This is a guest post from David Childs with the Boreal Songbird Initiative.
Global warming has proven to be a difficult issue to grasp. New findings about the way increasing temperatures affect our lives and environment seem to be coming out on a near daily basis. Just in the past few weeks new information linking global warming with increased tree death rates in the Western United States and Canada has come out, raising many alarms about the health and safety of our forests.
While solutions to this worsening crisis continue to be debated, Andrew Weaver, a lead scientist for the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), points out one minimally disputed way to mitigate climate change: protect Canada’s Boreal forest. While many Americans pay little attention to our northern neighbor, Canadian forests play an integral role in the fight against climate change. Here is his op-ed, which was printed in the Ottawa Citizen and the Victoria Times Colonist:
Living in times of unprecedented climate change has given way to new uncertainties. Every day, new evidence points to fundamental changes in our natural world. Most recently, there is more news that warming temperatures are killing our forests (see “Environment Blamed in Western Tree Deaths,” New York Times, 1/22/09).
It’s tempting to respond with radical new approaches to forestry beyond our base of knowledge. But a conservative, responsible outlook demands we take a deliberate accounting of what we know and what we can control. And that scientific accounting points decisively toward the most effective option within our control — increased boreal forest conservation.
Global warming is likely to increase the rate of fires and insect damage in Canada’s forests. This will increase the amount of carbon released due to natural events that are beyond our immediate control.
But apart from fire and insects, there are measures that we can readily control. We can reduce forest-related carbon emissions by reducing industrial disturbance in our forests.
Canada’s boreal forest plays a unique role in the global carbon equation. Stretching across our north, our boreal forest stores more carbon per hectare than any other ecosystem on earth making it the world’s largest terrestrial carbon storehouse.
The more we disturb our boreal forest with increased industrial activity, the more stored carbon is released. To mitigate global warming we should be finding ways to decrease carbon released from industrial disturbance, not increase them as some are suggesting.
In a future affected by global warming, our boreal forests have other important roles to play in addition to storing carbon.
Forest birds and wildlife will need to shift their distributions northward in order to survive. This necessary migration will be eased by leaving large northern forest ecosystems intact. Limiting disturbance will help maintain the resiliency of our forests to adapt to global warming.
Last year, I was one of the 1,500 scientists from around the globe who urged Canada’s governments to do as much as possible to protect Canada’s vast boreal forest. I continue to advise the International Boreal Conservation Campaign, a scientifically driven project of the Pew Charitable Trusts that recommends protection for at least half of Canada’s boreal forest.
Scientists worldwide recognize that Canada’s boreal forest is one of largest, most intact old-growth forests left on Earth. Rivaling the Amazon rainforest in size and ecological value, the boreal forest provides globally important, irreplaceable ecosystem services. These include tremendous carbon sequestration and storage capacity, vast reserves of fresh water, the world’s most extensive wetlands, and habitat for enormous, healthy populations of wildlife, including migratory waterfowl, songbirds and caribou.
There has been much recent progress in parts of Canada to increase protections of the boreal region with commitments to protect tens of millions of acres from industrial disturbance. For example, the government of Ontario recently promised to permanently protect 55 million acres of boreal forest, one of the biggest land protection commitments in history. This commitment was largely motivated by the opportunity to protect the forest’s enormous stores of carbon.
As we learn more about global warming, we continue to recognize that decreasing industrial emissions of carbon is always the No. 1 priority. In Canada, we have the additional opportunity and responsibility to be effective carbon stewards by maintaining large areas of our boreal forest off-limits to industrial disturbance.
Protecting our large carbon stocks and other values in our boreal forest is a crucial tool in our fight against the negative impacts of global warming that is readily within our reach.
Andrew Weaver is a professor and Canada Research Chair in climate modeling and analysis at the University of Victoria. He was a lead author for the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and advises the Pew Charitable Trust’s International Boreal Conservation Campaign (www.interboreal.org). His most recent book is Keeping our Cool: Canada in a Warming World.
While tropical rainforests like the Amazon have drawn notable attention in climate change conversations and conventions, Canada’s Boreal forest still goes mostly unnoticed by the public and international policy makers. This is despite the fact that the Boreal stores 27 years worth of the world’s carbon emissions. As mentioned by Dr. Weaver, there have been some forward steps toward conserving the Boreal forest — namely Ontario’s commitment to protect 50% of its Boreal forest and a similar target expected soon from the province of Quebec. But there is still much to be done, and protecting Canada’s Boreal forest should remain a top priority in this complex international effort. For more information on the way the Boreal forest helps combat climate change, please visit the International Boreal Conservation Campaign’s page on global warming.