C-19-Lessons for Forests

Hi everybody,

ourwork-forestI hope you, your families, and your colleagues are symptom-free. And that you remain that way.

Many of us have struggled, over many years, to get forest managers, elected officials, and the public to appreciate the severity of the ecological and economic costs that accompany deforestation and industrial, short-rotation forest plantations. In my work, I’ve recently found that the C-19 pandemic helps many of these folks now understand what I’ve been talking about. Maybe my experience will be of benefit to you.

Scientists and economists often distinguish between two categories of risk from human actions that exacerbate changes in climate and degradation of biodiversity and ecosystem. One category has a high probability of occurring, and the consequences are serious, but marginal. The other has a low probability of occurring, and the consequences will be catastrophic. This latter category equates to the risks highlighted by the C-19 pandemic. Epidemiologists have long warned that, sooner or later, a pandemic would occur. Many governments, however, looked only at the low probability of a pandemic and failed to prepare for the catastrophic consequences. Accordingly, they invested what has proven to be far too little in the testing capacity, protective equipment, etc. needed to anticipate, detect, and respond to C-19 when it appeared. By doing so, it appears that they also increased the likelihood that the emergence of the virus would turn into a pandemic.

In recent months, many scientists have ramped up their warnings of low-probability-high-consequence risks the parallel pandemic risk. These risks are embedded in GHG emissions and other human actions (deforestation, etc.) that push ecosystems toward the thresholds of tipping points that, if crossed, will result in the destruction of existing ecosystems (though Mother Nature will, eventually, establish a different-looking replacement). Here in the Pacific Northwest, it seems we should be preparing to anticipate, detect, and, if necessary, respond to catastrophic ecosystem collapses. A few, extremely hot years, for example, might bring wildfires or infestations that trigger changes in forest structure across wide landscapes, or water hot enough in forest streams to trigger collapse of salmon and other fish populations.

A core lesson from the past three months is that low-probability-high-consequence risks have not disappeared, just because we’ve been successful in avoiding them for what seems to be a long time. I believe this lesson applies to forests. Specifically it applies to urbanization and to industrial short-rotation forest plantations. These actions intensify the probability and consequences of ecosystem collapse. Thus, the social costs of these activities likely will, sooner or later, prove to be much greater than common beliefs. Note that I’m not saying that these actions should be banned. Instead, I’m saying that those who would profit from them should be prohibited from doing so until they can demonstrate that they’ve made the necessary investment so that society has the capacity to anticipate, detect, and, if necessary, respond to the catastrophic ecosystem collapses these actions make more likely to occur.

In Oregon, logging is responsible for the emission of about 35 million metric tons of CO2 per year, about one-third of the state’s total. Economic research indicates that, if changes in climate evolve as expected, each ton will cause damages (flooding, etc.) of more than $400. It also anticipates that catastrophic outcomes might increase these damages 2–to–8 times. These numbers indicate that Oregon’s timber industry should be paying for about $15 billion to compensate for the expected damages and an additional $15–$100 billion into a fund to increase society’s capacity to anticipate, detect, and, if necessary, respond to the catastrophic ecosystem collapses that the annual logging-related emissions make more likely to occur.*

I hope you find these thoughts helpful to you as you work to increase the role forests play in combatting catastrophic climate change. Please let me know if you have any questions.


Ernie Niemi
Co-Director, Forest Carbon Coalition
President, Natural Resource Economics
Eugene, Oregon USA
Mobile: +541-505-2704