Climate Change and Forests

This weekend marks the halfway point for the 190 countries that have gathered in Paris for a large conference on climate change called COP 21.  An abbreviation for Conference of the Parties, it is the 21st meeting of the countries that signed the United Nations Framework on Climate Change.  There is a lot of optimism about the conference, but it won’t quite be the fix that we really need.  If you’re curious about why, here are a couple of articles from Vox and The Guardian explaining what is happening in Paris and why it is falling a little short.  Though we’re not yet done with 2015, it is going to shatter the record for warmest year ever recorded. Work will still remain to be done. 

Climate change is important to the health of American forests for many reasons.  Natural ecosystems evolve to fill a specific climate niche.  When that changes, nature must change as well.  However, if the pace of change is rapid (as it is with anthropogenic climate change), natural adaptation is dramatic at best.  For example, Alaskan forests are expected to warm 8°F by 2080, bringing the average annual temperature from below freezing to above.  This will have major effects on the forest and its underlying permafrost, increasing the likelihood of fire significantly, and “strongly suggests that boreal forest vegetation will shift from spruce-dominated forest, prevalent across the landscape during the last century, to deciduous dominated forest.”  We’re losing the forests in Alaska as we know them.

Similar effects are expected across the American Mountain West.  An ecological region known as the western or North American cordillera, the likelihood of fire also increases substantially with a warming climate. In this area, it is expected that the likelihood of very large fires (those exceeding roughly 12,000 acres) will increase about 400% in the later part of this century.  Focusing solely upon climatic suitability of native trees and if climate change continues unabated, we are looking at 50-90% loss of suitable climates for our western forests.  Ask anyone who is involved in wildfires, meteorology, or water or forest management, and they’ll tell you that it is already upon us.  For example:

The situation seems pretty dire, but the tools to fix this are already at hand.  The environmental adage to “Think globally, act locally” is true now more than ever.  Individuals, companies, and governments are getting increasingly involved in how they interact with the world by changing what they do. There is still a chance that we can avoid the most severe outcomes.  Are you interested in what you can do?  Try the following:

1.)  Learn about what is driving climate change.  If you don't know where to begin, consider looking around the website Skeptical Science.  It has numerous explanations about the science surrounding climate change, especially for those that doubt the effect that we're having upon our climate.  It includes links to all of the reference material as well as various levels of technical detail, depending on the background of the reader.

2.) Evaluate your own carbon footprint.  There are a lot of ways to improve your carbon footprint.  Since many of the things you can do are free and others that cost a little but ultimately save you money, why wouldn't you give it a try?  Our carbon footprint calculator is here:

3.) Support individuals and organizations that support our climate, including those that participate in carbon markets.  If you’re interested in learning more about carbon markets, give our Carbon Market FAQs a look.  Also, please think about trying to offset your own footprint – it helps in many ways and it feels good, too. 

4.) Plant a tree.  Seriously.  Growing plants are the best natural way to remove carbon from our atmosphere and trees are the world's largest and longest living plants.

I’m a realist about what is happening at COP 21, but it still gives me hope.  For decades we have ignored the problem and, more frustratingly have even denied that it exists.  If this is the time that the international community gets serious about fixing this problem, maybe you could too?  Food for thought.

A spark neglected makes a mighty fire.
— Robert Herrick