Asheville will celebrate Arbor Day a little early this year (March 28). Think about it: If we put as much energy into Arbor Day as we do Earth Day, the latter would have a lot more to celebrate. When planted consciously and for the long term, trees can be a silver bullet for so many environmental ills.
The power of trees to improve our quality of life is phenomenal. They lower our energy bills (by cooling our homes), provide food and shelter for wildlife, and reduce the amount of CO2 in the air. So it seems strange that I rarely hear the serious conversation (let alone action) that needs to take place concerning the role of trees in beating back climate change.
Here in the South, we consume more electricity than any other region of the nation, due mostly to air-conditioning demand. Planting shade trees is a very effective (though often overlooked) way to cool our homes in this hot and humid climate.
Sure, it takes a few years before they start to have an impact on our electric bills, but most trees will continue to provide free air conditioning for decades or even centuries to come. During that time, they’ll also be housing and feeding wildlife, pulling carbon from the air while storing it in their trunks and roots, and looking drop-dead gorgeous.
The best scientists on the planet—the ones with their fingers on the pulse of the most up-to-date scientific understanding—tell us that 350 is the number of our lives: 350 parts per million is the threshold for atmospheric CO2. Over time, any more CO2 than this increases the risk of causing unimaginable harm. Right now we’re at about 387 ppm; that means we need to reduce it.
If we’re serious about meeting this goal—as we all need to be—we need to plant lots of trees NOW. By acting deliberately, we can reduce the cooling loads of many buildings in just a few years. And in 40 years—the point by which we need to have realized an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions—those same trees will be giants providing far more air conditioning than your average window unit.
Today, we look back on the nonviolent actions of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. with awe and a sense of mystery. How did they manage such courage and vision, inspiring millions of individuals to perform profoundly simple, nonviolent actions? In contrast, some may look back at more concentrated efforts like the Apollo missions and the Manhattan Project with nostalgia, wishing we could similarly achieve some new scientific breakthrough that would “magically” transform society’s energy portfolio.
But since our current predicament is the culmination of everyone’s individual actions, we need to approach it with that same profound simplicity, that same commitment on the part of millions of individuals. New challenges require new thinking, and part of it could be viewing our personal energy budget as a microcosm of humanity’s cumulative energy use. Try applying the environmental golden rule: What if everybody did what I’m doing?
I challenge everyone who’s ever enjoyed a tree’s presence to give back by looking forward to a future time. If your house bakes in the summer sun, plant a few native shade trees on the south side. If you’d like to create an oasis in an otherwise empty lawn or field, plant a grove. If you’d like to feed someone who isn’t even born yet, plant a few apple trees. Give trees as gifts, knowing they’ll continue giving long after that special occasion.
A tree’s ability to do so many beneficial things at once is what sets it far ahead of other approaches. It’s truly rare that such a simple solution to a major problem is so multifaceted and long-lasting. If our utility companies started addressing future electricity demand with shade trees now, rather than with coal-fired generators later, we might look as if we knew what we were doing.
To learn more, visit these Web sites: www.arborday.org, www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends/co2_data_mlo.html, www.350.org.
[ Clere is an education specialist at the Western North Carolina Nature Center and an active member of Mountain WILD!]