By Scott Steen

Misty forest
America’s forests and forest products absorb and store an estimated 14 percent of the carbon we emit every year. Credit: Adam Roades.

GIVEN HOW POLITICALLY charged the concept of climate change is, I am occasionally asked why American Forests needs to talk about it. Questions include: “Can’t you just focus on things like clean air, water and wildlife habitat?” “Isn’t there still debate about the science of climate change?” “In any event, what does this have to do with America’s forests?”

First, climate change is settled science. While the issue of anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change is still the subject of considerable political debate, it is no longer a subject of any real argument within the scientific community. Indeed, there has been an overwhelming consensus among scientists and the leading scientific organizations for years.

While some would like to promote the idea that there should be 100 percent agreement among all scientists in the world and 100 percent certainty on all areas of climate science before we can take action, nothing in science works that way. Science is about probability, not certainty.

Well, the global scientific community is as close to certain as we will ever get about a few things. Specifically, Earth’s climate is changing rapidly, and these changes are caused in significant part by human actions. Scientists are near unanimous on one other point: Catastrophic results are likely to occur without significant human intervention.

City Trees
Urban trees save energy and reduce carbon emissions by lowering the energy needed to cool and heat our homes. Credit: Charles Houder.

In our country alone, all of the principal U.S. organizations governing the main branches of science have released comparable statements, some as far back as the 1990s. These include the American Geophysical Union (earth scientists), the American Institute of Biological Sciences, the American Meteorological Society, the American Chemical Society, the American Institute of Physics and the American Physical Society.

Second, climate change is killing our forests. And how can an organization whose mission is to advance the conservation of forests not take a position on the greatest threat they face?

I have witnessed the effects of climate change on our nation’s forests firsthand. Just four months after I started at American Forests, I toured a forest that was turned into a vast, blackened landscape by what was then ranked (but no longer) as California’s most destructive wildfire.

But, this is not just a California problem. I have been to many forests consumed by mega-fires since then. Year after blistering-hot-year of “the warmest year on record” has led to perpetual drought conditions in the West, fueling a series of unprecedented wildfire seasons. (The three warmest years on record are 2016, 2015 and 2014 — in that order — with 2017 almost certain to join the list once the final numbers are recorded.)

Fires are just the beginning of climate-elevated stresses on our forests — the rising tide of pests and disease is just as troubling. From Colorado to Canada, vast amounts of forestland have been decimated by mountain pine beetles, an insect that is natural to these landscapes, but whose numbers have been supercharged by warmer winters that are no longer capable of controlling their population. And, the hemlock woolly adelgid now threatens eastern forests as far north as Maine as warming temperatures aid its spread.

An increase in major weather events has also wreaked havoc on both forests and urban tree canopies, from Texas to New England.

American Forests is increasingly focused on climate change not only because of the problems it presents for our forests and community trees, but also because we believe forests and trees can be a major part of the solution. Currently, America’s forests and forest products absorb and store an estimated 14 percent of the carbon we emit every year. That’s a huge number, and it can get even bigger.

Urban trees also save energy and reduce carbon emissions by lowering the energy needed to cool and heat our homes. Those same trees also help control polluted stormwater runoff and help mitigate other impacts of climate change in cities.

Since our founding in 1875, American Forests has been an aggressively nonpartisan organization, advocating for policy and action based on sound science. Our board members span the political spectrum. We routinely work with members of both parties, and we welcome all into our ranks.

That is why we are stepping into climate change action as a collaborator, not merely a doomsayer. As part of this effort, American Forests has moved into a leadership role with the Forest-Climate Working Group. This premier national coalition engages all parts of the forest community, from private forest owners and forest products companies to scientists, academics, government agencies and conservation groups. With these partners, we are developing new strategies and innovations to help our forests capture carbon and withstand an onslaught of new threats.

There is no doubt that climate change is the most pressing environmental issue of our time, but using trees to capture carbon dioxide offers many other societal wins as well. And, ensuring these wins is not only critical for our mission, but essential for the planet.