Open thread for night owls. McKibben: Don’t burn trees to fight climate change, let them grow

Pear trees in spring
Pear trees in Mendocino County, California.

Bill McKibben is a founder of the grassroots climate campaign 350.org and the Schumann Distinguished Scholar in environmental studies at Middlebury College. His latest book is Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? At The New Yorker he writes—Don’t Burn Trees to Fight Climate Change, Let Them Grow!

Of all the solutions to climate change, ones that involve trees make people the happiest. Earlier this year, when a Swiss study announced that planting 1.2 trillion trees might cancel out a decade’s worth of carbon emissions, people swooned (at least on Twitter). And last month, when Ethiopian officials announced that twenty-three million of their citizens had planted three hundred and fifty million trees in a single day, the swooning intensified. Someone tweeted, “This should be like the ice bucket challenge thing.”

night owls

So it may surprise you to learn that, at the moment, the main way in which the world employs trees to fight climate change is by cutting them down and burning them. Across much of Europe, countries and utilities are meeting their carbon-reduction targets by importing wood pellets from the southeastern United States and burning them in place of coal: giant ships keep up a steady flow of wood across the Atlantic. “Biomass makes up fifty per cent of the renewables mix in the E.U.,” Rita Frost, a campaigner for the Dogwood Alliance, a nonprofit organization based in Asheville, North Carolina, told me. And the practice could be on the rise in the United States, where new renewable-energy targets proposed by some Democrats and Republicans in Congress, as well as by the E.P.A., treat “biomass”—fuels derived from plants—as “carbon-neutral,” much to the pleasure of the forestry industry. “Big logging groups are up on Capitol Hill working hard,” Alexandra Wisner, the associate director of the Rachel Carson Council, told me, when I spoke with her recently. […]

The story of how this happened begins with good intentions. As concern about climate change rose during the nineteen-nineties, back when solar power, for instance, cost ten times what it does now, people casting about for alternatives to fossil fuels looked to trees. Trees, of course, are carbon—when you burn them you release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But the logic went like this: if you cut down a tree, another will grow in its place. And, as that tree grows, it will suck up carbon from the atmosphere—so, in carbon terms, it should be a wash.[…]

William R. Moomaw, a climate and policy scientist who has published some of the most recent papers on the carbon cycle of forests, told me about the impact of biomass, saying, “back in those days, I thought it could be considered carbon neutral. But I hadn’t done the math. I hadn’t done the physics.” Once scientists did that work, they fairly quickly figured out the problem. Burning wood to generate electricity expels a big puff of carbon into the atmosphere now. Eventually, if the forest regrows, that carbon will be sucked back up. But eventually will be too long—as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made clear last fall, we’re going to break the back of the climate system in the next few decades. […]

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QUOTATION

“Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is that people all over the world have obeyed the dictates of leaders…and millions have been killed because of this obedience…Our problem is that people are obedient allover the world in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war, and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves… (and) the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem. ~~Howard Zinn, The Problem is Civil Obedience, 1970

TWEET OF THE DAY

(Truman tried to buy Greenland in 1946 for $100 million
—$1.3 billion in 2019 dollars. Denmark said no way.)

BLAST FROM THE PAST

At Daily Kos on this date in 2011No, Michele Bachman didn’t attend that ‘family reunion’:

There was a story yesterday about Bachmann apparently lying about attending her own family reunion, which was … well, just odd, and not just because it was her own mom who sold her out:

On her victory lap of Iowa yesterday, Straw Poll winner Rep. Michele Bachmann paid repeated tribute to her local roots, and repeatedly mentioned her family reunion that day, citing it as an excuse for her late arrival at a local party event in Waterloo.

But Bachmann’s mother and two cousins told POLITICO’s Emily Schultheis that Bachmann didn’t attend the reunion, though her husband and children did. Her spokeswoman, Alice Stewart, didn’t respond to two emails asking for an explanation of the disparity.

So now we’ve got this as follow up:

Michele Bachmann’s spokeswoman, Alice Stewart, confirmed that Bachmann had skipped the family reunion that she said she was attending, but insisted that her comments were consistent.

On today’s Kagro in the Morning show: ALL-NEW KITM World HQ construction day show, with an international flavor! Tying together Moscow Mitch McConnell’s Russian-backed aluminum plant, the right-wing YouTube-ification of Brazil & int’l support for the rise of Sweden’s anti-immigrant right.

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