“If we’re going to be able to harness forests for increasing carbon sequestration, we’ve got to be able to help them adapt to the changing climate conditions as well,” says Eric Sprague, vice president of forest restoration for American Forests, the oldest national forest conservation organization in the U.S. and a 2018 grantee of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Climate Adaptation Fund. “We’re at the point where we have to figure out how to adapt.”
The project we are discussing is in the Lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas. It’s a “climate informed” restoration effort, which means it’s not only about planting trees. It’s about planting a mix of drought-tolerant species. It’s about considering the increasingly dry conditions and ensuring actions taken today are resilient to what lies ahead. The organization and its partners will foster habitat by planting 300,000 seedlings that will protect species and water resources and sequester 100,000 metric tons of carbon in the coming decades. Ethiopia recently broke a tree-planting record with 350 million trees planted in a day, demonstrating potential for an even larger-scale effort.
In my daily interactions with people on the issue of climate change, I find that the need for international rules and regulations to meet the global emission-reductions targets leaves many feeling that local actions don’t matter when it comes to mitigation. I disagree. “The local efforts that integrate mitigation with other objectives are how the work will come together across the world,” Sprague says.
Whether it’s planting 300,000 seedlings in Texas or 350 million in Ethiopia, these are the kinds of projects that bridge the perceived gap between local actions and global climate solutions and that begin to break down the practice of treating adaptation and mitigation separately.
A traditional divide exists between these two critical responses to climate change—efforts to cope with climate impacts or to stop them by curtailing emissions. Researchers in the climate-adaptation field have suggested that mitigation offers benefits to the global climate in the long term, whereas adaptation tends to provide local benefits that accrue over the short term and longer term. Adaptation and mitigation approaches have typically targeted different outcomes at different scales and thus have required distinct actions and actors.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s leading scientific body on the issue, describes synergies as the interactions between adaptation and mitigation that yield a cumulative benefit greater than the sum of their individual effects. If we have limited time and money to invest in solving the climate crisis, we need to optimize them by focusing on efforts that simultaneously help people adjust to the changing environment and stop warming.
“We really do need broad-based policy,” Sprague says. “I don’t doubt that at all. But then what are we going to do?” Planting trees to increase forest cover is his answer. The “climate smart” planting effort in the Lower Rio Grande Valley is one project in one place, but we need more like it.
President Donald Trump’s proposed wall has drawn more public attention to the valley’s unique and biodiverse habitat, which supports hundreds of bird and butterfly species, more than 1,000 identified plant species and 11 threatened and endangered species. At the most southerly latitudes of the country, a rare confluence of conditions drives the rich biodiversity in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. North to south, there’s a transition from temperate to semitropical forests. The landscape becomes drier to the west, changing from scrub forest to desert. Twice a year, migrating birds funnel back to the green forests throughout the valley, drawing people from all over the world to see them congregate together in astounding numbers.
The planting approach is not just about which species to plant but also where, strategically, to plant them when taking the future effects of climate change into consideration. The green habitat will need to shift northward to support the migratory birds and water availability. Some plant species are more tolerant of drought conditions than others.
A recent study published in Science claims that increasing forest cover strategically across the planet could capture 205 billion metric tons of carbon from the atmosphere, a considerable portion of what’s attributable to human activity. Capturing carbon as vegetation grows takes time. Planting has a lot of potential, but other scientists argue it’s not a substitute for reducing emissions.
Robin Chazdon, a professor emeritus in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut, co-authored a perspective article in Science on the urgency of restoring forests and the best approaches to do so. In response to the research indicating the potential for planting forests, she tells me we also need to be careful about how we do that work. “If you are optimizing for carbon in planting—even if the tree cover is in line with the potential for that particular habitat—and we have a drought, and those trees become a fire risk, and the whole thing burns down, then we’ve accomplished nothing,” she says.
Acting at the local level requires considering the local context, such as the benefits the forests can offer, current and future climate conditions and support for planting endeavors.
“Obviously, isolated cases of community action are not going to be sufficient,” Chazdon says. “We need all kinds of different levels of organization and motivation. Ideally, you have government programs and regional activities and local, community activities all working together.”
In my work supporting local adaptation projects, I am constantly returning to the question of what motivates the people who take action in the face of the overwhelming challenges climate change presents. How can we scale that up (whatever that is)? When I ask Sprague, he points toward the great potential for global impact from local work. “Planting offers the single greatest opportunity,” he says. “It’s offensive and defensive. We need to plant more forests to increase the sequestration capacity, but we also need to help them so that we can continue to harness the many benefits they provide.”
Every dollar invested in forests multiplies through the gains they give people, such as water conservation and public health. But the same holds true for our rivers and coastlines and other ecosystems impacted by climate change. While the global negotiations continue, responding carefully and strategically to the impacts occurring at the local scale will enable us to confront what’s coming and help alter the trajectory.
Note: This is the third in a three-part series of essays on adapting to climate change. As with the other entries, Adapting to Climate Change in Alaska and Confronting Flames, Floods and More in a Warming World, some of the content is adapted from her recent book In Search of the Canary Tree (Basic Books, 2018).