WASHINGTON — Sometimes big problems can be solved simply.
At the moment, our biggest problem — climate change — can be ended by simply planting trees. OK, so a trillion trees, according to a Swiss study published earlier this month in the journal Science. But how hard is that, really?
An equally serious and related problem is disappearing bees. Those cute little black-and-yellow-robed buzzers are essential to our survival, but our pesticides, fertilizers and climate change are killing them along with the insects we hate. Without bees, our ecosystems would collapse, and thus our food supply.
Over the top? Apocalyptic? Let's just say, no. This is reality, and we have the means to change it: Plant trees, save bees. Since bees also like flowers, let's go ahead and make America beautiful again. An emerging theory to combat crime in some parts of the country is called "busy streets." Research has shown how simple cosmetic changes to urban communities — such as planting flowerbeds — can help reduce violence. And improve a city's aroma to boot.
Saving bees and trees by planting with purpose would kill two birds, so to speak. If this sounds like a modern version of the Emerald City of Oz, I have no problem with that. Bees love poppies, which, though they provide no nectar, are an excellent source of pollen. That's nothing to sneeze about, by the way.
Most people know that trees are good for them. They absorb CO2 (carbon dioxide), thus purifying the air for our breathing pleasure. Carbon dioxide is also one of the main greenhouse gases, which trap heat in the atmosphere, leading to rising temperatures and climate change.
Estimates are that around 15% of emissions come from deforestation. Trees also curb other harmful gases, such as sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide, again releasing pure oxygen into the air. If the Democratic Republic of Congo's 150 million hectares of forests were lost, it would generate about three times the world's total annual emissions in 2012.
But scientists, including Thomas Crowther, a co-author of the trillion-tree study, were quick to point out that planting trees alone wouldn't work. And how does one go about planting a trillion trees? And where should they be planted?
Although tree-planting is a simple solution — effective and cheaper than any other remedies currently in circulation — it isn't a simple matter to plant trees helter-skelter. A forest in the wrong place could have detrimental effects by upsetting the ecological balance.
But this seems a relatively easy obstacle to clear.
The countries with the most land available for building forests are Russia, China, Canada, Australia, Brazil — and the United States. The Switzerland-based researchers found that adding 1.2 trillion more trees would reverse 10 years' worth of harmful emissions. Over the decades, Crowther says those new trees would absorb about 200 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Several countries have signed up for reforestation, including the United States, which has seen a steady increase in its forestland, thanks in part to the Forest Service's tree-planting initiatives. But we have to figure that the wreath of rainforests that fully wrapped around the globe until relatively recently was surely there for good reason. Satellite images show that the Amazon rainforest — the world's largest — is disappearing at the rate of 1 1/2 soccer-field-sized parcels per minute. What such decimation means to the planet's future can't be good — unless ridding the world of humans is Earth's ultimate survival measure.
No trees, no birds, no bugs, no bees, no food, no humans. That's pretty simple, too.
This past winter, a record share — 40% — of honey-bee colonies in the United States died, but bees aren't the only ones disappearing. Forty percent of all the world's insects are in decline, according to another recent study, leading scientists to declare that Earth is experiencing the Sixth Great Extinction. Nobody likes bugs — until they're gone and their purposes finally appreciated.
Insects nourish birds and fish, serenade us to sleep. Animals pollinate 87% of flowering plant species. If current trends continue, there may be no insects by 2119, with one likely exception — the indestructible cockroach, whose sole purpose is apparently to recycle our messes, thus guaranteeing its survival after all else is gone.