BiodiversityDeforestationDesertificationGlobal Warming/Climate ChangeSoil Erosion & ContaminationWater Contaminaton & Loss

An Embarrassment for Both Yale University and the New York Times: “To Save the Planet, Don’t Plant Trees”

Dr. Nadine Unger, an assistant professor of atmospheric chemistry at Yale, had an op-ed published in the Opinion Pages of the September 19, 2014 edition of the New York Times. Both the title of her piece and its analysis of the article’s focus — climate change — have drawn quite a response, as one would imagine.

I don’t have much to add other than asking for those interested to review what she wrote along with the responses detailing how and why what she has concluded is exactly wrong:

This colossal gaff demonstrated and confirmed for me why the thinking behind permaculture design — and how it functions as a connecting science — is so sorely needed. The kind of sophistical ‘scientific’ arguments put forth by people who are supposed to be experts, and whose message is unfortunately too often accepted by many laypersons without questioning, is precisely how the world we live in presently came to be. Information is dangerous if you don’t know how to properly act upon it or contextualize it, and those convinced that they have a thorough understanding without doing so (see the Dunning-Kruger Effect), actually end up operating as agents of destruction.

Those of us who know better must actively counter this kind of misinformation. Correcting the error requires engagement on our part. This also demonstrates the weakness of basing arguments for acting to reverse climate change mainly on the basis of greenhouse gas emissions — it’s very easy to distort or dissemble this information due to its relatively abstract nature.

A recent study performed by researchers from Stanford University has brought this problem to light, refering to the unprecedented drought conditions prevailing in California as an example:

Scientists from Stanford have found that the meteorological conditions that have caused the California drought are far more likely to occur in today’s warming world than in one without human-caused emissions of greenhouse gases.

It shows us – ironically and tragically – that the state that leads the nation in curbing greenhouse gas emissions is right now suffering more than any other from climate change. — Environmental Defense Fund

In other words, more needs to be done than solely putting our focus on the “supply side” of greenhouse gas emissions by fixating only on the sources of those emissions — which are primarily produced from human-made industrial technologies driven by a consumer-based culture and economy. Charles Eisenstein wrote a great piece detailing the many problems associated with this approach.

Why haven’t we seen more attention paid to how land degradation influences climate change? (PDF) That’s far easier and more obvious to demonstrate and prove as being the main driver of this phenomenon – and it’s something we know can be effectively and successfully remedied, providing the highest Return on Investment and Benefit-to-Cost Ratios (PDF) of any of the other technologically-oriented, product-based strategies. Naomi Klein makes this very point in a number of recent articles she’s authored ahead of her most recent book’s release:

The idea that only capitalism can save the world from a crisis it created is no longer an abstract theory; it’s a hypothesis that has been tested in the real world. We can now take a hard look at the results: at the green products shunted to the back of the supermarket shelves at the first signs of recession; at the venture capitalists who were meant to bankroll a parade of innovation but have come up far short; at the fraud-infested, boom-and-bust carbon market that has failed to cut emissions. And, most of all, at the billionaires who were going to invent a new form of enlightened capitalism but decided, on second thoughts, that the old one was just too profitable to surrender. — Naomi Klein: the hypocrisy behind the big business climate change battle

In other words, artifice is tragically determining the direction the climate change agenda is taking at the moment.

Here’s what can be said unequivocally of what we face with land degradation – then the appropriate conclusions can be drawn given the following:

  • Less photosynthesis (or fewer things that photosynthesize), then less oxygen, more carbon in the atmosphere accompanied by a massive interruption of the water-carbon-nitrogen (i.e. – the biogeochemical) cycles
  • loss of the 2nd and 3rd largest carbon sinks on the Earth – terrestrial plants and soil – resulting in increased concentration of carbon absorbed by the oceans (the Earth’s largest carbon sink), making it acidic and hostile to life.

The dots need to be connected so our actions are properly guided — but it won’t happen magically. Engagement is the key.

Further Reading:

Rhamis Kent

Rhamis Kent is a consultant with formal training in mechanical engineering (University of Delaware, B.S.M.E. '95) and permaculture-based regenerative whole systems design. He has previously worked for the renowned American inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen at DEKA Research & Development, with subsequent engineering work ranging from medical device research and development to aerospace oriented mechanical design. After taking an interest in the design science of Permaculture, he sought extended training with permaculture expert and educator Geoff Lawton at the Permaculture Research Institute of Australia. This led to his involvement with design work connected to the development of Masdar City in UAE after Mr. Lawton and his consulting company (Permaculture Sustainable Consultancy Pty. Ltd.) were contracted by AECOM/EDAW to identify solutions which fit the challenging zero emissions/carbon neutral design constraint of the project.


  1. Thanks for this! When that article came out it was immediately forwarded to me by a client asking for a Permaculture response. The point is that trees are multifunctional, with many more relationships to climate then just the reductionist analysis of the quantity of carbon present. Thanks for bringing it together. I’ll send it out to any more skeptics ;-)

  2. Biogenic-VOCs, given the new research on aerosol formation, are an environmental plus. My rebuttle to Unger & Ken Caldera I post bellow;

    My two cents for the trees;
    Dr. Unger “In reality,” is just as guilty about complexity as she accuses others of being.
    “the cycling of carbon, energy and water between the land and the atmosphere is much more complex.”
    Quite so!, has her group at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, considered the paleoclimate data for afforestation?

    Anthropogenic activities led to the stabilization of atmospheric CO2 concentrations at a level that made the world substantially warmer than it otherwise would be.
    The Kayopo Indian people with their Terra Preta soils were no carbon Saints, lake sediments show us a 5 Gt Carbon draw down with their demise. Genghis Khan’s Empire also very “green” with a 700,000,000 ton draw down. Now disrupting agriculture by rape and pillage may not be a politically correct form of afforestation, but it works.

    Dr. Jim Hansen’s 100 gigatons of Afforestation will work, as trees have worked time and time again.
    The Black Death increased afforestation in Europe by one third, the mass death of farmers is bench marked across the Paleoclimatic climate records. The Columbian exchange, that Grand reunification of life, was not quite so deliberate, in fact quite unintentional, however the chips of life fell where they may, Losers and winners abound.

    Hansen’s Afforestation accounting for CO2 soil & forest sequestration is understated. Not giving full account for new understandings of the ecological services rendered in light of what we are learning about the Pleistocene and the Aerosol chemistry elephant in the room, way understated.

    Physicist tend to focus on the carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen contents of the organic materials. Pöhlker et al were surprised finding very high soil fungal potassium levels, up to 20 percent, in the 77 Amazonian carbonaceous aerosol samples, in the form of salts, in all but three of them. The samples were on the scale of mere millionths or billionths of a meter. The smaller the aerosol, the greater the proportion of potassium – those collected early in the morning were the smallest and richest in potassium. Larger particles contained more organic material but not more potassium. These facts suggest that potassium salts generated during the night acted as seeds for gas-phase products to condense onto, forming aerosols of different kinds. [1]

    NPP increases CO2 draw-down, sugar exudates pumped deep into soils, if we manage biomass carbon in more recalcitrant compost/humus, and really recalcitrant pyrolitic C, biochar, we moderate the Keeling CO2 curve,. More CO2 inspired, less respired from the breathing biosphere.

    The late Pleistocene to Holocene boundary shows a prestigious pedogenesis, the loess–paleosol sequences of the central and northern Great Plains record a broad peak of high effective moisture, a pedogenesis we can emulate with the bio-remediation techniques we advocate on these lists as the only economic way to reverse climate change..

    The new research concerning the ecologically limiting effects of Phosphorous caused by the loss of the Mega-Fanua means we have never seen the true vigor that forest & grass lands could have. That what we now see as “pristine” systems are but a shadow of their primary production potential. The Pleistocene megafauna extinctions resulted in large and ongoing disruptions to terrestrial biogeochemical cycling at continental scales, switching off this natural nutrient pump by a massive 98%. The megafauna diffused sodium inland and also reduced concentrations in plants near the coast. [2]
    (There is a whole parallel literature developing in the marine literature, with deep diving megafauna playing a key role in nutrient dispersal in the oceans).

    “The science says that spending precious dollars for climate change mitigation on forestry is high-risk:”
    I disagree, and Spending on atmospheric & Biospheric research is imperative.

    “We don’t know that it would cool the planet,”,
    I say historically we do.

    “and we have good reason to fear it might have precisely the opposite effect.”
    We must scrutinize these “reasons” in the light of new biospheric & hydrological cycling data.

    Holocene carbon emissions as a result of anthropogenic land cover change

    The Columbian Encounter and the Little Ice Age: Abrupt Land Use Change, Fire, and Greenhouse Forcing

    Salt Seeds Clouds in the Amazon Rainforest

    How salt in the rainforest becomes clouds

    The legacy of the Pleistocene megafauna extinctions on nutrient availability in Amazonia

    Are Nutrient Limitations a Consquence of the Pleistocene Megafauna Extinctions?

    The Trees that Miss the Mammoths

  3. Viktor Schauberger’s brilliant work showed us what he saw for the future if we carried on with our destructive ways! Callum Coats carried on his research and I am amazed we haven’t adopted his ideas yet after all the evidence that his theory was correct.

  4. Its quite scary how scientists, or anyone for that matter can put together a convincing article which is so removed from the truth. I think this article epitomises the dangers of taking a reductionist approach to complex systems. Science has used the reductionist approach and has had a lot of success with it but it is critical that all that data used in a complex systems approach if we are to have any positive impact on climate change.

  5. It is time that humans learn that they are part of nature and not try to separate themselves from it.
    We were not on this earth first.

  6. Hi Ramis,
    the final result of Mrs. Unger article would be to cut down all trees in the world for really saving the planet. I think that’s a weird idea.

    Three weeks ago i searched by chance for articles linking forests to the water cycle and discovered this very interesting piece:

    Revolutionary new theory overturns modern meteorology with claim that forests move rain
    Jeremy Hance, April 01, 2009
    Two Russian scientists, Victor Gorshkov and Anastassia Makarieva of the St. Petersburg Nuclear Physics, have published a revolutionary theory that turns modern meteorology on its head, positing that forests—and their capacity for condensation—are actually the main driver of winds rather than temperature.

    For a specific example Makarieva and Gorshkov point to prehistoric Australia. They believe the pump “explains the enigmatic conversion of Australian forests to deserts that roughly coincides in timing with the appearance of the first people.”

    According to Makarieva and Gorshkov, when these early peoples burned small bands of forests along the coast where they first inhabited, “the internal inland forests were cut off from the ocean (the tube of the pump cut off) and underwent rapid desertification.”

    The only correction which has to be done in this theory is that not condensation is the main driver for the ‘pumping’ of the clouds but the mere physical property of humid air. It’s lighter than dry air so it’s get lifted. The direction of the winds depends from different things (the position of the lowest air pressure = area with the greatest intensity of lift(?), mountains, prevailing winds etc.).

    Here’s another article, published quite recently, about the role of forests for the water cycle (here for the rain patterns in South America):

    Drought Takes Hold as Amazon’s ‘Flying Rivers’ Dry Up
    Published: September 28th, 2014, By Jan Rocha, Climate News Network
    SÃO PAULO − The unprecedented drought now affecting São Paulo, South America’s giant metropolis, is believed to be caused by the absence of the “flying rivers” − the vapor clouds from the Amazon that normally bring rain to the center and south of Brazil.

    As long ago as 2009, Antonio Nobre, one of Brazil’s leading climate scientists, warned that, without the “flying rivers,” the area that produces 70 percent of South America’s GNP would be desert.

    The Amazon is a gigantic hydrological pump that brings the humidity of the Atlantic Ocean into the continent and guarantees the irrigation of the region.”

  7. In the hierarchy that is reductionist science (see, it’s wise to ignore chemists, physicists and mathematicians, or at least take their views with a grain of soil. They’re so far removed from the life sciences that they don’t understand the perils of messing around with Mother Nature. I go with the biologists and ecologists (and field scientists who aren’t relying on models) every time.

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  11. …if you follow the links referred to in the piece (hyperlinked/highlighted), you’ll get all the facts you want. That’s why there.

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