Photograph by Thomas Hoepker/Magnum Photos

The Forest for the Trees

words by willow defebaugh

Welcome to The Overview, a weekly newsletter in which Editor-in-Chief Willow Defebaugh offers a holistic look at life on Earth, seen from above.

“We are in the midst of a self-inflicted climate emergency that threatens to destroy all life on planet Earth. And perhaps above all, we face a crisis of spirit.”

Ruth H. Hopkins

If you’re connected to climate work, you might be feeling a touch of FOMO right now. Leaders and advocates from all over the world have settled in Glasgow, Scotland to discuss climate strategy at this year’s Conference of the Parties, which is already being called out as “the most exclusive” COP ever. As for me, I decided to stay behind to focus on finishing the next issue of Atmos, which is similarly focused on the future. But this newsletter is a weekly look at life on Earth, and right now, that life rests in the hands of those at COP. So today I’m breaking down the major news to come out of week one—namely the pledges that always require a deeper look.


In a historic move to protect more than 85% of the world’s remaining forests, leaders of over 100 countries pledged to end deforestation by 2030. Notable among them are the U.S., China, Russia, and Brazil—the latter being especially significant, with Brazil having seen a spike in logging since President Jair Bolsonaro took office. $19 billion was put forward toward the initiative, with $1.9 billion going to Indigenous Peoples. It’s a welcome effort, particularly in that it prioritizes natural systems of carbon sequestration rather than placing all our stakes in tech that largely doesn’t exist yet; however, the pledge isn’t binding and 2030 is still nearly a decade away. With parts of the Amazon now teetering past the tipping point, every year—every tree—matters.


Another pledge came in the form of cutting methane emissions by 30% by 2030. The most recent IPCC report declared methane to be a top priority for mitigating climate change; while it has a shorter lifespan in the atmosphere, methane is 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Its main drivers are agriculture (specifically cows), fossil fuels, and landfills. Over 100 countries signed on board for this pledge—which is great, except that the three top methane-emitting countries did not: China, Russia, and India. And similar to the deforestation pledge, this one is nonbinding, meaning that there are essentially no consequences should any of these countries fail to clear a bar that is already concerningly low. 


A third pledge saw 20 countries—including the U.S. and Canada—commit to no longer financing international fossil fuel projects beyond next year, and to invest that money into clean energy instead. Surprise: it seems we are capable of setting deadlines that are sooner than a decade away! However, the fine print on this one may be even more glaring than the others. Firstly, it only pertains to new fossil fuel projects, not the estimated $188 billion that the G20 put into operations abroad in the last two years alone (thanks to our friends at Earther for pointing this out). Secondly, it makes no mention of domestic oil and gas operations—which, for the U.S. and Canada, are something to write home about. 


Of course, these promises are better than none at all; however, it’s far past time we raised the bar. Greenwashed efforts simply won’t suffice anymore. And I’m not alone. Even from afar, it’s evident that the most exciting developments at COP this year seem to be unfolding outside, at the demonstrations by activists who have come together to demand more. Ahead of this weekend’s marches, Greta Thunberg issued a rallying cry: “They use greenwashing and fancy rhetoric to make it seem like they are taking real action and that they care. All the while people are literally dying as a consequence of their inaction. They are already seeming to give up on the 1.5° C target. But we can not let them get away with that.”


While I remain cautiously optimistic, the speeches and proclamations by world leaders at conferences like these often feel so hollow. The conversations are almost always strictly political. And don’t get me wrong, radically changing policy is the best and only chance we have at this point. But that has to happen alongside deeper change. We are living in a world where the dominant force (late-stage capitalism) is driven by exploitation—of the Earth and all its inhabitants—and I don’t hear any of these leaders making pledges to change that. Instead, they are making every promise possible to save a system with rotten roots. 


In order to change the world, we have to change our worldview. We have to look to the deeper disconnect that led us here—the one that taught generations of people to see the world as something to be used, rather than something that they are in relationship with. We have to invest not only in political change, but a change of heart, to address what contributing editor Ruth H. Hopkins has called “a crisis of spirit.” We have to stop focusing only on the symptoms and start treating the disease holistically, so that true healing can begin. Because pledges to save the forest will never be enough if we don’t start seeing it for the trees.

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