Hope-Filled Report On Ending Deforestation Doesn’t Tell The Whole Story

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Ever since I read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in my youth, I’ve been an environmentalist. That persona of mine has taken on different faces — my early and lasting vegetarianism, a keen lifelong reverence for earth systems, a minimum impact philosophy, honor thy local merchant consumerism, and, most recently, rejection of plastics and fossil fuels whenever and wherever possible. Throughout this nature-conscious path, I’ve hiked mountain trails and camped in the backcountry and observed trees in different stages. I’m always deeply respectful of the role and importance of our forests as part of our larger ecosystem. So I’m caught off-guard by a new report from The Climate Plan called “Seeing the Forest: Nature’s Solution to Climate Change” which argues that, if we stop deforestation entirely, we can nearly achieve the 2 degree goal outlined within the Paris agreement.

Idealistic? Yes, but realistic? No.

The well-intentioned “report” — really a series of infographics with transitional text sections linking different stats about forests — glosses over hard data. It oversimplifies a truly complicated concern within the global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions discussion. And it fails to offer a nuanced, multifaceted policy approach to how and why forests must be saved and restored. Keenly absent is a treatise on how to reclaim the livelihoods of individuals within logging industries.

Because it’s important for us to deconstruct the position statements of those in our own camps in order to strengthen the sustainability movement as a whole, my review of “Seeing the Forest: Nature’s Solution to Climate Change” applies a critical theory lens to the report’s argumentation.

nature's solution

We are releasing about nine billion metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere each year, and our oceans and forests store about 5 billion metric tons of that carbon each year.

“Seeing the Forest: Nature’s Solution to Climate Change”

Forests are an efficacious way to keep carbon out of the atmosphere, as trees of all ages, but especially older trees, absorb carbon and store it in their roots, leaves, and wood. They produce oxygen and provide one of many necessary defenses today against the damaging impacts of climate change. Let it be said that forests are important to the overall health of the planet and to the large toolkit of climate change solutions.

stop deforestation
Graphic courtesy Arbor Day Foundation

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The Place and Power of Trees in Climate Change Action Scenarios

The “Seeing the Forest: Nature’s Solution to Climate Change” report’s major premise is that, if we stop deforestation; protect and restore degraded forests; and expand forests, we could reduce annual emissions by 75% in the next 50 years. In conjunction with the report’s release, over 200 organizations, scientists, and elected officials will release a new “Stand4Forests Platform” urging decision-makers to put forest protection in the US on the forefront of the national climate agenda by changing the way we calculate greenhouse gas emissions to include logging; to stop clearcutting our most important natural facilitators of carbon storage; and to invest in communities most impacted by climate change and the logging industry.

The accompanying press release states,

“‘Seeing the Forest: Nature’s Solution to Climate Change’ demonstrates that trees are not only essential in preventing carbon from being released into the atmosphere; but that burning wood for electricity actually releases up to 50 percent more carbon dioxide than burning coal per unit of electricity – a fact often overlooked in the conversations about solutions to climate change, which focus primarily on reducing emissions from fossil fuels.”

Fairclough (2003) describes a juxtaposition like this, in which reducing emissions is divided into looking at either fossil fuels or burning wood for electricity, as “the texturing of the relationship of difference” (p. 126). All messages are conscious constructions, and difference in this case is established through a range of contrastive or antithetical relational structures and expressions.

Logging becomes “a fact often overlooked in the conversations about solutions to climate change” in the “Seeing the Forest” infographics, when, in fact, a low-carbon future commonly focuses on 5 different policy measures to reduce:

  • electricity demand in the building and industry sectors
  • the carbon intensity of electricity generation
  • transportation emissions through efficiency, electrification, and urban mobility
  • non-electricity industry sector emissions
  • deforestation and forest degradation

Yes, policy measures to mitigate carbon do include deforestation and forest degradation strategies, but they are part of a larger melange, a simmering stew of low/no carbon variables across multiple domains of contemporary life. But research results may have been overgeneralized here to reconcile the ends of returning the US to a verdant landscape.

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To Stop Deforestation Means to Unpack Layers of Policies

Indeed, the work on understanding the large share of emissions that come from land use, land use change, and forestry that often results in deforestation is not not new. It was the subject of the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change working group III (Note: This was the year the IPCC was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize).

Its executive summary discusses how carbon loss due to tropical deforestation  — as offset by expanding forest areas and accumulating woody biomass in the boreal and temperate zones — was a continuing area of disagreement between land observations and estimates by top-down models. The IPCC outlines how carbon mitigation potentials from reducing deforestation, forest management, afforestation, and agro-forestry differ greatly by activity, regions, system boundaries, and the time horizon over which the options are compared.

Ah, nuance.

The IPCC working group III concludes, with acknowledged medium agreement and medium evidence, that sustainable forest management strategy aimed at maintaining or increasing forest carbon stocks, while producing an annual sustained yield of timber, fiber, or energy from the forest, will generate the largest sustained mitigation benefit. Moreover, they continue, most mitigation activities require up-front investment with benefits and co-benefits typically accruing for many years to decades. Such an approach looks at economic and sociopolitical considerations across generations, providing policies, measures, and instruments to mitigate climate change up to 2030 and then again after 2030.

Seeing the Forest: Proposed Solutions

In contrast, here is how the “Seeing the Forest” reports suggests we focus on land use change.

First, we stop degradation and deforestation.” This statement fails to acknowledge forces of production, most notably technology, which are at odds and which often deter the capacity to improve existing forms of forest management.

This is a worldwide effort.” The Union of Concerned Scientists similarly calls for protecting tropical rainforests but offers the acknowledgment that “we need to understand the driving forces behind deforestation today and the many reasons why reducing deforestation must be a priority.”

We look to the positive, and we restore and reforest our degraded natural areas. By this, of course, we mean natural reforestation — not planting industrial pine plantations or non-native species such as eucalyptus.” A program like Greenpeace’s Forests for Climate creates an international funding mechanism to protect tropical forests so that developing countries can make commitments exchange funding for capacity-building efforts and national-level reductions in deforestation emissions. The Stand4Forests program is a noble advocacy effort, but the program policies to enact the change seem to be part of another future initiative.

Any reforestation that occurs needs to be permanent and focused on replenishing natural, old-growth forests. Diverse, old natural forests also provide many times more value in ecosystem services like wildlife habitat, clean water, and clean air.” Yes! But what is the pathway to get there? Recent research illuminates unsettling trends in reforestation efforts:

  • fragile and incomplete governance infrastructures
  • a lack of coherence between the emerging structure and the drivers of deforestation
  • absence of concrete measures to secure communities’ land rights and reduce the risks of associated conflicts
  • limited integration of Indigenous peoples, local communities, and women

“The climate crisis is not insurmountable. We already have an accounting system that tells us how much extra carbon is entering the atmosphere.” These two linked sentences comprise an existential assumption, or an assumption, once stated, that is taken to exist without question. The linguist Norman Fairclough (2003) describes discourses as language devices that not only represent the world as it is (or rather is seen to be) — “They are also projective, imaginaries, representing possible world which are different from the actual world, and tied in to projects to change the world in particular directions.”  While the looming threat of climate change unalterable consequences grows, the value of established, stable, and standing forests in removing carbon from the atmosphere cannot be diminished. Yet framing reforestation as the one and only solution may be creating a mindset that is unobtainable and disillusioning.

Accessing Data about Reforestation

A viewer can accept an invitation to click through to other reports at the end of “Seeing the Forest.” A report available in the appendices is called “Industry Impact on US Forests.” Like “Seeing the Forest,” it has a visually appealing graphic design and includes several interesting statistics. But it feels more like a beginning than a formal argument grounded by research.

Then again, a much more comprehensive analysis of deforestation, restoration, and changing the culture of land use is available in that appendix: “The Great American Stand: US Forests and the Climate Emergency.” Commissioned by the Dogwood Alliance, the report slows down the congratulations and argues that the EPA’s lack of reporting on emissions from logging in its annual greenhouse gases inventory hides the facts — from 2006 to 2010, the US averaged 162 +/- 10 Tg/year (equal to 584 MMT of CO2), an amount “greater than fossil fuel emissions from the residential and commercial sectors combined.”

Email correspondences with the press agent for “Seeing the Forest” allowed that, yes, it was a summary of The “Great American Stand” written by Danna Smith, Dogwood Alliance Executive Director, and Dr. William Moomaw, Professor Emeritus of International Environmental Policy at Tufts University and lead author of several reports for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  “The Great American Stand” contains informative, data-driven sections like:

  • Background and Context
  • Forest Emissions Accounting and Reporting
  • Masking Emissions from Bioenergy
  • Carbon Storage, Clean Water, Flood Control
  • Climate Justice
  • Importance of Biodiversity
  • Global Climate Policy
  • Domestic Energy Policy
  • Economic Development
  • Technical Support and Training
  • Corporate Action
  • Addressing Consumption and Waste

The role that forests play in climate change mitigation is at the heart of climate change and sustainability debates. Data-driven, layered reports like “The Great American Stand” describe a scenario in which deforestation is a memory while also revealing how the wood products industry will still have an important role to play to keep more forests standing for their climate, water, storm protection, and biodiversity benefits.

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Idealism Masks Reforestation Policy Realities

“The Great American Stand: US Forests and the Climate Emergency” and other data-driven reports make clear that to stop deforestation would require tremendous policy shifts: governmental, industry, consumption, cultural, political, and more. It makes more sense to offer a multifaceted policy approach in which a combination of performance expectations, economic indicators, support for R&D, and supporting legislative policies would work together with critical design principles to tackle the inherent and complex issues within deforestation. Then why doesn’t “Seeing the Forest” do exactly that?

As Renee Hobbs of the Media Education Lab at the University of Rhode Island notes, “It’s important to build knowledge of how power relationships shape how information and ideas circulate in culture, considering the economic, political, and social context.” Two forces may have influenced the design decisions of “Seeing the Forest.” In the US in 2018, many powerful media constituents are intertwined with the corporate energy industry, and that discourse has leaned toward climate denial on frequent occasions. Also, people across different demographic groups may not be as receptive to scholarly data as to glossy infographics.

The design decisions behind “Seeing the Forest” were be derived from a keen sense of audience in today’s media rich society. As the PR rep noted to me in an email, this version was intended for a broader audience to accompany the platform.

Labeling its new report as “science behind forest protection as crucial climate change solution,” however, doesn’t make it so — or at least not enough to ground carbon uptake potential in land‐based climate change mitigation efforts.

stop deforestation

The Dogwood Alliance, which garners grassroots energy, immigrant rights, environmental justice, and social justice — among other intersectional efforts — transmits important, consistent messaging around climate change. It offers reliable advocacy efforts, so that communities that bear the greatest impacts of “an economic system that concentrates power and wealth into the hands of a few” does not go unnoticed while many people suffer.

The intention of “Seeing the Forest” is noble, but its argumentation is too general, sweeping, and overstated.  Deforestation is a topic that’s too important to position as a binary of all or none, save or lose the forests.

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Works Cited

Contribution of working group III to the fourth assessment report of the intergovernmental panel on climate change. (2007). B. Metz, O.R. Davidson, P.R. Bosch, R. Dave, L.A. Meyer (eds). Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA.

Fairclough, N. (2003). Analyzing discourse: Textual analysis for social research. London, Routledge.


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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack: https://carolynfortuna.substack.com/.

Carolyn Fortuna has 1311 posts and counting. See all posts by Carolyn Fortuna