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Kim Elliman on natural climate engineering

October 12, 2011 — Last week, the New York Times reported on a bipartisan panel’s recommendations that the U.S. begin researching extreme engineering techniques to cool the Earth’s temperature. Proposing such radical measures as scattering particles in the air to mimic the cooling effect of volcanoes or stationing orbiting mirrors in space to reflect sunlight, the 18-member panel of experts suggested that even if its proposals are never implemented, climate change is upon us and it’s fast becoming time to study such ideas.

In the absence of federal legislation to curb greenhouse gas emissions, the group—comprised of scientists, former government officials and national security experts—makes sense. It’s imperative that we take action now, before climate change causes irreversible damage to the planet.

But while innovative science will no doubt play a role in addressing climate change, we should first employ simpler and less risky methods, such as preserving and restoring forestlands. Land conservation—the simple act of protecting natural, undisturbed land as it is—is an overlooked yet effective tool for removing carbon buildup from the atmosphere.

In addition to their important role in providing clean water and air, our forests store vast amounts of carbon in tree trunks, roots, leaves, dead wood, and fix carbon in surrounding soils. According to our colleagues at The Trust for Public Land, a single mature tree removes 48 pounds of carbon dioxide from the air every year via photosynthesis before releasing enough oxygen back into the atmosphere to support two human beings.

Worldwide, forests provide a reliable carbon sink, one that also promotes water storage and recreation, protects wildlife habitat and reduces the worst impacts of flooding.

Many forests in the U.S. are now recovering from decades of heavy clearing, but the Wilderness Society reports that because of our high rate of emissions, they only capture the equivalent of about one-tenth of the greenhouse gases released by cars, factories and other sources nationwide. Globally, forests capture nearly a quarter of greenhouse emissions.

Conversely, between 100 and 200 tons of carbon dioxide are released for every acre of land we lose to development. And the pace of U.S. development has accelerated in every decade since the 1950s. At our present rate, as many as 44 million acres of forest could be lost over the next 30 years.

The math is simple. The more forests we, the number two emitting nation in the world, preserve, the more greenhouse gas will be removed from the air.

We hope the situation never reaches the point of stationing giant mirrors in space. Forest protection and restoration are far less expensive and do not expose us to the unintended consequences of experimental technology. We should safeguard our forestlands and allocate public funds to ensure they continue to buffer carbon buildup and climate change.

Conservation alone won’t solve the problem, but it should be part of the solution.

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