Changing Planet

Woods Hole Research Center responds to misleading NY Times op-ed on climate change



Climate scientists everywhere reacted with stunned outrage  as word spread about an op-ed piece in the New York Times on Sept. 20, 2014 under the headline: “To Save The Planet, Don’t Plant Trees.” Operating on kernals of truth that distort and misinterpret far larger facts and realities about the role of forests — tropical and otherwise — in mitigating the damage of climate change, Nadine Unger, an atmospheric chemist at Yale, wrote, somewhat incredulously, “It is a myth that photosynthesis controls the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere. Even if all photosynthesis on the planet were shut down, the atmosphere’s oxygen content would change less than 1 percent.”

As one climate scientist told me: “If you stopped photosynthesis, all the oxygen on the earth would be consumed. First by life–all organisms that use oxygen, and that is most of them, basically run photosynthesis backwards to get energy–then the weathering of everything on the planet that reacts with oxygen.  The experiment has been done throughout the universe. If you don’t have life, you don’t have oxygen in the atmosphere.  It reacts with everything it touches.”  

Leading climate scientists at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts weighed in with the letter below, which I received by email earlier today. On a day when President Obama called on the nations of the world to unite — now, not later — in agreeing to sensible policies that slow the rate of global warming, it’s more important than ever to be able to separate fact from fiction in coping with this gathering and imminent environmental crisis.


September 23, 2014 The following letter was sent the New York Times today by the undersigned.To the Editor:”To Save the Planet Don’t Plant Trees” is an eye-catching headline, but is wide of the mark and misrepresents some of the points made by Prof. Unger in her scientific research. Her main argument is that while trees capture and store heat trapping carbon dioxide, they also release chemicals into the air that have the opposite effect.  Her concern that these gases react with pollution from vehicles to form short-lived heat trapping gases can best be addressed by reducing fossil fuel pollution, not eliminating trees.

And while it is true that dark trees absorb more solar energy than desert sands, this is not a reason to convert earth’s forests into deserts – nor to believe that doing so would help the climate. She ignores the cooling effect of forests as they evaporate vast quantities of water, and the extremely large global warming impact of black carbon particulates when fire is used to clear forests – not to mention the “planet saving” services forests provide such as protecting biodiversity,  preventing flooding, improving water quality and providing sustainable forest products.

Her opposition to paying to protect forests is also misleading. Instead of funding tree planting in cold regions, what Unger characterized as a “bad bet” will protect and restore tropical forests that she agrees will have a significant cooling effect. Tropical deforestation is undeniably part of our global warming problem. Investing in the protection of tropical forests is an essential part of the solution.


William R. Moomaw

Emeritus Professor of International Environmental Policy, Tufts University

Thomas Lovejoy

University Professor, George Mason University and

Biodiversity Chair at the Heinz Center for Science, Economics and the Environment

William H Schlesinger

President, Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies

Millbrook, New York

Richard A. Houghton

Acting President, Woods Hole Research Center

Michael S. Wolosin

Managing Director, Research and Policy, Climate Advisers


WHRC is an independent research institute where scientists investigate the drivers and impacts of climate change to identify opportunities for conservation, restoration and economic development around the globe.


Justin Catanoso is a North Carolina-based journalist with 30 years of experience in covering health care, science, economic development and business. He is a Pulitzer Prize nominee and winner of the Science-in-Society Award for his coverage of the tobacco industry in the early 1990s. He has published travel stories from the U.S., Italy, Austria, Thailand and Canada. After 13 years as founding executive editor of The Business Journal in Greensboro, N.C., he is now director of journalism at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.

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