
Despite what you’ve heard, Planet Earth is losing it’s forest cover. All that stored carbon dioxide goes into the atmosphere adding to climate change. What is driving deforestation – vast wildfires, logging, farming? Yes and no. A recent study reveals all.
The Deutsche Welle news agency reports, quote: “The world is losing vital forests quicker than ever. The years 2016 and 2017 saw the highest global tree cover loss ever recorded.” So we are losing the battle to keep forests world-wide.
“Slash and burn deforestation to make way for farms was largely responsible for the destruction of an area the size of Italy in 2017, making it the second worst year for tree loss since records began in 2001….A total of 113,000 square miles was cleared, mostly from the Amazon and the Congo basin, as well as across Indonesia and Malaysia.
The shocking level of destruction immediately follows the worst year on record: during 2016, 185,000 square miles of forest were razed. Overall, global losses of tree cover have doubled since 2003, while deforestation of tropical rainforests has doubled since 2008.”
Our guest Frances Seymour speaks at world conferences on these very issues. She was Director General of the Center for International Forestry Research, CIFOR, and is now a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the World Resources Institute. Frances is the lead author of the book “Why Forests? Why Now? The Science, Economics, and Politics of Tropical Forests and Climate Change.”
Frances Seymour, WRI
THE CURTIS STUDY – A BREAKTHROUGH SEEING FOREST DAMAGE AROUND THE WORLD
I have been searching for global figures on what is destroying the forests. I could not find good answers, until a brand new study came out on September 13th. I’m talking about the paper “Classifying drivers of global forest loss” led by Philip G. Curtis from the University of Arkansas. Curtis got that information by comparing Google Earth satellite photos over 14 years, since 2001. Seymour discusses that paper in our interview.
It appears from the Curtis study that logging and wildfires are almost tied for the amount of forest devastation around the world, together accounting for about half our total tree loss each year. From our experience this year in the West, I’ll bet wildfires overtake logging as climate change ramps up. A piece in Environmental Research Letters June 2018 by Danielle Rappaport reported that fires in the Amazon have surpassed logging in degrading the Amazon forest. And we have understory fires as well, that will not show up as forest loss on Google Earth.
I disagree with one assumption by Curtis and his co-authors: that forests taken away by logging and wildfires with regrow. We have replanting failures, drought, steep terrain, and a warming world, – so can we count on regrowth? Plus, even when forest replanting is successful, the new species may be an industrial tree farm rather than the previous species-rich mix.
Let’s talk about the Amazon. In her blog at WRI, Frances report tree cover loss in Brazil doubled from 2015 to 2017. We all thought that was under control, or even going down. However, she tells us, even that doubling is a lower rate of destruction than occurred before Brazil brought in stricter control on Amazon logging and development, and enforcement. Still, more forest loss is more forest loss at a time when we need the big carbon machine working to help stave off the worst of climate change.
The environment is suffering from retrograde political developments in many countries, including the United States. In Brazil, the front-runner for President has been called “Brazil’s Trump”. He was just seriously stabbed at a rally, and last time I checked, was in hospital with small prospects of re-entering the race. If elected, might Jair Bolsonaro undo all the curbs on Amazon deforestation that were set in motion by the now-jailed President Lula? It shows how the environment is held hostage to shifts in politics.
Even peace can lead to more logging! When the Columbian rebels made peace with the formal government, there were no opportunities to enter the jungle and cut it down. Tropical forest destruction in Columbia has gone up by well over 100%.
CAMPAIGNING FOR CLIMATE, THE FORESTS, OR BOTH?
Earlier in the environmental movement, there used to be forest campaigners and climate campaigners. Now both discover they can’t live without each other. For the record, I’m a climate researcher, making forays into forestry because I love the trees and all the creatures that need them, but also because of the carbon loss. People warn about greenhouse gases from the thawing permafrost, or Arctic methane. I worry we are seeing a massive release of carbon from disappearing forests. I’ll be doing more interviews on Radio Ecoshock to investigate that theme.
I began looking for the largest single cause of deforestation. The answer, confirmed by the new Curtis paper, is hardly known in the West. Over a quarter of world deforestation comes from something he calls “permanent land use change for the production of commodities”. Soy, beef and palm oil are bad boys of wrecking forests. More or less the other half of forest destruction comes from logging and wildfires, each around 25% of the loss.
Curtis says, 450 corporations have pledged to “zero deforestation in their supply chains by 2020 to meet consumer demand for deforestation-free products and to improve corporate social responsibility.” But, again, we are actually still losing key forests at an alarming rate. Can we count on corporate responsibility?
Another less known source of damage to tropical forests is the fashion industry. Clothing designers likes to use Rayon and other synthetics made by boiling down wood. We are boiling forests for snazzy clothes. Some of that wood comes from the last forest homes of our endangered cousins, the Orangutan of Indonesia. The largest design houses have recently agreed to clean up their act. But can anyone overcome illegal logging and the opaque system of clandestine shipping? Find out more about that campaign here.
Frances Seymour is irritated when men talk about building huge new infrastructure to capture carbon and store it. The tropical forest is already doing that naturally! Check out this article “Forests cut warming better than technology” by Tim Radford, published September 11 2018.
SOME RECENT BLOG POSTS BY FRANCES SEYMOUR
June 2018 “The climate and forest community has not yet harnessed the full power of the information age to create transparency in the global commodities markets. There exists a wealth of global financial data that can reveal the financial drivers of deforestation. Using the power of big data, forest...”
“Deforestation Is Accelerating, Despite Mounting Efforts to Protect Tropical Forests. What Are We Doing Wrong?” by Frances Seymour – June 26, 2018.
“Even though more and more companies are committing to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains, the tropics lost a Vietnam-sized area of forest in just the last two years. Why aren’t forest protections working?”
“The 2017 tree cover loss numbers are in, and they’re not looking good. Despite a decade of intensifying efforts to slow tropical deforestation, last year was the second-highest on record for tree cover loss, down just slightly from 2016. The tropics lost an area of forest the size of Vietnam in just the last two years.
In addition to harming biodiversity and infringing on the rights and livelihoods of local communities, forest destruction at this scale is a catastrophe for the global climate. New science shows that forests are even more important than we thought in curbing climate change. In addition to capturing and storing carbon, forests affect wind speed, rainfall patterns and atmospheric chemistry. In short, deforestation is making the world a hotter, drier place.”
As Frances says, when it comes to tropical forests, humans have a “Brick on the Accelerator, Feather on the Brake”.
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