Photosynthesis Is One-Third of the Answer to Mitigating Climate Change

Evergreen canopy of temperate rainforest in Dorrigo national park

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Twelve years: That’s all the time we have left before global temperatures rise by 1.5C over pre-industrial levels, according to a startling recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Without drastic and immediate action to prevent it, the report says, that increase in temperature will leave us facing the start of an irreversible climate disaster by the year 2030.

The report in question was the most dire warning yet from the IPCC, and if its intent was to attract attention, it worked. But much of the media coverage placed this new report within a well-worn apocalyptic narrative about climate change: drowning coastal cities, species extinction, widespread hunger, irreversible calamity — terrifying prospects that are beyond the abilities of ordinary individuals or communities to do anything about. In this story, the only ways to prevent utter disaster depend on large-scale, revolutionary, and potentially impossible technologies, the kind that require unfathomable amounts of capital and are comprehensible only to NASA savants or hyper-wealthy Silicon Valley disrupters. It’s a narrative that leaves little for anyone else to do but despair and wait.

It’s also wrong. We can take immediate steps to drastically reduce levels of carbon in the atmosphere, and we can take them right now, using knowledge and tools we already have available. What’s more, we can take these steps at the human level, in ways that can demonstrate the possibility of meaningful change to individuals, households, and communities around the world — from Portland to Jakarta.

Health In Harmony is an organization founded on the idea that promoting human health and development is not at cross purposes with the fight against climate change. On the contrary, sustainable human development and ecosystem integrity are one and the same. Our approach is based on two fundamental realities that are often left out of the doomsday narratives, but which create opportunities for significant, impactful, and immediate change.

Forests Absorb Carbon Emissions

The first reality is that the simplest, most effective, least expensive, and risk-free solution to global warming is to protect forests. Not immensely ambitious carbon capture and storage technologies which have yet to prove themselves effective, but simple photosynthesis.

Watch Dr. Kinari Webb’s TEDx Talk: Saving Lives by Saving Trees

Healthy tropical and temperate forests are nature’s best offenses to out-maneuver climate change. Trees naturally consume carbon dioxide from the increasingly polluted air we breathe. By some estimates, the world’s forests absorb around one-third of human-caused carbon emissions.

This is particularly true in places like Borneo, in Indonesia, where rainforest trees are extremely avid converters of carbon into oxygen. If we can stop these forests from being cut down — and actually expand them — we will have an immediate and massive impact on levels of atmospheric carbon, and slow down the rise in global temperatures.

Community-Based Action

The second reality is that community-based action, especially when it draws from local or indigenous knowledge, needs and expertise, is the surest pathway to creating the type of behavior change — and public acceptance — necessary to make a real difference in efforts to prevent global warming. If the continuing phenomenon of widespread climate-change denial and skepticism, even in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence, can teach us anything, it’s that environmental solutions imposed from above can provoke resistance to urgent change, especially in communities and places where people already feel powerless. That’s why it’s important to listen to the people who actually live on the front lines of climate change, to listen to and then execute their solutions.

Health In Harmony has seen real change by doing just that. In 2007, we spent over 400 hours conducting what we call Radical Listening sessions in 40 villages bordering Gunung Palung National Park, in Borneo. At the time, Borneo was experiencing the fastest rate of deforestation the world had ever known, and Gunung Palung was losing tree cover at an alarming rate. This was mostly due to illegal, small-scale logging by people in marginalized communities on the edge of the park, who saw no other way to provide for themselves or to protect their own well-being.

Community and Ecosystem Health

By talking and listening to people in those villages — and by implementing their locally-designed solutions — we began to understand the critical connection between the health of their communities and the health of the surrounding forests. That led to a partnership where we provided better access to affordable health services for people in the region and conducted the training in sustainable agriculture that they asked for. In the decade since, there has been an 88 percent reduction in the number of illegal logging households in Gunung Palung. The loss of forest has stabilized, 20,000 hectares are growing back, and a protected habitat for 2,500 Bornean orangutans has been created.

What’s more, these efforts haven’t come at the expense of local communities, but have brought tangible benefits instead. Better healthcare has resulted in a 90 percent decrease in the mortality rate for local children under the age of five. The transition of former loggers to organic farming and small-business ownership has improved economic well-being in the region.

Our hospital in Borneo serves 120,000 people, meaning there is a large public constituency that is benefitting socially, economically, and health-wise from behavior changes that protects the lungs of the planet. By linking human health and ecosystem health, rather than treating them as issues that exist in separate silos, we and our community partners in Borneo have been able to reverse some of the significant rainforest destruction that was contributing to the acceleration of global warming. To put this in perspective, the amount of carbon in Gunung Palung National Park that would have otherwise been eventually lost in a business-as-usual scenario was over 79 million tons. This is equivalent to 14 years of carbon emissions from San Francisco.  

Reducing Deforestation Is Just One Step

This is just one example, in one critical rainforest, of how taking effective action to stop global warming is possible. Will reduced logging in Indonesia prevent temperatures rising by 1.5C within a dozen years? Certainly not on its own, but reversing deforestation globally would get us one-third of the way to that goal. Every acre of protected or expanded forest means more of the carbon out of the air that is bringing us ever closer to the brink.

It is also a refutation of the narrative that says we are in a nearly hopeless race against time, one that ordinary people have become powerless to affect. We ourselves feel incredibly encouraged to know that helping people on the other side of the planet have healthier lives, leads to more health for the whole planet. While large-scale technological innovation and complex policy solutions may also help slow global warming, there is plenty else for the rest of us to do by helping indigenous people protect the lungs of the earth. 

The next 12 years may be a turning point in the existence of our species and the life of our planet. The health of one depends on the preservation of the other. By taking matters into our own hands, we can take steps to protect them both. And by refusing to let go of hope, we can create the change we need to help them flourish.

About the Authors

Jonathan Jennings is the Executive Director of Health In Harmony, an international nonprofit that is improving human and environmental health with intertwined solutions. Dr. Kinari Webb is the founder of Health In Harmony.

Help Health In Harmony’s Ongoing Work

If you’d like to help save trees, bring health care to people, and conserve habitat for orangutans, please make a donation to Health In Harmony

Editor’s note: A shorter version of this article appeared in The Hill.

 

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