Tasking trees with averting the climate crisis is a big ask

Trees can often appear as little more than verdant wallpaper, a fuzzy green background for humans’ comings and goings. But governments and nonprofit organizations worldwide are now talking up trees as potential saviors in slowing climate change.

If only it were that simple. As our reporters explain in this special issue on trees and climate change, simply saying “add a trillion more trees!” fails to address the complexities of biology, ecosystems and human behavior.

At Science News, we’ve been thinking about trees and the roles they play on our planet for quite a while. This package of stories is the result of months of work by many writers, editors and designers identifying the big issues at stake and researching the state of the science. We wanted to find out whether this burst of enthusiasm for planting trees would end up being yet another climate quick-fix gimmick, or a lasting solution.

Earth and climate writer Carolyn Gramling dove into the question of whether trees can save us from impending climate catastrophe. She found that many massive tree-planting efforts have failed due to lack of long-term support to keep trees alive, or because organizers failed to get buy-in from the people who live near the newly planted expanses. “It’s not just a science issue,” Gramling told me. “It’s socioeconomic as well.”

In many parts of the world, tree planting is code for tree plantations. But establishing large swaths of trees with the intention of cutting them down years later doesn’t necessarily trap carbon emissions in a sustainable way. Staff writer Jonathan Lambert examined how forestry and agriculture intersect. “It’s a big topic,” Lambert said. “To get my bearings I tried to talk with as many experts as I could about agroforestry.” He learned that it’s all about what works in a particular place and decided the best approach for the story was to zoom in on specific examples. Although he remembers the endless sameness of the fields of corn and soybeans he saw growing up in the U.S. Midwest, his interviews with people in Kenya, Costa Rica, Tanzania and upstate New York revealed how varied agricultural landscapes can look when trees become part of farms, and he learned how much extra carbon they could store.

Life sciences writer Susan Milius asked what would happen if we focused less on adding more trees, and more on appreciating the ones we already have. Though she’s been a plant partisan since childhood, she tended to appreciate vegetation more at the microscale. She remembers being startled when a hiking companion embraced a ponderosa pine tree and leaned his nose into the bark, snuffling up its rich vanilla smell. “I began to worry that I was a little tree deaf,” Milius told me. Her reporting uncovered people who not only hear what trees have to say, but can enumerate essential roles of wooded areas as homes for other plants and animals, including humans. Old, big trees are best at trapping climate-altering carbon dioxide, but they also speak to many people’s souls. Even spending time with the tree in your front yard can offer what Milius describes as the emotional power of communing with nature.

Nancy Shute is editor in chief of Science News Media Group. Previously, she was an editor at NPR and US News & World Report, and a contributor to National Geographic and Scientific American. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers.