Treewashing, and other Friday notes

A useful reminder that good intentions and good outcomes are not always the same thing. Plus, more novel

(I find I’m wavering in my resolve to reserve these Friday posts for subscribers only. So one more week free for everyone. Please subscribe so a) this isn’t an issue and b) you can help with the launch of Third Act, which is where my share of your subscription revenue will go.)

It’s incandescently beautiful in the forests of the mountain East this week—I took the picture above after a ten-minute walk from my Vermont backdoor, and my phone now contains a few hundred more just like it. I fear I’m on occasion a literal tree-hugger, and just last month I wrote at some length about the enormous value of growing elms and oaks and sycamores and the rest along city streets where they can shade people as the heat keeps climbing.

So it pains me a bit to say, massive tree-planting campaigns are under assault as a climate tool, and that the assault seems to have some real merit. In mid-September a team published extensive data in the journal Nature on the results of a big tree-planting campaign in India. “We find that tree plantings have not, on average, increased the proportion of forest canopy cover and have modestly shifted forest composition away from the broadleaf varieties valued by local people,” they wrote. “Further cross-sectional analysis, from a household livelihood survey, shows that tree planting supports little direct use by local people. We conclude that decades of expensive tree planting programmes in this region have not proved effective.” One member of the team, the aptly named Forrest Fleischman of the University of Minnesota, took to Twitter to expand the idea.

“In the last week I've started to receive inquiries from people running tree planting programs wanting my help. I am suggesting that they shut down their programs.”

Given that some of the biggest companies on earth have endorsed tree-planting as a solution to their carbon emissions, and that there are several Silicon Valley startups enabling this work, and that it seems intuitively helpful, Fleischman had to make his point forcefully, and he did:

1. Land use change is already a major source of carbon emissions. The best way to think about forests absorbing new carbon is to think about this as offsetting carbon emissions lost from past forest destruction.

2. Relatedly, there isn't enough space on the planet for natural ecosystems to absorb more than a small share of fossil fuel emissions.

3. Trees planted today will absorb carbon in the future. Your emissions today start heating the planet today.

4. Tree planting projects often fail, so if you plant trees rather than reduce your emissions, you might actually be doing nothing.

In addition, he pointed out, if you’re counting the trees you plant, you’re counting the wrong thing: since the point is to sequester carbon, and since big trees do it best, that’s probably where we should be concentrating. Writing in Vox, Benji Jones offers a good overview of the whole issue, concluding that tree-planting campaigns work best when they’re conducted in accord with the local community.

Meanwhile, it’s at least as important to keep existing forests standing. I was very glad to see Greta Thunberg using her megaphone to highlight an important new article from the Guardian that beats an important drum: it is not a climate solution to cut down trees and burn them to produce electricity. I’ve been trying to make this case since 2016; “biomass” burning is not carbon neutral, no matter what an EU directive or a Congressional mandate might maintaing. We have to stop burning stuff on this planet—coal, oil, gas, and also wood. If the upcoming Glasgow climate conference serves to highlight nothing else, I hope it draws attention to the vast Drax powerplant two hundred miles away in Yorkshire that is systematically converting forests of the American southeast into carbon emissions, at a time when we should be going all out towards wind and sun. There’s a ball of burning flame 90 million miles away—that’s all the combustion we need.

And while we’re in the woods, it’s worth paying attention to new research showing that “commercial thinning” and other practices designed to reduce wildfires in the American west may not be smart policy. Writing in the San Francisco Examiner, a pair of researchers at Lawrence Berkeley national laboratory in California point out that “by harvesting smaller and smaller trees more and more frequently, the department’s practices reduce the number of big trees over time. Big trees have a large thermal mass making them mostly non-combustible, even in the hottest fires, and they are also heavily protected by thick bark and have fewer low branches, making them most equipped to survive wildfire.” Two other researchers, these from the Center for Sustainable Economy, point out that there’s a huge danger that provisions in the various infrastructure bills heading through Congress may exacerbate the problem.

If passed, the Reconciliation and Infrastructure packages are likely to generate an additional 3 to 4 gigatons of CO2 pollution from logging over the next 10-15 years, as carbon now stored in trees would be lost and emitted into the atmosphere through the wood products life cycle and as newly logged areas give off rather than sequester carbon – an effect that can last ten to fifteen years after logging activities conclude.

To end this arboreal discussion, there’s news that firefighters are now wrapping individual sequoias with giant sheets of tinfoil to try and keep them from burning in the infernos now blazing in the California woods. That nearly makes one cry--with sadness for the sight, and with gratitude that at least some humans care enough to try and head it off.

Meanwhile, since its Friday, some more notes from around the climate world.

+ I’ll report in next week from the People v. Fossil Fuels gathering in DC—but if you can get there, please do!

+ New data shows that the earth is dimming—significantly—as climate change kicks in. To quote from the abstract of the original paper in Geophysical Research Letters, “the recent drop in albedo is attributed to a warming of the eastern pacific, which is measured to reduce low-lying cloud cover and, thereby, the albedo.”

+ The divestment campaign rolls on from strength to strength: this week it was the California State University system—at 485,000 students the largest higher education system in the country by far. “Consistent with our values, it is an appropriate time to start to transition away from these types of investments, both to further demonstrate our commitment to a sustainable CSU but also to ensure strong future returns on the funds invested by the university," the system’s chancellor explained.

+ the NGO Majority Action published new data this week that shows the big investment houses—outfits like Blackrock and Vanguard—are not very serious in their loudly-announced climate convictions. in 98 percent of cases they voted to keep the same directors at the helm of the companies driving the destruction: status-quoism is one of the more dangerous isms we face. Meanwhile, a new report shows that greenwashing is no fringe activity: DeSmog Blog found that a full two-thirds of the social media posts put out by big oil companies focused on the tiny percentage of their activity that was environmentally responsible. “This is greenwashing-101, and it’s utterly misleading,” said Geoffrey Supran, research associate in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University, reacting to DeSmog’s findings. “Indeed, it’s the very epitome of greenwashing: act dirty, talk green.”

+ Google searches on the term “climate anxiety” have soared 565 percent in the last year, according to a nifty little piece of reporting from Grist. This sharp increase is “unusual,” said Simon Rogers, Google News Lab’s data editor. “There really seems to be this kind of existential fear.

+ Renewable energy can be a serious economic boon to the communities where it’s housed. NPR reports on the first big windfarm in Kansas, quoting the local mayor. “We hear somebody in a certain part of the state that doesn’t want one,” he said. “And we’re kind of like that doesn’t really make much sense to us.”

A couple more chapters of my attempt at a nonviolent yarn. To catch up on the first 13 chapters of The Other Cheek, visit the archive.

“Are we just being cruel?” said Cass.

“A little,” said MK. “But it’s basically too much fun not to.”

The two of them, and Chandrika Rupesinghe, were dressed as witches—or at least they were wearing black yoga pants and hoodies, and pointed black hats they’d made from cardboard. It was another warm winter day, so they were outside on the lawn by the institute dining hall, teaching yoga poses to young Gloria, whose mother had let her come up for an overnight visit.

“So arch your back a little more,” said Cass. “You’re making a bridge.” Gloria was a natural, though probably, Cass thought, all four year olds were pretty flexible.

Ten feet away a small knot of protesters was watching, aghast. “Are you inducting that poor little girl into your yoga witch coven?” a man with a Bible shouted. “Are you going to sacrifice her?”

“It’s not witches, it’s wicca,” said Chandrike. “This is the season of Imbolc—you can look it up on Wikipedia. Would you like to see us make a pentacle with our bodies?”

“Dear Lord, save these people from their paganism,” the man said, dropping to his knees. “And if not them, then at least the little girl.”

“You mean me?” said Gloria. “I like yogurt.”

A few hundred yards away, Ramon de la Cruz was talking with another tangle of demonstrators, most of them from the Ark. They had a banner: “Yoga=Sin. Bend Only to the Will of the Lord,” it said.

“What a great banner,” he told a stocky man wearing a clerical collar.

“Reverend Archer Pryor, First Wesleyan,” the man said.

“Ramon de la Cruz,” he said. “Actually, I’m . . . I’m with SGI. But I’m so grateful that you’re here. You have no idea of the paganism. I mean, the goat’s blood . . . But maybe I shouldn’t be seen talking to you. Maybe we should go in the woods?”

“Absolutely,” said Reverend Pryor, heading for a small aspen grove by the edge of the entrance drive. “An inside source. A reverse Judas. Providence, young man!”

“So here’s the thing,” said Ramon, when they were behind a tree. “It’s good what you’re doing, holding a banner across the driveway. But you have no idea who you’re dealing with here. These people are violent. They’re crazy. They do . . . acupuncture, and it makes them think they’re invincible.”


“Yes. Chinese acupuncture. Also, they burn incense day and night, and it gets them all worked up. Trust me, if you’re just standing there, peacefully blocking the driveway, they’ll drive you right over with the next busload of witches. Count on it.”

“But we can’t just leave,” said Reverend Pryor.

“No, no—don’t leave,” said Ramon. “I know what you should do. They have a lot of equipment in there—chains, handcuffs. Don’t ask what they use them for. But if we built a line of your cars across the road, and then a line of all of you locked together with chains, and then another line of your cars behind that . . .”

“They’d never be able to get through,” said Reverend Pryor. “We could shut them down before they ruin any more young souls.”

By the time Ramon had borrowed Linny Matthews’ collection of chains and padlocks—she’d demonstrated different techniques for civil disobedience lockdowns the week before—Reverend Pryor’s team of ten had parked two rows of four SUVs perpendicularly across the driveway, and were huddled in a circle in between, praying. Ramon joined them for the Amens, and then collected their car keys (“otherwise they’ll just go through your pockets and be able to drive away your defensive line,” he explained) and began cuffing them to each other, arms outstretched. The prayer warriors at either end of the line had a free cuff dangling from one arm, and he ran the chains through those, threading the chain through the axles of all eight cars and then padlocking the loose ends to each other.

“I’ve got to go before they find out I’m missing,” he said. “But if you could sing loudly, that would annoy them. ‘Onward Christian Soldiers,’ maybe. Trust me, they hate Christians and they hate soldiers.”

“Absolutely,” said Reverend Pryor. “Thank you for your help, brother. They shall hear us even as they cast their spells. The second verse, espe-cially.” And in a deep loud baritone he began to sing:

At the sign of triumph

Satan’s host doth flee;

On, then, Christian soldiers,

On to victory.

Hell’s foundations quiver

At the shout of praise;

Brothers, lift your voices,

Loud your anthems raise.

“That means sisters, too, of course,” he said, looking down the handcuffed line, which was in fact entirely composed of women.

“Reverend, how are we going to eat with our hands like this?” one of them asked.

MK was at the wheel of Maria’s Subaru, and the passenger seat next to her was empty; Cass sat in back, next to Gloria in a car seat, from which came the small contented snore of a four-year-old who had, already that morning, done more yoga, ascended the climbing wall in the gym on belay from Aina, rappelled off the top of the climbing wall under Linny’s watchful eye (twice), and also helped feed breakfast to the chained-together protesters. (She’d followed Chandrike who was spooning oatmeal; Gloria’s job was to wipe off mouths with a napkin).

“Do you think that Maria knows it was Ramon who chained them up?” asked Cass.

“Since she had him coordinate both the breakfast and lunch feedings, I’d say the odds are roughly a hundred percent,” said MK. “What I don’t quite get is why he hasn’t been expelled yet.”

“Oh,” said MK. “Well, because it’s more or less what she wanted to happen.”

“For real?”

“I don’t think she’d imagined the handcuffs. But you remember I told you about visiting the Church of the Ark. Reverend Pryor was there that night; she made up the whole Wiccan yoga thing just to get a rise. It’s all supposed to make us look crazy, not dangerous.”

“It may be working too well then,” said MK. “Priss Clarke, who answers the phones at the office? She said there was now a waiting list 200 names long for the next yoga with trees.”

“Do you think he’s dead,” Cass whispered even more softly.

“Perry Alterson? They say he is, on tv. That is wild stuff he was doing—a shootout? I’m not sure we should have been helping him.”

“We didn’t help much—just the one phone call,” said Cass.

“Still, if you think about it we had no real idea what he was up to. ‘Vermont independence.’ I’m not even sure I could find Vermont on a map,” said MK.

“Did you like him?”

“I thought he was weird. I mean, you know how much I like it when people want to touch my hair. But I kind of wanted to touch his, just to see. I mean, blond dreadlocks? I even tried to talk to him a few times, but it wasn’t easy—he was a little way out there on the spectrum, is what I’d say. He had a thing—soul music. Music by black people. When he knew I was from southern Africa, all he wanted to talk about was Miriam Makeba, Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Hugh Masekela. I mean, I don’t even think my parents are old enough to have listened to Hugh Masekela.”

“I asked him why he was leaving,” said Cass. “He said ‘it’s not easy for me.’ I didn’t know quite what he meant. Because, he was like a computer genius. Professor Lee loved him. But Ick was the only person he really talked to, and Ick doesn’t really talk.”

“Speaking of talking—or, speaking of speaking, did you hear about the girl that got invited to give a lecture? From the EDL. Earth Defense League?”

“Do I know about them?” said MK.

“Probably not,” said Cass. “I didn’t, not until yesterday. These guys started in Europe, and they’re obsessed about the climate crisis, and they do what they call ‘aggressive tactics.’ Like breaking all the windows at oil company offices and such. They managed to really injure a night watch-man in Spain last month when they set a fire.”

“That doesn’t sound like SGI,” said MK.

“No, not at all. Except Lucas—Lucas, from Antwerp?—he’s very into them. And without asking anyone, he invited one of their leaders to speak. So now it’s full-blown crazy—half the campus wants her disinvited, half say its free speech, half want Maria to send Lucas home.”

“That’s three halves,” said MK.

“Believe me, there’s like six halves,” said Cass. “I have like four halves myself. Mostly I wish the little twerp hadn’t invited him, so we could get on with actual work, of which we have plenty.”

“I mean, it’s just a speech. How bad can it be?” said MK.

“I have a feeling that’s we’re going to find out,” said Cass.

They were pulling up outside Gloria’s apartment, and as the engine died she stirred. Her eyes were still closed, but she said, sleepily, “Read me more Aslan.”

“I’ll read you more Aslan when you say please, and when we get inside so your sister can hear too,” said Cass.

“Flora’s too small for Aslan.”

“You’re too small for Aslan too, which is why we’re reading the picture book version,” said Cass, who had freed her from the carseat, and the carseat from the safety belt, and handed both out the door to MK. “And you can point to the pictures, which will be fine for Flora, and you didn’t say please.” “Mom!” said Gloria, for indeed Mariana had appeared at the door of the apartment, with Flora on her hip. “I appled down a wall, and I fed Christians with a spoon.”

The girls bundled into the small apartment, and Gloria immediately began showing her sister downer dog and other poses.

“She was good?” her mother asked, setting out some Chips Ahoy on a plate.

“Very good,” said MK. “She’s a great girl. She looks everyone in the eye.”

“Can she come again next week?” asked Cass. “It’s much better at school when there’s a little person around. It makes it like home.”

“This is the witch.” Gloria had pulled the book from her backpack, and was showing it to her sister. “A real witch, not a yogurt witch. And this is the Beaver family, and this is Mr. Tumnus being turned into a stone, and this is Lucy, and this is Aslan, who’s in charge of everything. He’s not a tame lion, you know. He’s a real lion. And where MK comes from they have real lions too, but they can’t talk, just roar.”