Time is Running Out: the Twin Perils of Deforestation and Climate Change

In today's hyper-connected world, fighting climate change and building resilience to its impact are urgent priorities for us all. Rainforest Alliance President Nigel Sizer, a tropical forest ecologist, explains the complex relationship between rainforests and climate change—and why it is more important than ever that those who are concerned make their voices heard.

Thirty years ago, in response to horrific images of deforestation and a growing awareness that our planet's precious rainforests were at a tipping point, a new mass movement was born. It started with small-scale protests by indigenous campaigners, who took great risks to grab the world's attention—the Brazilian environmentalist Chico Mendes, for example, was assassinated for mobilizing the Rubber Tappers’ Union in defense of the Amazon. But their voices could not be silenced. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, indigenous people from the Amazon took to the international stage to protest the destruction of their rainforest home, creating new alliances with international NGOs and even a few celebrities.

The rainforests were not saved, but neither—as many had feared—did the following decades see them disappear. The planet had stepped back from the edge. Thanks to global public support and constant vigilance, the pace of deforestation slowed globally (though it continues to increase in some key tropical regions).

Burning rainforest in Peru

Burning rainforest in Peru

Photo credit: Mohsin Kazmi

Today, the number-one threat to tropical rainforests no longer comes from ranchers, loggers and miners. It's not demand for land, palm oil, soy, beef, and gold—although these pressures remain intense and pervasive. Instead, according to many scientists, the top threat to rainforests today is global warming.

Dramatic examples of the emerging impact of climate change on rainforests abound. Changing rainfall patterns are predicted to lead to massive dieback of the Amazon. The species that make this region home—more species than anywhere else on Earth—are simply not evolved to handle these changes.

In the northern rainforests of Alaska and across the boreal zone (the largest expanse of forests on Earth), a warming climate is aiding the northward migration of insects that attack the trees, increasing dead woody material that becomes fuel for fires to spread. This, alongside encroaching human activity and changing weather, has led to dramatic increases in massive wildfires. 

More subtle, but nonetheless profound, changes will likely be seen in the behavior of pollinators; the cumulative impact of changing weather patterns, invasive species, and the fragmentation of natural ecosystems are accelerating biodiversity loss and forest degradation.

"Today, the number-one threat to tropical rainforests no longer comes from ranchers, loggers and miners. It's not demand for land, palm oil, soy, beef, and gold—although these pressures remain intense and pervasive. Instead, according to many scientists, the top threat to rainforests today is global warming."

Nigel Sizer, Rainforest Alliance President

As forests die, their stored carbon is released as greenhouse gases that fuel climate change. When healthy, forests act as a giant sponge, soaking up a significant portion of the pollution we dump into the atmosphere. The last great forest frontier regions of the Amazon, the Congo, the boreal, and beyond have been absorbing carbon as they grow. Destroying these ecosystems reduces that escape valve for human excess

It’s not just forests that are in trouble. The most dramatic ecological victim of climate change is the world’s coral reefs.  Reefs are harder to see and monitor since they live below the ocean’s surface, yet marine scientists know they are in deep trouble due to rising ocean temperatures and acidification caused by carbon dioxide absorption. 

It’s almost too late to prevent these changes. But not quite. Just as we saw 30 years ago, concerted action can get humanity and the planet back onto a healthier track. Politicians, business and religious leaders, and every single one of us must add our voices to the urgent demand for a drastic change of course. 

Rainforest Alliance staff at the March for Science on April 22, 2017

Rainforest Alliance staff at the March for Science on April 22, 2017

And we must do that right now. We encourage all of the members of our alliance to join and support local and global efforts to fight climate change. The forests will thank us—and so will our children.

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