How do we find the strength to not look away from all that is breaking our hearts? This question, which Terry Tempest Williams asked nearly three years ago, is now more urgent than ever before, as we stand at the end of a summer where more than 60% of Americans suffered from weather disasters or extraordinary multi day heatwaves.
Climate change is here and the future looks dark. But there is light within the darkness, if only we can find the strength to search for it. In the soil resting underneath us, the water flowing towards us, the trees swaying above us. There is no panacea to climate change, but natural climate solutions — like forest restoration, regenerative agriculture, or wetland restoration — can (and must) play a critical role.
For millennia, forests have stored greenhouse gases, serving as our second largest carbon sink, behind the ocean. The process has been simple, nature doing what nature does: trees pull carbon from the atmosphere, convert it into sugar, use that sugar to build biomass (wood, branches, roots), and, through this process, store carbon for as long as they live.
But this July, an unprecedented study reported that Brazil’s Amazon is no longer a carbon sink, emitting more carbon from deforestation and climate change than it stores. “If you’re thinking a tipping point for the Amazon is when it becomes a carbon source, this region is at a tipping point,” said Luciana Gatti, a researcher at Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research. In 2020, Brazil lost nearly 400 acres of rainforest, an area half the size of Central Park, every hour. And it’s getting worse: deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon increased 67% from May 2020 to May 2021.
Devastating deforestation is happening throughout the world, including the US. Organizations like the US Forest Service, American Forests, WRI, TNC, National Forest Foundation, Blue Forest and others are working hard to restore the forest we’ve lost. But they can’t do it alone.
For example, of the 193 million acres of national forest managed by the USFS, over 80 million needs to be restored. “Partnerships and collaboration are key,” Tom Tidwell, the former USFS Chief said. “Our restoration projects are often most successful when we play the role of convener and facilitator, bringing people together so they can lead the way in achieving common restoration goals.”
Funding continues to be a major bottleneck. WRI reports that of the $200 billion private funding needed annually to protect and restore global forests, only $20 billion is invested. Fundraising is also not a skill forest managers have historically had to develop. “It requires a business acumen that isn’t common for foresters,” a director at the Conservation Fund told me.
And yet, funding is there: hundreds of companies – nearly 25% of Fortune 500s – have now committed to carbon neutrality by 2030. This is important, but currently there isn’t an easy way to invest in forest restoration. Yes, there is a carbon offset market, where companies can earn offsets by investing in forest projects. But the criteria is narrow, meaning that less than 10% of forest restoration projects (and currently 0% of national forests) are eligible to issue (and receive revenue from) carbon offsets. As a result, forest managers continue to lack funding to scale up restoration work, even while companies are keen to invest in these types of projects.
Together, with a group of advisors, investors and friends, I helped set up a nonprofit called Understory, to bridge this funding gap, specifically by connecting forest managers with these corporate philanthropic investors.
For example, in the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia, forest managers like Green Forests Work are restoring a Central Appalachian landscape that has been radically altered from logging, coal mining and now climate change. GFW has already restored 1,000 acres of this landscape and has the potential to do much more. Together, with the USFS, they’ve agreed to restore 1,000 additional acres, and Understory is helping identify the philanthropic funding.
As we learn from this project, we’re also expanding to other national forests, to support additional partners on-the-ground who are restoring our landscapes. We’re just getting started, but the scope is enormous. Many organizations have been working with natural climate solutions for years: Nori in regenerative agriculture, Climate Foundation in marine permaculture, NCX in woodlands restoration, Freshwater Life in ocean restoration. But we need each of us––to take whatever action, small or big, we can take. The solutions are all around us, if only we can find the strength to not look away, to keep searching through the darkness, for the paths that might lead us forward.
Benje Williams is Cofounder of Understory, a nonprofit with a mission to restore forest landscapes, and the Cofounder / former CEO of Amal Academy, an education venture in Pakistan. He has an MBA from Stanford and is a Public Voices fellow with the Op Ed Project and Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. He tweets at @benjewilliams.