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Could This Be a Crime? U.S. Climate Bill Is Dead While So Much Life on Our Earth Continues to Perish

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Crossposted with ClimateStoryTellers.org

Imagine you live in New York City, and one fine morning you awake to the realization that 90 percent of all the buildings that were more than five stories tall have been destroyed. You will hardly have the words to talk about this devastation, but I'm sure you will walk around the rubble to make sense of it all.

Something similar has happened in and around Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I currently live. Between 2001 and 2005, aerial surveys were conducted over 6.4 million acres of the state. Some 816,000 affected acres were mapped and it was found that during this short period Ips confusus, a tiny bark beetle, had killed 54.5 million of New Mexico's state tree, the piñon. In many areas of northern New Mexico, including Santa Fe, Los Alamos, Española, and Taos, 90 percent of mature piñons are now dead.

Under normal climate conditions, bark beetles live in harmony with their environment, laying their eggs in dead or weakened trees. However, when healthy trees become stressed from severe and sustained drought, they become objects of attack: the beetles drill into their bark, laying eggs along the way, and killing their host. Milder winter temperatures have ensured more of them survive the winter, and warmer summer temperatures have reduced the life cycle duration of the beetles from two to one year, and subsequently their numbers have exploded in recent years.

In March 2006, my then-future wife Nora and I rented a house in Eldorado, a suburban community about 15 miles southeast of Santa Fe. Each day as I drove from our home to the nearby city, all along the way on both sides of the road I'd see large areas of grey-brown (dead piñons) in the midst of green (live junipers).

During my childhood in India, I was fascinated by the detective stories of Satyajit Ray's Feluda series. Because of the forest devastation I witnessed daily, I took on the role of a self-assigned visual detective of a geographic region bound by a 5-mile radius around our home. I walked again and again the same three paths, each no more than 2 miles long.

As I repeated my walks, I gradually began to realize that the environment around our home in the desert is perhaps as biodiverse as the arctic, where I have been taking photographs for the past decade. In both regions, one far and one near, I am attempting to address two simple things: home and food that land provides to humans as well as to numerous other species with whom we share this earth.

I'll share with you a few experiences and a little bit of what I learned from these walks.

From a distance I see a large dead piñon with a canopy that spreads more than 20 feet. I can determine from the canopy size that the tree was more than 600 years old when it died. Piñons take nearly 300 years to mature and can live up to 1,000 years.

As I get closer to the dead tree, I notice the damaged skin with many protrusions that look like soft yellow globs or lines. Such skin is visual evidence that the tree did not die a normal death, but instead put up a fight against beetles by sending out sap to drown them in resin. In the end the tree lost, as the number of beetles the tree was fighting was far too many. I've never seen a bark beetle, whose size is no bigger than a grain of rice, and I doubt you'll see one either, but if you look closely at the skin of one of these dead piñons you will know that the beetles were here and that the tree fought hard.

Occasionally I see a beautiful northern flicker pecking away at a dead tree trunk, either building a nest or looking for food - insects that have come to break down the dead tree. In the process, the flicker will create perfectly circular holes. These cavities will become possible homes for gorgeous western and mountain bluebirds. Even after death these dead piñons provide home and food for many species.

On my walks I also come across areas that resemble graveyards, where every piñon in immediate sight is dead. But I continue to see birds resting on the branches of these dead trees. And when I wait patiently, sometimes I am rewarded with the sight of a tiny black-chinned hummingbird, which weighs less than 1/2 ounce, on top of a 20-foot-high dead piñon as it catches its breath briefly before buzzing off to feed on a cluster of bright-orange Indian paintbrush.

Piñon trees produce protein-rich nuts once every four to seven years. Nut eaters like Piñon Jays critically depend on piñon nuts for sustenance, but they also serve a very important role in the regeneration of piñon woods. A typical flock of 50 to 500 birds can cache more than 4 million piñon seeds in a good year in New Mexico, and uneaten seeds result in new trees.

For Native American communities of the desert southwest, piñon tree has been of immense cultural, spiritual, and economic importance for many millenia. The nut is extensively harvested throughout its range. It has been a staple for a long time and continues to be eaten and used in cooking today.

This is not the first time that piñon forests have been destroyed. It has been suggested that the ancient Pueblo people of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico overharvested the piñon-juniper woodlands around their community to support the growing need of timber for fuel and building materials. In the process they deforested woodlands that eventually contributed to their abandoning the magnificent community they had built. Even more extensive devastation occurred during the late nineteenth and throughout the twentieth century, when vast areas of piñon woodlands were deforested to support cattle ranching, which indigenous communities and others regard as a major act of ecocultural vandalism.

According to a fascinating book, Ancient Piñon-Juniper Woodlands: A Natural History of Mesa Verde Country, biologists have recently begun to define the piñon-juniper woodland as an old-growth forest. This ecosystem supports an incredible diversity of wildlife, including 250 bird species (50 percent of all bird species west of Mississippi and more than a quarter of bird species in the U.S. and Canada), 74 species of mammals, 17 species of bats, 10 amphibian species, and 27 species of reptiles. Sadly, junipers are also dying (in lesser numbers so far) from extreme heat and drought. When I started my walks, I did not realize that there existed an old-growth forest in the New Mexican desert.

Every time I call my mom in India she complains about how hot this summer has been. This year we had the hottest first six months globally since recording began in 1880. In Santa Fe, we broke the June high temperature record with a 100oF (average high is 83oF), the July record with another 100oF (average high is 86oF), and with 95oF already we've tied the August record (average high is 83oF).

So it is no surprise that many of our remaining live piñons are again oozing soft yellow pitches. As it happens, these piñons were blooming last year and now they have beautiful green cones that will mature with nuts. These piñons are fighting-and-fruiting right now for their survival but they are infected and will die.

Even reforestation is taking on a different meaning in the twenty-first century. Young piñon trees have little chance of surviving extreme heat and drought. Each time I drive on Cerrillos Road to get to Interstate 25, I see a line of recently planted piñons, but some of the young trees are already dead, and I surmise the others might be infected.

If we lose our remaining piñons in the coming decades due to global warming, how would we then talk about the tree that has been ecoculturally most significant for New Mexico and its Native American communities for thousands of years?

Forests Are Dying Across the American West and All Over the World

In 2004, Michelle Nijhuis reported in High Country News that several species of bark beetles were ravaging forests all across the American West. The black spruce, white spruce, ponderosa pine, lodglepole pine, whitebark pine, and piñon have all been devastated by recent bark beetles epidemic. Scientists now suspect that by killing our forests, these beetles are also altering the local weather patterns and air quality.

Earlier this year, the U.S. senate had scheduled a hearing on the bark beetle epidemic, but, angered by the passage of the healthcare bill, Senate Republicans canceled the hearing on March 23. The hearing was finally held on April 21. Senator Mark Udall (Democrat-Colorado), co-sponsor of the National Forest Insect and Disease Emergency Act, wrote in his senate blog, "The infestation is a critical public health and safety issue for the people of Colorado and has been called the worst natural disaster our region has seen." The bill names twelve states affected by the epidemic: Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. This list should also include Alaska, where spruce bark beetles have destroyed very large areas of spruce forests, some of which I saw during my time there.

The hearing mainly focused on offering tens of millions of dollars of federal assistance to remove dead trees from affected areas to avoid potential forest fire damage. Ecologist Dominik Kulakowski, who testified, thought it was an unproductive approach and said that if the government focuses on trying "to make a wholesale modification of forest structure over large landscapes", it could be ecologically damaging.

Was the hearing a case of destroy and then clean up - a common practice in our now global consumerist culture?

In March, Jim Robbins reported in Yale Environment 360 that global warming is killing forests across the American West as well as in many parts of the world. So I asked my colleagues for local observations.

In 2006, I spent time in Old Crow, a Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation Arctic community in northern Yukon, Canada. At that time I knew nothing about the forest death that was happening in the southern Yukon. In a recent email to me, Roger Brown, the Forestry and Environmental Manager of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, wrote, "Canada's largest ever documented spruce bark beetle outbreak began 18 years ago and is continuing to affect our forests in the southwestern Yukon. Approximately 380,000 hectares of our white spruce dominated forests have been affected, with almost 100 percent mortality of the forest canopy in some areas. Our oral history research has suggested there is no traditional knowledge that speaks about such extensive tree deaths in the past."

In early June, as United Nations climate negotiators were wrapping up their unsuccessful meeting in Bonn, Germany, Anne-Marie Melster, founder and co-director of ARTPORT, wrote from Valencia, "Here in Spain, at the Mediterranean coast, the picudo rojo (red palm weevil) is attacking and killing tens of thousands of palm trees."

About the same time, Ananda Banerjee, a conservation journalist from New Delhi, emailed me. "The sal forest in north-central India is home to the endangered tiger," he said. "In the last few years there has been wide spread destruction and felling of infected sal trees, from the attack of a pest beetle called the sal borer. We have around 1,10,000 sq. km area of sal forest in India, but the green cover is gradually depleting due to this pest and due to illegal harvest of sal as timber."

If you are interested in a broad scientific understanding of forest deaths from global warming, you can read an article published earlier this year in Forest Ecology and Management. It is worth noting the names of countries listed in the article with forest mortality data that have been recorded since 1970.

          Algeria, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Canada, China, France, Germany, Greece,
          India, Indonesia, Italy, Malaysia, Mexico, Morocco, Namibia, New Zealand, Norway,
          Poland, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Spain, South Africa, South Korea, Sri Lanka,
          Switzerland, Uganda, USA, and Zimbabwe

Global warming skeptics would point to the fact that trees have died in the past from insect outbreaks and droughts, and so this is part of a natural climate cycle. But this time around something is very different: Forests are dying simultaneously in many places around the world in all forest types, and the intensity and rapidity with which they are dying in some places is of epic proportions.

As I started thinking about our dead forests, I wondered: Do we really need another story of global warming devastation? Haven't we heard enough about melting glaciers and icebergs, retreating sea ice and disappearing polar bears? Then something tugged on my shoulder: Are we not to mourn the deaths of so many trees? But we mourn that which we knew and cared for. We did not know these trees. My hope has been to introduce to you the trees as ecological beings beyond their usual association as board-feet-for-lumber.

Hundreds of millions of trees have recently died and many more hundreds of millions will soon be dying. Now think of all the other lives, including birds and animals, that depended on those trees. The number of these must be in the tens of billions. What happened to them and how do we talk about that which we can't see and will never know? This massive loss must be considered a catastrophic global warming event.

Our "Carbon Sinks" Are Becoming "Carbon Sources"

Consider for a moment the top two carbon sinks of our planet. Oceans absorb more than 25 percent of the CO2 humans put in the air, and forests absorb almost the same amount. By doing so, our forests and oceans together make living possible on this earth for life as we know it now. All of that is changing rapidly and for the worse.

Didn't we learn as kids in school that CO2 in the atmosphere is good for trees because it acts as a fertilizer and helps them grow? Increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere from industrialization indeed may have aided more trees to grow in the past century. But such short-term gain has already faded away and turned into disaster. All three of the largest forests of the world are rapidly losing their carbon sink capacities.

The Siberian taiga is the largest continuous stretch of forested land on earth. It extends from the Urals in the west to the Kamchatka peninsula in the Russian Far East. Ernst-Detlef Schulze of the Max-Planck-Institute for Biogeochemistry has studied this taiga for 30 years. He calls it "Europe's green lungs," as these trees soak up much of the CO2 emitted by European smokestacks and automobiles farther west. Long stretches of extreme droughts have resulted in unprecedented forest fires that destroyed vast swathes of the taiga. Major deforestation is also happening there to fuel the need of (now) emerged economies such as China. And the fir sawyer beetle, larch bark beetle, and Siberian moth have also damaged large areas of the taiga.

This year Russia is experiencing the hottest summer ever, which has resulted in deadly forest fires with smokes over Moscow that made international headlines. Boreal forests of eastern Siberia are also ablaze with intense fires. Scientists have recently detected a poisonous ring around the planet created by an enormous cloud of pollutants that are being released by raging forest fires in central Russia, Siberia, and Canada.

In November 2007, I went to the Sakha Republic of Siberia with Inupiat hunter and conservationist Robert Thompson from Arctic Alaska. While camping with the Even reindeer herders in the Verkhoyansk Range, the coldest inhabited place on earth, we experienced temperatures of minus 65oF (without wind-chill) and were told that January temperature dip to minus 90oF. We also spent time with the Yukaghir community at Nelemnoye along the Kolyma River, made infamous by Stalin's Gulag camps. We learned that even in such a cold place, the Siberian permafrost is melting rapidly during the summer months due to warming.

In Siberia, with the destruction of taiga and thawing of permafrost, the ghosts-of-gulags are ready to strike back at us with a deadly carbon bomb that we know little about.

The North American boreal forest stretches across U.S. and Canada from Alaska in the west to Newfoundland in the east, making it the second largest continuous forested ecosystem on earth. It is now confirmed that a lodgepole pine forest in British Columbia, Canada, that died from bark beetles outbreak has transformed from being a small net carbon sink to being a large net carbon source. We can probably say the same for all the other bark beetles infecting dying forests across the west.

The Amazon rainforest is the largest tropical forest on earth and stretches across nine countries - Brazil, Peru, Columbia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana. I've never been to the Amazon, but I'm learning that forest fires, droughts, and deforestation have already destroyed very large areas of this forest. The Amazon is in great trouble: Scientists are predicting that a 4oC temperature rise would kill 85 percent of the Amazon. With climate inaction so far, we are heading rapidly toward such a reality.

The news is equally bad for our oceans, which are now struggling to keep up with the rising CO2 emissions from human activities. By absorbing all that CO2 the oceans are becoming horrendously acidic, threatening the survival of marine life. To make matters worse, methane that is 20 times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas is being released in enormous quantities from some of our oceans, including the East Siberian Arctic Shelf, due to thawing of subsea permafrost there, and the Gulf of Mexico, due to BP's unforgiveable spill. Two studies have shown methane concentrations in some areas of the gulf reached 100,000 times higher than normal with few hot spots close to a million times higher. And recently we learned that 40 percent of the world's phytoplankton died in the last 60 years due to global warming, raising the question, "Are Our Oceans Dying?"

Our natural carbon sinks are losing the battle with global warming, increasing human CO2 emissions, and extreme oil-and-gas drilling. Every citizen of our planet should be asking the question: Who or what will capture the carbon that we continue to emit? And every government ought to address this question as the most urgent priority if we are to ensure life on Earth.

Our New Climate Movement

Last month the U.S. Senate finally put an end to the climate bill. Since then several opinion pieces have been published, including articles in Yale Environment 360, Grist, TomDispatch, The Nation, and The Hill. Some of these point out why the U.S. climate movement failed, while others call for a new movement.

Global warming is a crisis: for all lands, for all oceans, for all rivers, for all forests, for all humans, for all birds, for all mammals, for all little creatures that we don't see... for all life. We need stories and actions from every part of our earth. So far, global warming communications have primarily focused on scientific information. I strongly believe that to engage the public, we need all fields of the humanities. It is to this end that I founded ClimateStoryTellers.

And there is much action: globally, 350.org and Climate Justice Movement; nationally, organizations such as Center for Biological Diversity; and state-based initiatives such as New Energy Economy in New Mexico. These groups give us hope that a bold - not weak - climate movement will continue to move forward with renewed energy.

Our task is to make the collective global voice louder and louder until ignoring such loud cacophony will not be an option by our governments. Global warming is not something we can solve with good behavior and healthy lifestyles. It will require major government action to control pollution-and-polluters and to start a low-carbon-society.

I'll end with two simple questions:

          Will the economic-and-comfort-needs of our species always trump the survival-needs
          of all other species that also inhabit this Earth?

          &

          By not taking serious action on global warming, is humanity committing a colossal crime
          against all other lives on Earth?

[I dedicate this story to my wife Nora who showed me a Curve-billed Thrasher's nest on a cholla cactus, the first I had ever seen, and walked with me on all the paths that made this story possible.]

Subhankar Banerjee is a photographer, writer, activist, and founder of ClimateStoryTellers. His desert photographs will be presented in a solo exhibition, "Where I Live I Hope To Know," at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth (May 14-August 28, 2011) and in group exhibitions "(Re-) Cycles of Paradise" at the Centro Cultural de España in Mexico City (November 11, 2010-January 16, 2011) and "Earth Now: American Photographers and the Environment" at the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe (April 18-August 28, 2011). His arctic photographs will be presented in a solo exhibition "Resource Wars in the American Arctic" at the School of Fine Art Gallery at Indiana University in Bloomington (October 22-November 19, 2010) and in group exhibition "The Altered Landscape: Photographs of a Changing Environment" at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno (September 24, 2011-February 19, 2012). Subhankar is currently editing an anthology titled "Arctic Voices." You can visit his website by clicking here.

[Note on photographs: To view Subhankar's forest death photos from New Mexico click here. This album was curated to accompany this piece.]

[Note for readers: I'd like to thank my long-time collaborator and the editor of this piece Christine Clifton-Thornton; to Roger Brown, Anne-Marie Melster, and Ananda Banerjee for sharing their observations for this piece; and always to Tom Engelhardt for his support and inspiration.]

Copyright 2010 Subhankar Banerjee

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