Twelve years — That’s all the time we have left before global temperatures will rise by 1.5 Celsius 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.
Much of the media coverage placed this new and dire report within a well-worn apocalyptic narrative about climate change: Drowning coastal cities, species extinction, widespread hunger, irreversible calamity.
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 to do but despair and wait.
It’s also wrong. We can take immediate steps to drastically reduce levels of carbon in the atmosphere, 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.
The simplest, most effective, least expensive, and risk-free solution to global warming is to protect and expand forests. Not immensely ambitious carbon capture and storage technologies which have yet to prove themselves effective, but simple photosynthesis.
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 forest 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.
A decade ago Borneo was experiencing one of the fastest rates of deforestation the world had ever known, and Gunung Palung National Park 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 pay for health care.
In 2007 our organization, Health In Harmony, spent over 400 hours listening to people in 40 villages bordering Gunung Palung National Park to understand the critical connection between the health of their communities and the health of the surrounding forests.
That led to better access to affordable health services for people in the region and training in sustainable agriculture. 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 habitat for 2,500 endangered Bornean Orangutans has been protected.
Better health care has played a crucial role in achieving 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. By linking human health and ecosystem health, rather than treating them as issues that exist in separate silos, these efforts 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 lost in a business-as-usual scenario was over 79 million tons. This is equivalent to 14 years of carbon emissions from San Francisco.
Will reduced logging in Indonesia prevent temperatures rising by 1.5 Celsius within a dozen years? Not on its own, but reversing deforestation globally would get us one-third of the way to that goal. Every acre of forest we can protect, every new acre we can create, means the elimination of more and more of the atmospheric carbon dioxide 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. 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 peoples protect the lungs of the earth.
Jonathan Jennings is the executive director of Health In Harmony, an international non-profit that is improving human and environmental health with intertwined solutions.
Dr Kinari Webb is the founder of Health In Harmony.