Forest Carbon Confessions Part II

Written by Bronson Griscom on . Posted in Learn

Editor’s Note: The Nature Conservancy’s senior Forest Carbon scientist, Bronson Griscom, crazy science guy that he is, recently made the decision that — “before he bursts” – it was time to share with the world his love for Forest Carbon. We learned this to be true upon mysteriously receiving his diary via interoffice mail, which was enclosed with a brief note. Admittedly, none of us were surprised when we discovered this was going on. We’d seen the way Griscom looked at forests before and our suspicions were validated when we learned Griscom had indeed been stealing away to study forests for years – even going so far as to receive a Ph.D. in tropical forest ecology. That fact, combined with Griscom’s dashing good looks (think a combo of Buzz Lightyear and Jim Carey … or, you be the judge) and seemingly infinite charm and we knew this romance might just be the real thing.

Click the links here for Part I and Part III.

Entry #2: Couples Counseling

Dear Diary:

Ugh. What happened? I woke up this morning with a splitting headache. All of a sudden I’m smelling the shade-grown coffee. Let me tell you, this beautiful idea called REDD,  she has bad breath sometimes.  I think we’re having our first fight. It would be nice if we could just pay farmers and local communities on the frontier in the Brazilian Amazon, the African Congo, and the Pacific island of Borneo, to solve this problem, but it’s not quite that simple.

When you start thinking it through, it’s complicated (maybe I should update our Facebook status). We need to construct a grand framework of international governance to make REDD work.  Not only that, we need to convince some of the more troubled governments in the world to embrace transparency along with efficient and equitable benefit distribution (monetary and other) to local stakeholders and communities. “Transparency,” “efficiency,” “equality,” “stakeholders.” Geez, you’d have to slip a roofie in my drink to get me to believe all those buzzwords will come together for a “Kumbaya” moment.

And there’s something else.  You know that old saying that relationships are built on trust?  I have trust issues.  What if there’s cheating?  Let’s imagine that this new relationship happens to work pretty well, where wealthy countries with industrial emissions pay developing tropical countries to better protect their forests – all refereed by an international governance system. But let’s face it, some countries might opt out of the relationship, or simply won’t get their act together. Wouldn’t those countries just burn through their forests at breakneck speed while making a ton of cash covering the demand for cattle and oil palm and rice?  People are calling this cheating problem “leakage.”

And there’s another problem: she’s too shallow. Yeah, maybe I do love Forest Carbon, but she’s ONE element. If we break nature down to one element in the periodic table and give it a cash value, is that really good for our relationship with nature? What if it’s a plantation of oil palm or eucalyptus that is displacing a diverse native African savannah?

This relationship is harder than I thought.  We need counseling. Or maybe I just need a vacation.  I feel like renting a hummer H3, driving to the sticks, and roasting marshmallows over a fat bonfire.

Entry #3: Commitment

Dear Diary:

I took that vacation, had my bonfire, and roasted marshmallows under the stars (hey, gimme a break, I took a Prius, not a Hummer).  Alas, I still love Forest Carbon.  There’s just too much at stake. I want to make this work. I’ve been too judgmental.  It occurred to me that it’s my own fear of failure that is the biggest barrier in this relationship.  OK, so I have some commitment issues.  I need to stop obsessing about the potential negative side of this relationship.  Sure she can be difficult, but that’s because REDD involves a profound change and deep commitment, which is what we are after.

I shouldn’t expect Forest Carbon to be more than she is. I think we can agree on some basic relationship rules, or “safeguards,” to make sure that neither of us gets hurt.  For example, let’s just agree that nobody gets incentives to replace diverse ecosystems with plantation monocultures like oil palm or Eucalyptus plantations. But we also can’t micromanage this relationship with too many rules, or the relationship will get burdened and won’t take wing.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not buying into this “if you love someone set them free” business.  There are strings attached, but this relationship is like riding a thoroughbred – not too tight, not too loose.  Trust but verify.

As for cheating, well, I admit I was catastrophizing when I assumed that all deforestation that is avoided in one place will move somewhere else.  Other positive processes can avoid this “leakage,” like more efficient pasture management so more cattle use less land.  Not to mention, when beef gets more expensive, people will eat more tofu burgers (which require a fraction of the land per patty).  So, we can encourage better forest and pasture management and meanwhile it’s foolish to get caught up in this existential fear that our success will only lead to failure.

Relationships take work, and this one takes the cake.  But it’s worth it because this is really monumental. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Forest Carbon is the first big chance to measure one of nature’s benefits with a single elegant unit of measurement (carbon) that circulates around the world, just like the dollar.  That’s why we can link this one indicator of the health of nature to our economy.  She still has bad breath some mornings – but don’t we all? And it will take longer than we first thought.  But we can do this.  She feels like “the One.”  I want a future together.  And, I am in it for the long haul.  ”Lady in REDD … is dancing with me … cheek to cheek.”

Click the links here for Part I and Part III.

Bronson Griscom is Senior Forest Carbon Scientist at The Nature Conservancy.

Photo by: Peter Ellis/The Nature Conservancy (Bronson Griscom on the edge of an Amazon shade cacao plantation in Sao Felix do Xingu, Brazil)


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