The Dangerous Seduction Of A Trillion Trees

Treeeees. (Photo: Getty)

The arc of U.S. Republican climate politics has gone from supporting market solutions like cap and trade to outright denial over the years. The fetid nature of U.S. conservative climate politics has done wonders for short-term political gain and obscenely enriched a small cadre of fossil fuel executives and lobbyists. But it now leaves Republicans boxed into the corner by the unbending physics of carbon dioxide heating our atmosphere and an electorate increasingly concerns about what’s happening in the world.

In an effort to wriggle out of the conundrum they’re in, Republican leaders in Congress and the climate-denying president they’ve sworn fealty to have landed on a climate plan. A central plank of it is planting a trillion trees, and it may well be more dangerous than the outright denial that has pervaded the party for more than a decade.

When Republicans first hinted at their trillion-tree obsession, I felt a chilling wave wash over me like a winter fog in the redwoods. You may be wondering what’s so bad about planting a bunch of trees—and that notion of reasonableness is exactly why I find the idea so concerning.

In the hands of adults crafting responsible climate policy, trees absolutely have a role to play. But congressional Republicans are not responsible adults. They’ve been terrible stewards of the land, ocean, and atmosphere for decades now, and their new climate proposals are completely watered-down garbage.

But among them all, newly proposed legislation promising to help plant a trillion trees stands out as a smokescreen crafted to allow pollution profiteers to continue burning down the planet.

The choice to push the trees proposal so hard is, I suspect, no accident. Carbon capture, another one of their proposals to suck carbon out of the sky, is wonky, technical, and clearly benefits the fossil fuel industry. But trees tap into traditional ideas of stewardship that run through American history. In Walden, Henry David Thoreau had this to say about trees:

“I grieved when it was cut down by the proprietors themselves. I would that our farmers when they cut down a forest felt some of that awe which the old Romans did when they came to thin, or let in the light to, a consecrated grove (lucum conlucare), that is, would believe that it is sacred to some god.”

In a 1910 speech, President Teddy Roosevelt called conservation the nation’s “great moral issue.” National parks—labelled America’s best idea—are full of protected trees. Forest management policy? Designed to protect trees from fire (results may vary nowadays).

Arbor Day was established in 1872 in Nebraska, and the state’s denizens planted an estimated 1 million trees. Celebrations and tree plantings continue nationally today in red and blue states across the country just as red and blue cities have tree-planting programs to beautify footpaths. Hell, I have a redwood tattooed on my forearm to remind of one of the most precious places on Earth. Trees, they rule.

“They’ve become this incredible power symbol of nature to Americans,” Anthony Leiserowitz, the head of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, told Earther.

Republicans have leaned directly into more than 160 years of American history and values in an attempt to re-invent themselves as a party that wants to get serious about climate change. And they threw in a big number to make a splash (by gawd, a whole trillion!). Representative Bruce Westerman, the tree planting bill’s main sponsor, said in a statement announcing the legislation that “[w]e have an obligation to conserve our resources and make them available to future generations,” a phrase that directly invokes the National Park Service’s mission. “I challenge anyone to find a better climate solution than taking care of our forests.”

Bruce, allow me to introduce you to winding down the fossil fuel industry.

Stopping burning fossil fuels is the single most important thing the world could do to stop climate change. The scientists calling for more forests have said as much. And the best available science shows we need to cut emissions by nearly 80 per cent this decade if we want a shot at a remotely familiar planet. But route would upend the fortunes of Republican donors and require government intervention at a scale that’s anathema to a Republican Party hellbent on privatization.

The plan to plant trees is, at best, a part of the solution—if managed properly. My colleague Dharna Noor has a whole explainer on why, as it stands, the proposal is wobbly at best.

“Nature can help us solve the mess we’ve created, but nature can’t do all the work for us,” Edward Maibach, a professor of climate communication at George Mason University, told Earther. “We need to stop pouring gasoline onto the fire.”

But that doesn’t seem to be Westerman and other Republicans’ plan. Instead, their whole gambit appears to be playing off our cultural love of trees and attempting to pick off a few environmentalist supporters here and there, win some praise, and keep the fossil fuels flowing. The trillion trees idea already has that veneer of bipartisanship: The president got super into the idea after talking with Marc Benioff, the head of Salesforce who also started the Trillion Trees Initiative. Benioff supported Hillary Clinton and kicked money to Jay Inslee’s failed presidential bid last year, though he’s also funded Republicans as well.

“Trees are the ultimate bipartisan issue,” Benioff told the New York Times earlier this week. “Everyone is pro-tree.”

That’s true. And that’s why this proposal—which, again, would do very little to stop catastrophic climate change—has a chance to gain traction even as Republicans work to keep fossil fuels alive.

“Given the toxicity of the political polarization around this issue, my own particular bent is to basically say, ‘thank you, what’s next?’” Leiserowitz said.

With the Republicans who announced the bill saying they don’t support a carbon tax, a timeline for emissions reductions, or even a realistic vision for what the whole trees plan would look like, the answer is not much.

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