Laughing at the global environment

BOGOR, Indonesia (12 October, 2011)_The coalition of financially challenged countries with lots of trees, known as CoFCCLoT is asking wealthy nations to share global responsibilities and reforest their land for the common good of stabilizing climate and protecting biodiversity.

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The Same Boat, Different Views. Image courtesy of Fitzgerald.

BOGOR, Indonesia (12 October, 2011)_The coalition of financially challenged countries with lots of trees, known as CoFCCLoT is asking wealthy nations to share global responsibilities and reforest their land for the common good of stabilizing climate and protecting biodiversity.

‘We are willing to play our part, but we require a level playing field in which we all commit to equal sacrifices,’ a coalition spokeswoman says. ‘Returning forest cover in the G8 countries and the European Union back to historic levels will benefit all of us in the long-term.’

This recent press release accompanied a paper published by two of us (Erik and Douglas) in the ATBC’s journal Biotropica. The paper examined the double standards that often dominate discussions on the global environment.  Many people in wealthy countries have quite different ideas about tropical forest conservation and management than the people in whose countries these forests grow.

Sacrifices are expected from poorer countries that those in wealthier countries would be unwilling to make. The underlying double standards and biased viewpoints stand in the way of achieving progress. The Biotropica paper argues that more common ground is needed on deciding what is fair and who should carry the burden of retaining tropical forests.

In fact CoFCCloT does not exist. The Biotropica paper and its spoof CoFCCloT press release is a humorous exposé of the questionable norms that we have all become so used to that we do not question them anymore. The aim was to ridicule and thus expose ethical discrepancies in how we judge responsibilities for international problems.

The satire allows us to laugh at ourselves and thus acknowledge that such double standards exist. Such satire dates back to Jonathan Swift’s (1729) call for the English to eat Irish babies and thus solve two concerns in one go (food shortage in England and excessive population growth among Irish poor).  While no one seriously considered Swift’s suggestions, is CoFCCloT similarly ridiculous?

Let’s look closer at CoFCCLoT’s suggestion for more tree planting outside the tropics.  At first sight they seem to have a point: a hectare of forest in Canada or Congo can both reduce global atmospheric carbon dioxide.  But not all the effects on global climate involve carbon dioxide alone – forests also influence temperature through the amount of solar energy they reflect and absorb (albedo) and a number of other influences on atmospheric processes (e.g. production of aerosols, cloud formation etc.).

It is more than likely that tree planting in the temperate and boreal zones will have a small positive effect on the earth’s climate system.  However, most authorities agree that planting and protecting a hectare of tropical rain forest is not only cheaper than similar goals for a hectare of temperate forests, it will also lead to greater global climate benefits.

This is an important point – we have more to gain by protecting tropical forests in terms of climate and biodiversity than a similar effort in the temperate region.  But sharing the costs of meeting these global responsibilities needs a different kind of discussion in which the benefits and responsibilities are allocated with a clearer focus on equity.

According to a report prepared by the Stockholm Environment Institute, developing countries are collectively doing more for climate change than developed countries and as much as 60% of the emissions reductions by 2020 may come from these countries if current pledges are met by all countries. Just as an example Brazil’s and Indonesia’s deforestation rates have decreased by around two-thirds over the past decade, while China has a massive plantation program.

Ok. So what do we suggest here?  Certainly we need to be alert to double standards in which, for example, Western NGOs lambaste developing economies for focusing rural economic development on cash crops, while remaining firmly attached to the resulting morning cup of coffee served in a paper cup.

We suspect that CoFCCloT language will increasingly infiltrate global discussions on natural resource use. As scientists we need to anticipate this and have our science ready to differentiate good from bad ideas. At the same time, we need to be aware of the bias in our opinions, and how they could stand in the way of progress. Increased objectivity should help prevent further polarization in negotiations about the future of all forests.

We need to listen more to the arguments in China, Indonesia, Congo, and Brazil. How can their motives for economic development by using their natural resources be reconciled with the wish of wealthy countries to retain the wild species and ecosystems of these countries? And what can we do ourselves to ensure that these countries are offered a more level playing field?

Take a look at the original article.  Perhaps you will find it amusing, if so perhaps it’ll also help more reflection and introspection on how we can achieve greater equity in dealing with global problems.

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