The Real Cause of Climate Change: Deforestation

Vancouver Island - Ancient Forest Clearcut near Port Renfrew, BC. Photo: TJ Watt.

Telling someone that greenhouse gasses are not the main driver of climate change is like telling someone in the Middle Ages that the world is round.

Fossil fuel emissions are not the main cause of climate change despite what you believe or have been told. Climate change is definitely manmade but it is primarily caused by deforestation, not fossil fuels. The world is round!

It occurred to me what the biggest contributor to climate change was while teaching a unit in our Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC) course. I was teaching a permaculture course unit called, “Trees and Their Energy Systems” AKA “We love trees!”. Our PDC course is held late July in southern Oregon where summer temperatures average the mid 90s˚F (35˚C). We teach under two large willow trees to avoid the direct heat of the sun. Its cool and comfortable in the shade under the old trees. If you step out into the direct sun, temperatures jump 12–15˚F .

Then it dawned on me. All 20 students could smoke cigarettes, run their cars and have a camp fire and temperatures would not change. But step into the direct sun from under the shade of mature trees and the temperature rises immediately and significantly. It feels warmer, the soil is warmer and drier with less biology.(1)

The shade benefit a modern structures such as a roof overhang or a shade greenhouse is about a third of that from mature trees. Trees transpire moisture, let the air breath through the canopy and you are in physically in contact with the 65˚F  (18˚C) cool soil.

Deforestation Defined: “De–diversifying”

Deforestation is not just the absence of forest in its Natural area but the absence of the original old growth forests, prairies, meadows, riparian and waterways. Deforestation has been looked at by biologists far too narrowly.

Deforestation is dediversifying© and is the precursor to desertification. We only see it as deforestation because destruction of American soils and ecosystems are recent. Some vitality remains but with each whack of the plow and the ax it dies more. Visit the Middle East, parts of eastern Europe, Asia, Africa to see that what was once forest is now scrub or desert. Civilization is the destroyer of ecosystems.

kernza-jim-richardson
Jerry Glover, a soil scientist, shows off a perennial wheatgrass plant’s long roots, which grow deeper than annual plants’ roots, improving soil structure and reducing erosion. Photo: Jim Richardson.

Without the old growth trees you do not have the cool canopy, understory, shrub layer, ground cover nor the soil tilth. Without the prairie and meadows you do not have perennial forbs, deep roots, mineral recycling nor the buffalo and the wolf.

Without the un-dammed waterways you do not have the salmon and trout bringing fertility back up stream, nor the bears spreading the salmon into the forests, nor the beavers hosting biodiversity in their ponds.

Without any of these you do not have all of the original players providing their energy and offering their contributions AKA biodiversity.

Deforestation is more than logging. Deforestation is all agriculture and grazing. Deforestation is damming rivers. The only way to enable Nature to do her job is to stop interrupting her efforts to heal herself by setting succession back each season, by plowing, over grazing and cutting land into property.

The Law of Food: Eat the majority of your food from species that naturally reproduce themselves where you live. If you don’t follow the law, you break the system.©

Before Europeans invaded the valleys where I live, they were covered with camas bulbs and the rivers ran wild with salmon. South of here 400 to 600 year old oak trees yielded 500 pounds of acorn meat a year, one tree! The settlers f*cked it all up. Think buffalo instead of cows.

Diversity is not complete unless you have an uninterrupted mature old growth ecosystem. The landscape we believe is normal is completely man-made. It is less than a shadow of what Earth really looks like. Go to the old growth redwoods, fall to your knees and kiss the ground. This is what Earth really looks like! Look at the sidecuts of streams, the soil loam is 2 to 10′ deep! When you drive out of the park and look around, you will get it. Civilization has ruined the world for greed.

dam-nation-poster_crop
Poster for the film Damnation. Watch the trailer at http://www.damnationfilm.com.

It takes thousands of years to stitch the diversity back together. This assumes, the required species still exist in the region. If not, it then takes Nature millions of years to re-evolve new species to replace the niches of extinct ones. Imagine re-evolving the beaver or the salmon.

Damming rivers is like clogging your own veins. Hydro power is dirty energy. Watch the Damnation trailer.

I had to use deforestation in the title because no one knows what dediversifying is until this article. Now you know, the article title should be, The Real Cause of Climate Change: Dediversifying!

What Do the Numbers Show?

Simply, the 10–15˚F (5.6–8.4˚C) surface temperature rise caused by logging an old growth forest divided by the percent of the earth’s surface logged equals the 2.3˚F (1.3˚C) rise in global temperature. You walk out from the shade, into the sun, the temperature goes way up, that is causality!

Second, no science experiment has been able to re-create / demonstrate rising temperatures caused by rising CO2. All scientist can show is that CO2 is up and so are temperatures. That does not prove that CO2 caused the rise, that does not prove causality.

We have removed forests and prairies from almost 60 percent (2) of all land for human habitation. In other words, we have turned the heat up 10–15˚F (3) on 60 percent of the land. Deforestation is literally a radiator on 18 percent of the total earth’s total surface. Heat islands caused by deforestation are concentrated on the equator where the sun’s rays land most directly. Interestingly, 18 percent x 13˚F  is 2.3 percent, close to the one percent increased average global surface temperature over the last century(4).

All forests and fields are not equal in their benefits. I estimate when you walk from a modern immature woods into the old growth redwoods, the temperature drops 10˚F in the summer, the humidity increases 10 percent and the oxygen level increase a few percent. The bottom line is that the climate benefit of a plantation of 30′ (9m) trees is insignificant compared to a forest of 200′ (61m) old growth trees. It’s like comparing a dog to an elephant.

Agricultural land is also has little of the climate benefits of forest or perennial prairie lands. Perennial forbs can grow 6–8′ tall with roots just as deep. Ag land is also bare much of the year absorbing heat directly into the soil. Fields are plowed every year releasing carbon sequestered during the growing season back into the atmosphere.

By most accounts, deforestation in tropical rainforests adds more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than the sum total of cars and trucks on the world’s roads. According to the World Carfree Network (WCN), cars and trucks account for about 14 percent of global carbon emissions, while most analysts attribute upwards of 15 percent to deforestation. (5)

Four million trees are cut per year just for paper.(6) The FAO estimates deforestation accounts for 25 to 30 of the greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere each year – 1.6 billion tonnes.(7) This is the equivalent of 8 million people flying from London to New York.(8) If you are a scientist, here is more math from the Union of Concerned Scientists.(9)

Deforestation heats the planet four ways:

  1. Directly reflecting heat by removing vegetation cover.
  2. Releasing greenhouses gases through clearing.
  3. Preventing forests from sequestering more carbon dioxide by cutting them.
  4. Reducing rainfall by cutting forests.(10)

As far as I know, I am a permaculturist not a scientist, that scientists have not proven the higher greenhouse gas levels are actually causing rising temperatures. They show a correlation between higher CO2 emissions and rising temperatures. What is omitted from this correlation is that deforestation over the last century has also risen with temperatures.

Here is another example, the snow fall in Crater Lake National Park steadily decreased as the old growth forests around it were logged. The old growth forests not only cooled the air, they created the precipitation. During the 1930s, Crater Lake average 614 and 623″ of annual snowfall. By 2000 the average had dropped to 459″. The first and second growth forests do not transpire the moisture and shed rain drop creating pollen as much as the old grow forests did.(11)

A greenhouse is actually a bad metaphor because it causes higher temperatures not by keeping the sun rays from existing the greenhouse but by blocking the wind. If you had a flat-roofed greenhouse with no sides high enough off the ground, there would be very little temperature increase caused by the clear plastic roof. I know I have several greenhouses. When you lower the sides of a greenhouse the temperature drops immediately with the improved air circulation.

You could even argue that the haze caused by air pollution is actually shading the planet, therefore canceling out the greenhouse effect of the CO2.

Why Are We Being Told the Cause is Fossil Fuel Emissions?

My best guess is that to criticize civilization’s domestication of the wild landscape is too much. That would mean all civilized activities such as farming, industry and city building must stop and be reversed. It would effectively mean civilization must end to save the world. That is too big of a pill to swallow.

However, telling people to drive a bit less is less drastic. The media and the public might until forced swallow that pill. The truth on the other hand, the public and policy makers and the public cannot handle.

Carbon Trading May be the Only Solution

The remaining rainforests are the lungs of the plant. If we lose these forests, we lose the fight against climate change. We need to find a way for industry to make money by leaving the forests standing intact. Allowing the financial markets to profit form carbon trading is probably the solution.

In a world where we are witnessing a mounting clash between food security, energy security and environmental security – while there’s money to be made from food and energy and no income to be derived from the standing forest, it’s obvious that the forest will take the hit.(12) —Hylton Philipson

If all of the original old growth forests were still standing and prairies were still as tall as a man on a horse, then there would be no climate change.  The problem with civilization is that it makes us want to have our cake and eat it too. We want to consume and populate and have everything be okay.

Well, we have destroyed almost every intact ecosystem replacing it with an immature one or monoculture that does not work nearly as well as the original mature ecosystem. Nature is now taking away the fruits of her services: the cool air, the clean water, the fertile soil and the fecundity of diversity is leaving us.

Of course the place is heating up because we broke the planetary air conditioning system.

For your part, stop procreating, stop consuming, get into the wild, plant some native trees, tend a wild place in community, and take a permaculture course. We love trees!

What Happens After Climate Change?

Short answer, California becomes the Middle East. The bad news is that your children’s children will live it, if they are alive. Most agricultural land today will not be farmable. Much rainfall will disappear because we removed the forests that create the clouds. Again, you caused it but you will be dead when it happens. You ancestors may damn you.

The Law of Environmental Amnesia: We live too short a time to appreciate the damage we are causing with your lifestyle.

This is the future we are stealing from your children

ken-wu-big-stump-port-renfrew
Ken Wu with large stump, Port Renfrew, BC. Photo: TJ Watt.

There is no replacement for the 2000 year old tree lost in the photo above. The scrawny 30–40 year old trees in the background, soon to be cut again, are like comparing the climate benefits of an elephant to a mouse. People cannot yet handle that they have to completely stop cutting the forests.

To stop the insanity and climate change, we all have to start living regeneratively and restoratively in tribal community. Read more in my Solutions articles.

This is what Earth really looks like:

cheewhat-cedar-canadas-largest-tree
Cheewhat cedar are Canada’s largest tree. Photo: TJ Watt.

Chuck Burr


(1) Deforestation: Here’s what you need to know about the warming planet, how it’s affecting us, and what’s at stake. National Geographic.

(2) Agricultural land, 27 percent. The World Bank. Forest land, 30 percent, Wikipedia. Of the forests 13 percent is uncut rainforest, Mongabay. 96 percent of the old-growth forest has been logged, wikipedia. Three percent of land is covered by urban areas, Life Science. The earth is covered 70 percent by water, Charts Bin.

(3) Trees and Local Temperature, eXtension, 2016.

(4) Climate Change: Global Temperature. NOAA, Climate.gov, July 1, 2015.

(5) Deforestation and Its Extreme Effect on Global Warming. Scientific America, 2012.

(6) Deforestation and Global Warming. Scitable, Nature Education, May 19, 2012.

(7) Deforestation causes global warming. FAO, 2006.

(8) Deforestation: The Hidden Cause of Global Warming. Common Dreams, 2007.

(9) Measuring the Role of Deforestation in Global Warming. Union of Concerned Scientists, December 9, 2013.

(10)  Tropical Deforestation: Climate Impacts: Rainfall and Temperature. NASA, Earth Observatory, March 30, 2007.

(11) Crater Lake’s annual snowfall consistently decreasing. Statesman Journal, April 18, 2014.

(12) Deforestation: The hidden cause of global warming. Independent, May 14, 2007.

Top and bottom photo(s): TJ Watt, Conservation Photographer.