Friday, 13 March 2009

Are forests doomed?

The Guardian published an article on Wednesday about a recent study by the Hadley Centre presenting new evidence that the Amazon rainforest will be destroyed by climate change:

'It found that a 2C rise above pre-industrial levels, widely considered the best case global warming scenario and the target for ambitious international plans to curb emissions, would still see 20-40% of the Amazon die off within 100 years. A 3C rise would see 75% of the forest destroyed by drought over the following century, while a 4C rise would kill 85%.'

Models predicting these changes have been around a while but increased data has now enabled more accurate numerical predictions. There are already warning signs that the Amazon is failing. The forest generates part of its own rainfall (by recycling the water released as the trees perspire), but in 2005 the system failed, creating the most severe drought on record in Amazonian Brazil. (I read about this in Thomas Lovejoy’s chapter in State of the World 2009.)


It is vital not to leap from increased understanding about the Amazon’s future to indifference about deforestation. The destruction of biomass (principally tropical forests) accounts for about a fifth of the annual increase in greenhouse gas emissions. According to Lovejoy this is why Indonesia and Brazil are the third and fourth largest CO2 emitting nations in the world, despite low fossil fuel use. Deforestation accelerates climate change so it should be one of the first areas we tackle in trying to prevent a 2C rise in temperatures.


A doomed forest is still worth protecting. The increased temperatures our actions are bringing about will force ecosystems to change and species to migrate. Unfortunately we have extensively altered many landscapes, which will too often make this process nearly impossible. We need to address how we live within landscapes, as Lovejoy argues:

 ‘Natural connections urgently need to be re-established in landscapes to facilitate the dispersal of individual species as they follow the conditions they need to survive. Basically, the opposite of the current situation of patches of nature in human-dominated landscapes needs to be created, so that human needs and aspirations are embedded in a natural matrix.’

This applies everywhere, not solely in the tropics. Personally, I find this an exciting vision. The news today is dark (here, here and here) and I don’t think it’s appropriate to react simply by giving ourselves reasons to be cheerful but I hope people won’t read about the fact that climate change ‘will’ destroy the Amazon and start to feel that protecting it no longer matters.


Part of the problem is in our rhetoric. Campaign groups often talk about ‘SAVING’ the rainforest or ‘STOPPING’ climate change. Forests cannot really be saved. We can avoid destroying them while we live, but how long will they remain after that? We never know. A little bit like a surgeon who ‘saves’ a life: the operation she performs will not mean the patient lives for ever, but that scarcely matters, does it? We probably can’t 'stop' climate change, but we can take responsibility for our actions and start making better local and global ways of living.

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