Preserving the Environment

Do Trees Actually Cause Climate Change?

October 2, 2014
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Do Trees Actually Cause Climate Change?
Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images
A New York Times op-ed causes major controversy in the scientific community.

There’s probably nothing more symbolic of the green movement than a tall, leafy tree. Along with protecting our forests, planting a tree to offset one’s carbon footprint has now become de rigueur in fighting climate change.

However, in the recent New York Times op-ed, “To Save the Planet, Don’t Plant Trees,” Yale professor Nadine Unger smacks several holes in conventional green wisdom. And to no one’s surprise, it’s causing some backlash in the scientific community.

Unger’s article boils down to three (controversial) points about trees and forests:

1. Trees give off harmful pollution. “Trees emit reactive volatile gases that contribute to air pollution and are hazardous to human health…As these compounds mix with fossil-fuel pollution from cars and industry, an even more harmful cocktail of airborne toxic chemicals is created.”

2. Planting forests in colder places might cause the planet to bake. “The dark color of trees means that they absorb more of the sun’s energy and raise the planet’s surface temperature….Planting trees in the tropics would lead to cooling, but in colder regions, it would cause warming.”

3. Stopping deforestation is not the best way to mitigate global warming. “The science says that spending precious dollars for climate change mitigation on forestry is high-risk: We don’t know that it would cool the planet, and we have good reason to fear it might have precisely the opposite effect. More funding for forestry might seem like a tempting easy win for the world leaders at the United Nations, but it’s a bad bet.”

If your head is spinning, you’re not alone. After the article came out, a slew of top scientists came out to strongly rebuke Unger’s article.

MORE: 3 Reasons Why Sunday’s Historic Climate March Could Be the Start of Something Huge

“Nadine Unger argues that reducing deforestation and planting trees won’t help fix climate change but will rather make it worse,” Steve Schwartzman, Director of Tropical Forest Policy writes. “One might ask how the 2,000-plus scientists and experts on Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) got this one wrong — they found tropical deforestation a major source that must be reduced to control climate change – but in fact it’s Unger who’s way out on a limb here.”

And in another response called “Dr. Unger’s Four Scientific Fouls,” Michael Wolosin of Climate Advisers picks apart each of Unger’s points and concludes, “Normally, this type of scientific debate would take place in specialist journals with lengthy peer review processes to ensure accuracy. And for good reason – it is a process that keeps scientists from jumping to conclusions that aren’t implied by their work, and that should not be cited as fact by others.”

There’s also this piece that was signed by 30 scientists, including six members of the National Academy and four members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Unger has since defended herself where she lists all of the sources that she points to in the Times op-ed. She also points out, “The primary key to solving the global climate problem is the transformation of our energy system into one that does not use the sky as a waste dump for our greenhouse gas pollution.”

Well, it appears Unger does have a point there. Simply put, we can’t treat our planet like a trash can. As we’ve previously reported, there are multiple ways to preventing climate change, including leaving our precious forests alone. But really, according to near scientific consensus, the best way to stop climate change is by cutting carbon pollution through conserving energy and curbing our reliance on fossil fuels.

Hopefully this is something we can all agree on.

DON’T MISS: The Top 5 Ways to Fight Global Warming

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