Forests and Carbon Sequestration: Important Elements in Combating Climate Change  

Excerpts of presentations by Susan Masino, professor at Trinity College and Colleen Murphy-Dunning of Yale’s School of Forestry, recorded and produced by Melinda Tuhus

The Connecticut League of Conservation Voters held its tenth annual Environmental Summit at Trinity College in Hartford on Jan. 15. Hundreds of advocates concerned about the climate crisis, clean water, toxic chemicals, recycling, equitable transportation and more were joined by dozens of state and local elected officials, who attended several panel presentations throughout the day. A panel titled “Forests and Carbon Sequestration” featured Susan Masino, Vernon D. Roosa Professor of Applied Science at Trinity College and a licensed forester, who laid out the case for making mature forests part of a natural solution to climate change.

She was followed by Colleen Murphy-Dunning, an urban forester and director of the Hixon Center for Urban Ecology, and the Urban Resources Initiative at Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. She talked about the critical role trees – namely, forests and carbon sequestration – play in an urban setting, especially in promoting physical and mental health and equity. Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus attended the panel and brings us some of the highlights of the discussion.

SUSAN MASINO: My main points are that for broad benefits for the climate, for biodiversity and for our health, we need to protect more forests and we need to better protect some of the forests we already own. We need a balance among these different types of forests, and we need to align our actions with the ethos of “First, Do No Harm.”

So, there’s a couple of other pieces of information I would really like people to take away from this. Any type of manipulation or management results in a net loss of carbon from the forest – it could be for years, decades or centuries, depending on what that is. So we need to have a good reason for cutting down our trees and cutting down and manipulating our forests. Pro-forestation is a term for letting our existing forests grow to their full ecological and structural potential. Forests will naturally diversify in their ecology and their structure over time, and it’s another type of natural climate solution, like reforestation or afforestation that can help us to address climate change and protect biodiversity. Natural climate solutions are the key to solving this crisis. Even if we converted to all renewable energy, if we have a zero carbon budget, if we don’t protect nature, what do we really have? We have a crisis with our insects and all kinds of species that we’re not really documenting on a very long-term basis. We need more science; we need interdisciplinary science applied to these problems. And we should stop spending public money burning wood as renewable energy so we have better uses for public subsidies that are intended to solve our climate [challenges].

In terms of biodiversity, wilderness reduces the rate of extinction by half. We need core areas and we need connected areas so species can survive, species that need intact core areas and species that are going to need to migrate northward as we face the increasing pressure of climate change. If we don’t provide these core areas and these connections, we will be inadvertently extirpating species that we could have done very simple proactive things to protect.

We need to recognize that there is extremely strong public support for this. This is something we can do. There is extremely high bipartisan, non-partisan support across the country: 80 percent support for national parks; a recent public opinion poll in southern New England showed 90 percent support for nature preserves and 99 percent support for protecting old-growth forest. Currently old-growth forest has no special legal protection, but it’s so precious; we need to value these things, and protecting them is so inexpensive compared to some of the other big things that we’re trying to do. We have to really get on the same page about this.

I have a bunch more papers I could show, that basically they talk about public health in forests and how forests can reduce blood pressure, and increase creativity, and how nature in general can promote a sense of awe. And this can improve health in healthy people; it also helps special populations like veterans. Suicide is a greater risk for veterans to be dying than dying as part of a combat operation or being in the military. So mental health is one of the most important things that nature can provide. We need places for quiet and for refuge, for people, because visiting the same place over and over again like a friend, has additional benefits.

MELINDA TUHUS: That was Trinity College professor Susan Masino. Next is urban forester Colleen Murphy-Dunning.

COLLEEN MURPHY-DUNNING: I’m going to shift gears. I know I’m on a panel about forests, but I’m going to talk about cities. We are living in an urban century. This is the century where our globe is going to urbanize. Every year, the overall population grows on the planet, but it is also increasingly becoming urban as people migrate from rural areas to cities for economic opportunity, and by the year 2100 demographers expect that we will be 88 percent urban, meaning that there will be nine billion people living in cities.

The consequence of this urbanization is that we are converting forests and rural areas, habitat and agricultural land to urban land. On the plus side, where there are more trees, where there’s open space and less impervious service, such as parkland and other open spaces, we do have lower temperatures, so there’s a solution right in front of us. It’s a very powerful and positive way that individuals can take action that’s positive, that not only addresses climate change, not only shades their house and reduces their own energy use, not only creates habitat, not only creates beauty, not only reduces crime – it has so many multi-solving solutions for individuals to take a positive action of planting trees (to aid in carbon sequestration and reducing carbon dioxide levels).


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