As forest fires rage across the West, forests in the Southeast are being destroyed for wood pellets and burned in power stations in Europe. This year, forests have become a central focus in climate change and green jobs policy proposals in the US. Unfortunately, a failure to fully grasp the scale of climate, health and economic impacts of the forest industry has led to a mishmash of forest-related policy proposals that are leading us in circles when it comes to solving the climate crisis.
Some forest policies being put forward as solutions such as the burning of trees for electricity, replacing steel with wood in buildings, and logging to prevent wildfires are going to make matters worse not better. Others are half-measures, calling for increased protections while sidestepping the need to drastically scale back forest destruction from industrial logging.
Other policy proposals focus on market-based mechanisms like carbon markets that might work for large forest landowners and Wall Street but do little to address economic and health inequities or actually have any real impact on the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere. Last but not least, some propose to invest billions of dollars in an unproven technology to remove carbon from the atmosphere or planting a trillion trees, when simply protecting existing natural forests and allowing them to grow old is much more effective and supports multiple other benefits such as biodiversity, natural flood control, clean air and water, and recreation.
Forests are vital to solving the climate crisis, protecting communities from extreme weather events, and creating healthy, equitable rural economies. If we don’t get forest climate policy right, we might as well throw in the towel in the fight for climate justice.
The US is the world’s largest producer and consumer of wood products, with a rate and scale of forest destruction from logging in the Southeastern US alone estimated at four times that of South American rainforests. Along with forest destruction, large wood product manufacturing facilities release harmful pollution into the air and water, with disproportionate impacts to low income communities and people of color. Equally as important, rural communities where America’s industrial-scale logging is concentrated are getting pummeled by back-to-back extreme flooding events. These same communities consistently show signs of economic distress, with disproportionately high poverty rates, unemployment rates, and other such indicators of socioeconomic distress.
Time and time again, government leaders and other advocates who champion climate solutions in the US are failing on forests and climate in five key areas.
1. Climate champions are ignoring communities of color on the frontlines of industrial logging and pollution
Rural communities across the Southeastern Coastal Plain with some of the nation’s highest poverty rates and percentages of Black populations lie at the epicenter of our nation’s industrial logging and wood production. Over decades this industry has compromised the health and well-being of people of color living across this rural, Southern landscape where evidence of racial injustice and corresponding economic and health inequities are pervasive.
In the past several years, these communities have become the target of a rapidly expanding global market for wood pellets, which are being burned in power stations in Europe under the guise of “green”, “renewable” energy. Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) on the frontlines have been pushing back at every turn from North Carolina to Mississippi.
Community concerns about the health impacts associated with the air pollution have time and time again been ignored as permit after permit is approved.
Concerns about increased flooding and the ongoing clearcutting of forests which provide natural flood protection along the rivers have likewise been ignored. Demands for truly green jobs get met with the same old rhetoric about how “green” and “sustainable” the forest industry is.
Seven new permits for expanding wood pellet mills, which emit toxic pollutants known to cause a variety of deadly health conditions were issued over just the past year and a half. Even more wood pellet mills are projected to be built across the South in the coming years and they are twice as likely to be sited in environmental justice communities.
As the Movement for Black Lives introduces The Breathe Act, now is an opportune time for all climate leaders to take action to stop further pollution and destruction and to advance new public investments in the health and resiliency of these communities. Any forest climate policy or platform that fails to address the racial injustices and inequalities associated with the forest industry are, by their omission, complicit in the harm being done to low income communities of color.
2. Climate champions are ignoring critical forest climate science
Climate leaders are failing to embrace the rapidly evolving scientific warnings about the impacts of industrial logging. A mounting body of science confirms the following:
- The large-scale climate impacts of industrial logging can no longer be ignored.
- Logging is the leading driver of forest carbon loss from US forests, releasing vast amounts of CO2 emissions that are not being counted or reported.
- Letting forests grow old to their ecological potential is the quickest, most effective way to remove carbon from the atmosphere and build natural climate resiliency.
- Burning trees for electricity releases up to 50% more carbon than coal and will make climate change worse.
- Logging is making the forest fire problem in the West worse not better.
This year, 200 scientists from across the country signed an open letter to Congress laying out the science and urging them to “oppose legislative proposals that promote logging and wood consumption, ostensibly as a natural climate change solution.”
3. Climate champions are falling for forest industry greenwashing and gaslighting
At a time when we need to be doing whatever it takes to turn the tide on climate change, well-resourced forest industry lobbyists, allies, and spin masters are creating confusion and deflecting responsibility in an effort to perpetuate the status quo.
Lots of well-intended people working on climate change have fallen hard for industry greenwashing. A few dominant myths that have taken hold include:
- “We need forest markets to keep forests in forests.” This is a clever way of saying “we must log forests to save forests”, and it’s simply not true. We can protect forests from logging and still have forests. Seriously.
- “The most important thing is to keep forests as forests”, which is nothing more than a sneaky way of deflecting responsibility to urban sprawl and agriculture as the only culprits impacting US forests. This is also not true.
- “Forests are renewable; we have more forests today than 50 years ago.” The US has destroyed virtually all of its original, old-growth intact forests and replaced them with young degraded natural forests and industrial tree plantations, which are not forests. Tens of millions of acres of diverse, natural forests have been converted to industrial tree plantations. Industry has not “renewed” forest ecosystems; instead, it has renewed trees for commercial extraction. There is a big difference. Once cleared, a forest needs up to a century to rebound but the current rate and scale of logging prevent forest ecosystems from fully recovering before they are logged again.
- Wood is a “natural” climate-friendly alternative to fossil fuels, plastics, and steel. This myth perpetuates growth in the wood products industry and is a sure path to ongoing forest destruction and climate chaos. It’s a complete distraction from the mounting scientific evidence that letting existing natural forests grow old is essential to avoiding climate chaos.
- “We NEED wood products.” While we may, in fact, need some wood products, society wouldn’t collapse if we stopped pumping out the vast majority of wood products currently being produced and discarded as trash. In fact, wood products make up the lion’s share of our nation’s waste stream. We don’t need more trash, more stuff, or bigger houses, but we do need a healthy, safe, livable planet.
4. Climate champions focus on solutions that work for Wall Street to the exclusion of rural communities
Too often climate leaders out of touch with the needs of frontline communities focus on economic solutions that work for large landowners, corporate polluters, and Wall Street to the exclusion of solutions that will actually make local economies more equitable, diverse, and resilient. Forest carbon markets are a clear example of a “solution” that works for large investors and landowners, to the detriment of actually solving the climate crisis or building equitable, resilient, local economies that work for historically marginalized communities.
Meanwhile, outdoor recreation, which generates seven times more jobs than the forest industry, can help make communities healthier and climate resilient while creating a more diverse, locally-centered economy. New investments to equitably expand public lands and community-owned forests combined with economic development grants and job training focused on locally-owned nature-based businesses are a much better economic and climate solution that carbon markets.
5. Climate champions are not holding the forest industry accountable
Forest policy proposals today are failing to hold the forest industry accountable for its climate, health, and community impacts. If we are going to solve the climate crisis, leaders must be willing to stand up to the forest industry in addition to the fossil fuel industry.
As forests become more prominent in climate policy proposals, climate leaders must distinguish between what’s truly green and what’s greenwashing. It is vital that leaders working to advance forest climate policy differentiate between forest policies that actually ensure that Black Lives Matter versus those that perpetuate the current structures of power, influence, and wealth.
As voters hit the polls this November with climate change on their list of priorities, it’s vital that climate champions get on the right side of the people, the science, and the forests.