Rainforests for Rainforests’ Sake? Getting Real About Global Climate
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by Rainforest Partnership | 11.2.20
As a kid, I was always a ‘how’ learner. It wasn’t enough to know that something happened, I wanted to understand how it worked. When we learned about water and nutrient cycles for the first time in school, I was fascinated. It was like magic, getting to see the how behind the rain.
I remember labelling diagrams for the water cycle and carbon cycle, almost as if they worked independently.
What I didn’t realize at the time was how interconnected the world is. The magic ‘how’ isn’t one simple cause-and-effect relationship, but a web of complex interactions between living things and their environment. The current climate crisis is much the same. There are so many factors impacting the increasing rate of extinctions, rising sea levels, climate displacement, and extreme weather events. While the necessity of reducing human greenhouse gas emissions is critical, the importance of protecting and promoting healthy ecosystems is equally important.
Rainforests are known as biodiversity hotspots. As a child, I saw them as fantastical places brimming with life. My grandfather worked in the oil industry, and though he explained the need for oil, I couldn’t understand why we would tear down the forest to get it.
Rainforests for rainforests’ sake
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve noticed that arguments for protecting these forests usually revolve around species diversity, healthy ecosystems, and natural beauty. The argument is that we must conserve rainforests simply for the sake of the forest itself.
Of course, biodiversity is important. Ecosystems are delicately balanced and the extinction of one or two species can impact the health of an entire system. But by focusing nature for nature’s sake, this approach invites the question: mass extinctions have happened before, why is this time any different?
More than a pretty place… but one of immense power
The answer lies in the fact that rainforest is much more than a beautiful landscape. It is home to many indigenous and local communities. The social and cultural practices of these communities are shaped by their relationship with the forests. Deforestation is not simply destruction of land, it is the destruction of a home and cultural history for the people who live there.
I’m from the United States, where the borders are (mostly) imagined. We put up these imaginary lines across the land, but the ecosystems that spread across the globe bleed into and depend on each other. What happens in one ecosystem can have an impact thousands of miles away.
For example, the dust that blows off the Sahara Desert makes an astonishing journey across the Atlantic Ocean before settling across the Amazon basin. The Sahara also sends dust plumes here in Texas, brightening our sunsets, settling on our cars, blocking out the sun. In the Amazon, the Saharan dust is vital; it provides the phosphorus that nourishes the Amazon’s soils.Without this dust, the rainforest would not be the thriving place we know today.
Rainforests power the global climate machine
In turn, rainforests like the Amazon influence weather patterns and climate of ecosystems around the world.
Despite covering less than 3% of Earth’s surface, rainforests play a key role in absorbing atmospheric CO2. But the role of rainforests as an important carbon sink is complex. As large areas of rainforest are deforested through logging and burning, they can also act as sources of carbon emissions.
For a while, intact forests were able to keep up with increasing emissions—an estimated 55% of the emissions released by burning fossil fuels between 1960 and 2015 were absorbed by oceans and forests. This ability to significantly affect the overall level of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere makes rainforests key in shaping the climate of the entire planet.
Rainforests also play a role in the water cycle, regulating local and global rain patterns. By releasing water vapor into the atmosphere, trees “recycle” the water they use into an accessible form: rain. Rainforests also lower local temperatures, creating humid conditions that increase rainfall and cloud formation.
Natural capital and economy
The rainforests’ role in these processes are extremely important to the global economy. Nature that is not developed, exploited, or disturbed in some way is not an economic loss. It is an asset. By absorbing atmospheric carbon, rainforests protect against the greenhouse effect and may have bought us time to transition to cleaner sources of energy. The rainforest amplifies the water cycle, which brings rain to our crops.
But there is a price– economic and emotional– when we don’t protect the ecosystems that provide us with these vital ecosystem services. Extreme weather, droughts, and deforestation itself are causing people to lose their homes and livelihoods, and in some cases their lives. The idea of natural capital, of valuing nature as a form of wealth, is gaining traction and would define clear incentives to conserve and protect natural places.
Protecting rainforests protects ourselves
Our approach to the climate crisis should take into account both the interconnectedness of natural systems, and it’s value. Protecting intact forests, bringing a halt to deforestation, and working to restore degraded rainforest lands is critical to maintaining ways of life all around the world- from preventing drought throughout Latin America to stopping further glacial melting.
Rainforest Partnership works with all sorts of people to conserve tropical forests. But we’re not protecting the rainforest just for the rainforest’s sake. We’re protecting rainforests for the planet’s sake and for the sake of all of us, around the world. We invite you, no matter your background, experience, age, or skills, to join us in protecting this key part of the global climate machinery.
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