The Grim Ironies of Climate Change
War and deforestation have a complicated relationship. The Belgian empire invaded the Congo rainforest during the late 19th century and swiftly established itself as the cruelest imperial force in Africa. The Congo is the worlds second-largest rainforest behind the Amazon, and King Leopold II treated it like a personal loot box. To strip away and sell its resources, he enslaved the Indigenous population, destroying much of the regions preexisting culture and politics from the family unit on upward. The penalty for failing to meet his rubber quotas was amputation. Millions died during his extractive reign, and ever since, the rainforest has rarely known peace. To a certain cast of mind, the rainforests that straddle Earths equatorial zone constitute the apex of all creation. Every day, 12 hours of sunlight strikes their canopies and beams down through cracks to ferns on the forest floor. This daily dose of sun also burns off mist from equatorial oceans and rivers, raising a belt of clouds from the planets midsection. The droplets that fall from it put the rain in rainforest . Together, these twin supplies of solar energy and water fuel the year-round growth of a green multistory shelter, from which some of the worlds most diverse animal, fungal, and microbial ecologies have emerged. Few other physical systems, perhaps in the entire universe, convert inanimate materials so readily, and so profusely, into life. Tropical rainforests are not merely marvels of nature. Like human beings, they profoundly affect the Earth system; they also stabilize it in the face of geologically novel events. During the past 200 years, they have done so by breathing in the carbon exhaust of industrial modernity, reconstituting its molecules into branching networks of roots, thick stems, fresh leaves, flowers, and seeds. Tropical rainforests are among natures most important carbon-capture systems, absorbing far more than any human technology. They are nonetheless under threat all over the world. Some are better off than others. So far, the Congos 500 million acres of forest have remained largely intact. But maybe not for a reason that anyone can celebrate. Read: The Amazon cannot be recovered once its gone For more than 50 years now, satellites have whirled around the Earth many times a day, monitoring the health and extent of tropical rainforests. Almost all of the largest forestsin the Amazon basin, mainland Southeast Asia, and the islands in and around Indonesiahave lost very significant portions of their tree cover. In the Amazon alone, enormous stretches have been burned down and replaced with industrial-scale fields of corn and soy since 1985. Their yields feed the tens of billions of chickens, pigs, and cows in factory farms, which perversely mirror the rainforest in the density of their biomass production. The Congo has been a notable exception to this extreme deforesting trendbut thats partly because the rainforest has played host to one of the bloodiest sustained conflicts since the Second World War. In 1960, the colonial Belgians were ousted from power in the Congo, and in the decades since, the rainforest has been subject to nearly every variety of political instability. That the regions national borders were drawn by and for imperial powers has made tensions worse, as has continued meddling by quasi-colonial outsiders. During the Cold War, a coup backed by the United States assassinated Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected leader of independent Congo. A brutal dictator, then named Joseph Mobutu, eventually seized power. Even by local standards, Mobutus regime was extraordinarily corrupt. He embezzled his way to an enormous personal fortune, depleting the states strength. When the Hutu perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide sought refuge in the eastern rainforest during the late 1990s, the region ignited into the First Congo War. It lasted only six months but set the stage for the Second Congo War, which spanned roughly four years and eventually killed more than 3 million people. A peace agreement finally arrived in 2002, but today militias continue to fight in the Congos eastern reaches. As a consequence, multinational companies have been slower to set up large slash-and-burn operations than they have in, say, Brazil, Max Holmes, CEO of the Woodwell Climate Research Center, told me. Without as many corporate-scale operations on the ground, foliage has been preserved, and the planet has stayed cooler. Any decent human being has to hope that a more stable peace will soon come to the Congo, even though it will likely mean more intense deforestation. The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is one of the worlds poorest nations, and its leaders will want to ramp up the economy. The quickest and dirtiest way to do that will be to exploit the rainforest. Elsewhere in the world, forests have been devastated after conflicts came to a close. For example, after the 2016 accords between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels, many of the guerrillas former jungle strongholds were burned to make way for farms, ranches, and other businesses. Read: Trees are overrated Something similar could happen in the Congo, the home of the forest elephant and gorilla. Studies have found a positive association between conflict in the Congo and traditional, small-scale deforestation, which is mostly caused by local people clearing forest for subsistence farms, and by the extraction of charcoal, timber, and minerals by militia groups. But peace can bring larger-scale deforestation, explained Elizabeth Goldman, a researcher at Global Forest Watch. During the past 15 years, the rate has doubled in the DRC. The Congolese government has passed forest-conservation legislation, but brazenly flouts its own laws. New networks of red-soiled roads are spreading out through the jungle. Deforestation in the region still isnt as bad as it has been in the Amazon or some parts of Indonesia, Goldman told me, but that could change if peace at last comes to the region. Among those who are trying to save the Congo, there isnt yet a consensus about what to do next. Community forest management has shown some promise, but only on a small scale. Many policy makers have championed a carbon-credit system, whereby foreign companies pay locals to keep rainforests intact, to offset their own emissions. But one of the Congos largest private carbon-credit operations was exposed for not keeping its promises to locals, and the practice itself has recently come under intense global scrutiny. Among other things, confirming that credits are working as intended is difficult. Nor is it always clear that the forests they protect would have otherwise been removed. Brazil has just proposed a massive new global fund that would pay countries to keep chain saws and torches away from rainforests. But there is no guarantee that it will be adopted. For those who pay attention to climate change, the grim ironies are hard to miss. The United States, the worlds most powerful country, professes to care about the planets warming atmosphere, but has also just become its largest exporter of natural gas. Abu Dhabi, a petrostate, is hosting the preeminent global climate meeting , and talks are being led by Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber, the CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company. Clearly, for the foreseeable future, humanity is going to keep burning the forests that were buried under the Earths surface hundreds of millions of years ago and also the living ones that now cool its atmosphere. We have already dramatically shrunk the largest of them, except for one, and it may only be an outlier because of a terrible, terrible war.