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Cutting forests for solar energy ‘misses the plot’ on climate action (commentary)

  • In many places, solar power projects are being sited on natural forestlands, even in America’s greenest state, Vermont. This ignores the fact that natural forests are key climate solutions, and also studies which indicate solar projects are best sited in abandoned industrial site, above parking lots, and on warehouse roofs.
  • In the latest example, an industrial solar project is proposed to replace a tract of forest in Shaftsbury, in the southwestern corner of the Green Mountain State, despite community opposition.
  • “Because climate change has been framed as an energy problem that can be solved with solar panels, well-meaning legislators have crafted incentives that [are] exploited by out-of-state investment firms like the one holding an axe over our trees,” a new op-ed explains.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

I once had a sweet, brown pit bull mix named Thembi, who had impressive musculature and a magnificent nose. Often on our walks, I would feel the leash go taut and know she’d sniffed out something tantalizing, likely a squirrel or a rabbit. She would snuffle excitedly, muzzle to the ground, tracing her quarry’s skittish path, up and down and around a patch of dirt road. I remember once seeing a rabbit scurry away mere inches from Thembi’s face. The clever dog had completely missed the animal she was tracking because she was so intent on its scent.

I share this story because I fear this is what we’re doing with climate: we’re so tethered to the changes in carbon that we’re overlooking key aspects of climate stabilization—the extent to which ecosystems regulate climate, and the imperative to preserve and restore them. In doing so, we’re not only missing opportunities to minimize climate disruption. We’re also missing the plot.

As our planet has evolved over billions of years, the chief means of regulating temperature is via the water cycle. Phase transitions of water—from solid to liquid to gas, and back—represent a tremendous transfer of heat. As plants transpire, the moisture moves up through the roots to be emitted as vapor. This is a cooling mechanism, a means of dissipating solar heat. You can think of it as plants “harvesting” solar energy and releasing it as latent heat, embodied in water vapor. The reverse process—its meteorological mirror—is condensation, whereby water vapor turns to liquid and heat is released. Where the heat is released, whether high in the atmosphere and sent out to space or lower down where it interacts with greenhouse gases, is governed by ecosystem processes like the heat-pumping capacity of healthy forest.

Forest in Massachusetts near southwestern VT where a solar farm has also been proposed.Photographs by Craig LeMoult and illustration by Emily Judem for WGBH News.
Forest in Massachusetts near southwestern VT where a solar farm has also been proposed. />Photographs by Craig LeMoult and illustration by Emily Judem for WGBH News.

The point is: our Earth has developed an exquisitely fine-tuned system for regulating temperature and moisture that is driven by the life that dwells here, the flora, fauna and fungi, and the interactions among them. At this time, what many term the Anthropocene, we often think of nature as passive, a backdrop to the world humans create. But as eco-philosopher Peter Donovan of the Soil Carbon Coalition says, “Nature doesn’t just sit there and look pretty. It does work.” Much of the work of nature is to create and maintain the conditions for nature—for life—to thrive.

I recently participated in a conference on Enhancing Nature’s Complexity for Climate Stability at the Technical University of Munich. One focus was new science on how natural forests influence the movement of moisture, and therefore heat, around the globe. Think forest as “verb” rather than “noun.” One of the organizers, theoretical physicist Anastassia Makarieva of the Petersburg Nuclear Physics Institute, said, “The biosphere is divided between natural ecosystems that work for stability and disturbed ecosystems that cannot do that work.”

In other words, our climate can only be as salutary as the state of our ecosystems. This does not mean that CO2 concentrations are irrelevant. Rather, carbon in the atmosphere can be seen as a lever, part of an overall climate-regulation system. The other primary lever, or variable, is clouds, which may either trap or reflect heat. Ecological processes mobilized by biota—by life—to a large extent determine cloud patterns and thus directly affect cooling and warming.

The good news is nature’s tendency is to self-heal and that even extensive damaged ecosystems can be restored—something I’ve seen time and again over fifteen years of environmental reporting. The trouble is that the vitality of ecosystems is not considered in discussions of climate. We’re too busy watching CO2 concentrations, riding the jagged upward-sloping line of the Keeling Curve, just as Thembi had her snout to the ground while the rabbit skittered away.

Unfortunately, our land- and seascapes are under continual threat from industry, development, and, ironically, the implementation of renewable energy. The latter is something I’m dealing with in real time, as an 80-plus acre industrial solar project in nearby Shaftsbury, Vermont is poised to go through despite community opposition.

See related: Discovery of wind farm project in Philippine reserve prompts alarm

Tropical forest in Panama. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.
A tropical forest in Panama demonstrating how natural forests influence the movement of atmospheric moisture and heat. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

Somehow, we’re expected to believe that clear-cutting acres of intact forest for solar panels is a good thing, climate-wise. All over New England, hillsides and abandoned farms are being stripped for solar. Because climate change has been framed as an energy problem that can be solved with solar panels, well-meaning legislators have crafted incentives that, alas, are best exploited by out-of-state investment firms like the one holding an axe over our trees.

That loss of forest means vulnerability to windstorms and flooding (note: we’ve had two 500-year floods in the last 25 years) and loss of habitat for pollinators and wildlife seems beside the point, when criteria begin and end with carbon. It puts me in mind of something Makarieva said in Munich: “We all love biodiversity…when it doesn’t get in the way of de-carbonization.”

One pivotal factor in warming is climate sensitivity: the amount of warming experienced per rise in CO2. While models vary greatly on this, we know healthy ecosystems provide a buffer for warming and therefore mean lower climate sensitivity—less warming per CO2 rise. Two simple tools reveal how natural systems cool our environs: how nature is working and not just out there looking pretty.

Czech botanist Jan Pokorny, co-author of Water for the Recovery of the Climate, uses a thermal camera to point this out in the landscape. On a summer day, he finds the surface of a tree is cooler than a house’s roof by more than 30 degrees C. In his film Regenerating Life John Feldman uses an infrared thermometer to measure bare soil (133 degrees F) and grass (88 F), a 45 F difference (25 C difference). The heat from the roof in Czechia and uncovered soil in the Hudson Valley will re-radiate, adding to the heat held by greenhouse gases. These instruments show us where we can dial down the heat, invariably by allying with nature.

When nature is depleted, there’s “more warming with the same amount of CO2,” says Makarieva. “It’s more difficult for CO2 to warm the planet in the presence of healthy ecosystems such as natural forests. The price of losing a hectare of primary ecosystem is already getting higher.”

To truly grapple with climate change, we must preserve our natural landscapes and regenerate where we can. Otherwise, we’re acting like my dog, chasing phantom rabbits.


Judith D. Schwartz is an author who writes for numerous publications, including The American Prospect, The Guardian, Discover, Scientific American, and YaleE360. Her latest book, “The Reindeer Chronicles” is a global tour of earth repair, featuring stops in Norway, Spain, Hawai’i, New Mexico, and beyond.

Hear this author discuss the global ecological restoration movement on Mongabay’s podcast, listen here:

Related interview of Anastassia Makarieva and Carlos Nobre discussing how forests regulate and moderate the climate:

Forest modeling misses the water for the carbon: Q&A with Antonio Nobre & Anastassia Makarieva

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