Climate Change: Deforestation is the Cause

Vancouver Island - Ancient Forest Clearcut near Port Renfrew, BC. Photo: TJ Watt.

Despite what is usually reported in the media, fossil fuel emissions are not the main cause of climate change. Climate change is human-made, however, it is primarily caused by deforestation, not fossil fuel emissions. And, if we continue to not accept this, we will never solve the problem.

The Eureka Moment While Teaching Permaculture

Proclaiming that greenhouse gases are not the cause of climate change is like declaring in the Middle Ages that the world is round and not flat. The world is round!

I figured out the cause of climate change while teaching a unit in our Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) course, called, “Trees and Their Energy Systems” AKA “We love trees!” Our PDC is held late July in southern Oregon when temperatures average the mid-90s˚F (35˚C). We teach under two large willow trees to avoid the heat and direct sun. Under the old trees, it’s cool and comfortable in the shade. The soil under the tree is a cool moist 65˚F  (18˚C).

Step out from under the shade of the willow trees and the temperature jumps 12–15˚F (7–8˚C). The soil is also warmer, harder, drier, with far less biology.[1]

Then it dawned on me: All 20 students could smoke, run their cars and have a camp fire, but temperatures would not rise. Large cities do not report higher temperatures on days with greater air pollution. When our valley is smoked in from neighboring forest fires, it does not get warmer. Fossil fuel emissions are not causing heating. Removing forests and other ecosystems is causing climate change.

What Do the Numbers Show?

Science[2] and the media tells us the global warming has increased temperatures by about 1˚C. Here is why the cause is deforestation and not greenhouse gases.

Sunny open spaces are 10–15˚F (5.6–8.4˚C) warmer than under the shade of old-growth forests.

The percent of Earth’s surface deforested times this 10-15˚F heat rise is 2.3˚F (1.3˚C).

The direct cause of temperature rise is removal of the old-growth forests, mature prairies, urbanization and death of the oceans. Like heating a pot of water to a rolling boil, higher temperatures destabilize the atmosphere, causing more severe weather.

We have removed forests and prairies from almost 60 percent[3] of all land for human habitation. In other words, we have turned the heat up 10–15˚F[4] on 60 percent of the land. Deforestation is literally a radiator on 18 percent of the total earth’s total surface. Heat islands caused by deforestation are concentrated on the equator where the sun’s rays land most directly. Interestingly, 18 percent x 13˚F  is 2.3 percent, close to the one degree ˚C increased average global surface temperature over the last century[5].

All forests and fields are not equal in their benefits. I estimate when walking from a modern immature woods into the old growth redwoods, the temperature drops 10˚F in the summer, the humidity increases 10 percent and the oxygen level increase a few percent. The bottom line is that the climate benefit of a plantation of 30′ (9m) trees is insignificant compared to a forest of 200′ (61m) old growth trees. This is like comparing a dog to an elephant.

kernza-jim-richardson
Jerry Glover, a soil scientist, shows off kernza perennial wheatgrass’ long roots, which grow deeper than annual plants’ roots, improving soil structure, pumping minerals and sequestering carbon. Photo: Jim Richardson.

Agriculture removed the former perennial prairie and annually exposes topsoil to direct sunlight, heats, dries out the topsoil and kills the soil biota. Perennial prairies were once covered with 6-8′ tall forbs; their roots just as deep. Annual plowing also releases carbon sequestered during the growing season back into the atmosphere.

By most accounts, deforestation in tropical rainforests adds more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than the sum total of cars and trucks on the world’s roads. According to the World Carfree Network (WCN), cars and trucks account for about 14 percent of global carbon emissions, while most analysts attribute upwards of 15 percent to deforestation.[6]

Four million trees are cut per year just for paper.[7] The FAO estimates deforestation accounts for 25 to 30 of the greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere each year – 1.6 billion tonnes.[8] This is the equivalent of 8 million people flying from London to New York.[9] If you are a scientist, here is more math from the Union of Concerned Scientists.[10]

Deforestation heats the planet four ways:

  1. Directly reflecting heat by removing vegetation cover.
  2. Releasing greenhouses gases through clearing.
  3. Preventing forests from sequestering more carbon dioxide by cutting them.
  4. Reducing rainfall by cutting forests.[11]

Here is an example of direct climate change caused by the removal of the old-growth forests of Southern Oregon. The snowfall in Crater Lake National Park steadily decreased as the old-growth forests around it were logged. The old-growth forests not only cooled the air, they created the precipitation. During the 1930s, Crater Lake average 614 to 623″ of annual snowfall. By 2000, the average had dropped to 459″. The first and second growth forests do not transpire the moisture or shed raindrop-creating pollen as much as the old-grow forests did.[12]

Greenhouse Gases to Temperature Rise Correlation Does Not Prove Causality

No science experiment can show rising temperatures are caused by rising CO2. Scientist can only observe a correlation between CO2 and global temperature rise. This, however, does not prove causality that CO2 causes a rise in temperature.

It is a poor choice to use a “greenhouse” as a metaphor, as the higher temperatures of a greenhouse are not caused by keeping the sun rays from exiting the greenhouse, but are caused by blocking the wind. If the greenhouse is flat-roofed with sides not very high off the ground, there is very little temperature increase caused by the clear plastic roof. As an organic farmer, I know; I have several greenhouses. When the sides of the greenhouse are lowered, the temperature drops immediately and there is an improvement in air circulation.

It could even be argued that the haze caused by air pollution shades the planet, therefore canceling out the greenhouse effect of the CO2.

Deforestation is “De-Diversifying” and “De–wilding”

Deforestation is not just the simple act of removal of forests. It is the loss of a particular age of  landscape: ancient, old, original. Deforestation is the wholistic process of de-wilding© or destruction of the original old-growth forest, prairie, meadow, river and ocean ecosystems.

Deforestation has been looked at by biologists far too narrowly. The simple act of planting trees is a nice thought, but it does not replace 5-10′ of forest tuft teaming a fecundity of diverse life built over thousands of years in a forest of 300′ (100m) old-growth trees.

Deforestation is de-diversifying©. It is the precursor to desertification. We only see it as deforestation because destruction of American soils and ecosystems are recent. Only shadows of what once was remain, but with every chainsaw, plow, bulldozer, dam and fish hatchery greater biodiversity is lost.

Visit the Middle East, parts of Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa to see that what was once forest is now scrub, rocks, or desert. A squirrel used to be able to jump from tree-to-tree across North Africa. Cedars, a moist climate tree, used to grow in what is now Lebanon. Civilization leaves deserts in its footsteps.

Without the old-growth trees we do not have the cool canopy, understory, shrub layer, ground cover nor the soil tilth. Without the prairie and meadows we do not have perennial forbs, deep roots, mineral recycling nor the buffalo and the wolf. Without the free-running watersheds we do not have the salmon and trout bringing fertility back up stream, nor the bears spreading the salmon into the forests, nor the beavers creating biodiversity in their ponds.

Without any of these we do not have all of the original players circulating their energy and offering their contributions. The more we destroy what is left, the hotter, dryer and more severe the weather will become. Our remaining ecosystems are the Alamo. They are our last lines of defense from total climate breakdown.

Deforestation is more than just logging. Deforestation is all agriculture, grazing and urbanization. De-diversifying is also damming rivers and fish hatcheries. The only way to allow Nature to heal herself is to stop setting succession back each season by plowing, grazing and cutting land into private property.

The Law of Food: Eat the majority of our food sustainably from wild species that naturally reproduce themselves where we live. If we don’t follow the law, we break our own food chain.

Before the 49ers invaded the valleys where I live, the valleys were covered with camas bulbs and the rivers ran wild with salmon. South of here, 400 to 600 year old Valley Oak trees grew 500 pounds of acorn a year on a single tree. The settlers immediately set to work destroying an ancient edible landscape.

Diversity is not complete unless there are mature connected ecosystems from land to sea. The landscape we view as normal is actually human-made. It is a shadow of what Earth really looks like.

Visit the old-growth redwoods and kiss the ground. This is what Earth really looks like! Look at the sidecuts of streams; the soil loam is 2 to 10′ deep. Experiencing the Redwoods tends to give us an understanding that the world in which we live is artificial. Civilization has domesticated the world for its growth and greed.

dam-nation-poster_crop
Poster for the film Damnation. Watch the trailer at http://www.damnationfilm.com.

It will take thousands of years to stitch the diversity back together. This is assuming that the required species still exist in our region. If not, it then will take Nature millions of years to evolve new species to replace the ecosystem niches of missing ones. Imagine re-evolving the beaver or the salmon.

Damming rivers is like clogging our own veins. Hydro power is dirty energy. Watch Patagonia’s movies Damnation and Artifishal. Artifishal shows how fish hatcheries and fish farms destroy wild fisheries and must also be removed with the dams.

Why Are We Being Told the Cause is Fossil Fuel Emissions?

My best guess is that to criticize civilization’s domestication of the wild landscape is too much. That would mean all civilized activities such as farming, forestry, fishing, industry and urbanization would have to be reversed. It would effectively mean civilization must end to save the world. That is too big of a pill for the public and policy makers to handle. Telling people to drive a bit less is less drastic.

Large Families Drive All Climate Change Causes

No matter what cause, any family over one child is driving it. Whether we believe deforestation or greenhouse gases are the cause, they are all caused by overpopulation. Reduced carbon emissions today will only be eaten up by population growth.

Nearly 8 billion people cause deforestation, desertification, sea death and carbon emissions. Anything short of drastic reduction of human population over the next 100-200 years is pointless. At the current population level, even conservation saves merely minutes of time.

One-child families will reduce population without calamity to 1 billion in 100 years. Read more about The One-Child Revolution on culturequake.com. One-child families are the only solution to climate change. Period.

One-child families are the only solution to climate change. Period.

Carbon Trading Temporary Stop-Gap At Best

The remaining rainforests are the lungs of the plant. If we lose these lungs, we lose the fight against climate change. We need to find a way for industry to make money by leaving the forests standing. Allowing the financial markets to profit from carbon trading is probably the solution.

“In a world where we are witnessing a mounting clash between food security, energy security and environmental security – while there’s money to be made from food and energy and no income to be derived from the standing forest, it’s obvious that the forest will take the hit.”[13] —Hylton Philipson

If all of the original old-growth forests were still standing and prairies were still as tall as a man on a horse, then there would be no climate change. The problem with civilization is that it makes us want to have our cake and eat it too: consume and grow.

Look up at the sky. That beautiful blue atmosphere is created by plants. We have destroyed almost every intact ecosystem replacing it with immature monocultures that do not work nearly as well as the original climax ecosystem. Nature is now taking away the fruits of her services. The cool air, the clean water, the fertile soil and the fecundity of diversity is leaving us. We broke the planetary air conditioning system.

The cool air, the clean water, the fertile soil and the fecundity of diversity is leaving us. We broke the planetary air conditioning system.

What we can all do: Stop populating and consuming. Get into the wild. Plant native trees. Protect a wild place where you live.[14] Take a permaculture course. Love native trees, prairies and fisheries.

What Happens After Climate Change?

California becomes the Middle East. The bad news is that our children’s children, if they are alive, will live it. Most agricultural land today will not be farmable. Most rainfall will disappear because we removed the forests that create the rain. Our ancestors may damn us.

The Law of Environmental Amnesia: We live too short a time to appreciate the damage we are causing in our lifestyle.

This is the future we are stealing from our children

ken-wu-big-stump-port-renfrew
Ken Wu with large stump, Port Renfrew, BC. Photo: TJ Watt.

There is no replacement for the 2000 year old tree lost in the photo above. The climate benefits of the scrawny 30–40 year old trees in the background are like comparing an elephant to a mouse.

Our society is being run by insane people.

— John Lennon.[Video][15]

To stop the insanity and climate change, we all have to start living regeneratively and restoratively in small families in small tribal communities. Read more in my Solutions articles.

This is what Earth really looks like:

cheewhat-cedar-canadas-largest-tree
Cheewhat cedar are Canada’s largest tree. Photo: TJ Watt.

Chuck Burr is author of Culturequake: The Restoration Revolution.

Editor, Beth Brown.

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[1] Deforestation: Here’s what you need to know about the warming planet, how it’s affecting us, and what’s at stake. National Geographic.

NASA. Global Climate Change. Vital Signs. Global Temperature.

[3] Agricultural land, 27 percent. The World Bank. Forest land, 30 percent, Wikipedia. Of the forests 13 percent is uncut rainforest, Mongabay. 96 percent of the old-growth forest has been logged, wikipedia. Three percent of land is covered by urban areas, Life Science. The earth is covered 70 percent by water, Charts Bin.

[4] Trees and Local Temperature, eXtension, 2016.

[5[ Climate Change: Global Temperature. NOAA, Climate.gov, July 1, 2015.

[6] Deforestation and Its Extreme Effect on Global Warming. Scientific America, 2012.

[7] Deforestation and Global Warming. Scitable, Nature Education, May 19, 2012.

[8] Deforestation causes global warming. FAO, 2006.

[9] Deforestation: The Hidden Cause of Global Warming. Common Dreams, 2007.

[10] Measuring the Role of Deforestation in Global Warming. Union of Concerned Scientists, December 9, 2013.

[11] Tropical Deforestation: Climate Impacts: Rainfall and Temperature. NASA, Earth Observatory, March 30, 2007.

[12] Crater Lake’s annual snowfall consistently decreasing. Statesman Journal, April 18, 2014.

[13] Deforestation: The hidden cause of global warming. Independent, May 14, 2007.

[14] M. Kat Anderson. 2013. Tending the Wild, Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources.

[15] John Lennon. John Lennon Famous Words of Wisdom. [Video]

Top and bottom photo(s): TJ Watt, Conservation Photographer.