Climate Change Could Destroy Vast Forests, Report Warns

BOGOR, Indonesia, November 28, 2008 (ENS) – Without immediate concerted action by governments, climate change could have a devastating effect on the world’s forests and the nearly one billion people who depend on them for their livelihoods, warned forest scientists in a report to be released next week at the UN climate conference in Poland.

Scientists from the Center for International Forestry Research, CIFOR, in Bogor say adaptation measures to reduce the vulnerability of forests and forest-dependent communities are urgently needed. Forests will experience an unprecedented combination of flooding, drought, wildfire, and other effects of a warming climate over at least the next 100 years.

“We have identified two broad categories of adaptation measures for forest ecosystems,” said Bruno Locatelli, a CIFOR scientist and lead author of the report.

“The first is to buffer ecosystems against climate-related disturbances like improving fire management to reduce the risk of uncontrolled wildfires or the control of invasive species,” Locatelli explained. “In plantations, we can select species that are better suited to coping with the predicted changes in climate.”

“The second would help forests to evolve towards new states better suited to the altered climate,” he said. “In this way we evolve with the changing climate rather than resist it.”

A second adaptive response is to help the people who are managing, living in or conserving forests to adapt to future changes.

Settlers clear the Amazon rainforest for agriculture.
(Photo courtesy U.S. Forest Service)

“The people living in forests are highly dependent on forest goods and services and are often very vulnerable socioeconomically,” said Locatelli. “They usually have a much more intimate understanding of their forests than anyone else, but the unprecedented rates of climate change will almost certainly jeopardize their ability to adapt to new conditions. They will need help.”

Negotiations in Poland under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change are set to craft an agreement on limiting climate-heating greenhouse gases that will replace the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012. Forest management will be on the agenda because forests absorb the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, removing it from the atmosphere.

CIFOR will introduce this new report on December 5 in Poznan, Poland, one day ahead of Forest Day, a parallel event co-hosted by CIFOR, the Government of Poland and the Polish State Forests NFH, the Collaborative Partnership on Forests, a wide range of UN agencies and the World Bank. Participants will present findings, engage in dialogue and develop climate change solutions.

Forests provide millions of people with income, food, medicines and building materials and deliver many vital ecosystem services like flood or drought regulation and water purification, the CIFOR report points out. They are critical to the ability of human societies to adapt to climate change.

“The imperative to assist forests and forest communities to adapt to climate change has been poorly addressed in national policies and international negotiations,” said Frances Seymour, director general of CIFOR.

“The adaptation challenge is being treated as secondary to mitigation, and yet the two are inextricably linked,” she said.
Forest cleared for palm oil plantations in Indonesia’s Papua province.

Greenpeace is urging a moratorium on all
forest conversion in Indonesia to curb
greenhouse gas emissions, safeguard
tropical biodiversity and protect the
livelihood of forest dependent
communities. (Photo courtesy

After reviewing the scientific literature on the effects of climate change on forests, the CIFOR scientists conclude that by the end of the 21st century, tropical regions in Africa, South Asia, and Central America are likely or very likely to be warming at a faster rate than the global annual mean warming.

The predict that rainfall in East Africa and during the summer monsoon of South and Southeast Asia is likely to increase.

Annual precipitation in most of Central America is likely to decrease; this region is the most prominent tropical hotspot of climate change.

Peak wind intensities of tropical cyclones are likely to increase in tropical Southeast Asia and South Asia, bringing extreme rainfall.

Droughts and floods are expected to increase globally, making water management more difficult.

“In many forests, relatively minor changes in climate can have devastating consequences, increasing their vulnerability to drought, insect attack and fire,” said CIFOR forest ecologist Markku Kanninen, a co-author of the report.

“Burning or dying forests emit large quantities of greenhouse gases, so there is a chance that an initially small change in climate could lead to much bigger changes,” he said.

Mountain forests might be the first to disappear, said Kanninen. “We know that cloud forests are extremely sensitive to climatic changes, as are other types of mountain forest, because when temperatures increase and rainfall decreases, they have nowhere to go.”

Mangrove forests in coastal parts of West Africa, which help mitigate storms and underpin many commercial fisheries, are highly vulnerable to rising sea levels, according to the report. Some mangroves are expected to dry out almost completely – droughts in Senegal and The Gambia have already had devastating effects on mangroves.

Cloud forest, Costa Rica
(Photo by Richard Adams)

Scientists have already found examples of biodiversity loss due to climate change. In the highland cloud forests of Costa Rica, the lifting of the cloud base associated with increased ocean temperatures has been linked to the disappearance of 20 species of frogs.

“That is just a foretaste of what could be huge losses of forest biodiversity worldwide due to climate change,” said Kanninen.

Several studies have predicted that decreased rainfall in the biodiversity-rich Amazon would cause massive dieback of the forest and its large-scale substitution by savannah.

“Tropical dry forests are also highly vulnerable,” said Kanninen. “Only slight decreases in rainfall, predicted in many regions, will make them more susceptible to fire and to long-term ecological shifts that potentially could cause the extinction of thousands of species.”

The report advises that adaptation policies must be multi-sectoral, because deforestation affects many economic sectors such as transportation, water management, and energy.

Haze from forest fires in Indonesia is often thick enough to close airports, while landslides often close roads. Drinking water or hydroenergy companies in South America are starting to consider upstream ecosystem management, including forests, in order to reduce their vulnerability and ensure the quality and quantity of their water supply.

“Adaptation strategies should build on existing local knowledge about forest management in the face of climatic variability, and empower community members to take action to suit their own local circumstances,” said Director-General Seymour. “For many forest communities, adapting to climate change is already a matter of survival. We need to act now to ensure a better future.”

View This Story On Eco–mmunity Map.