The billionaire’s solution to climate change

On May 3, Bloomberg published a profile of Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff’s project to plant or conserve one trillion trees around the world in order to sequester 200 gigatonnes of carbon every year. The idea reportedly came to Benioff from Thomas Crowther’s infamous September 2015 paper in Nature that claimed restoring trees was the world’s best way to ‘solve’ climate change.

Following pointed criticism of the paper’s attitude and conclusions, they were revised to a significant extent in October 2019 to tamper predictions about the carbon sequestration potential of the world’s trees and to withdraw its assertion that no other solution could work better than planting and/or restoring trees.

According to Bloomberg’s profile, Benioff’s initiative seems to be faltering as well, with unreliable accounting of the pledges companies submitted to and, unsurprisingly, many of these companies engaging in shady carbon-credit transactions. This is also why Jane Goodall’s comment in the article is disagreeable: it isn’t better for these companies to do something vis-à-vis trees than nothing at all because the companies are only furthering an illusion of climate action — claiming to do something while doing nothing at all — and perpetuating the currency of counterproductive ideas like carbon-trading.

A smattering of Benioff’s comments to Bloomberg are presented throughout the profile, as a result of which he might come across like a sage figure — but take them together, in one go, and he sounds actually like a child.

“I think that there’s a lot of people who are attacking nature and hate nature. I’m somebody who loves nature and supports nature.”

This comment follows one by “the climate and energy policy director at the Union of Concerned Scientists”, Rachel Cleetus, that trees “should not be seen as a substitute for the core task at hand here, which is getting off fossil fuels.” But in Bloomberg’s telling, Cleetus is a [checks notes] ‘nature hater’. Similarly, the following thoughtful comment is Benioff’s view of other scientists who criticised the Crowther et al. paper:

“I view it as nonsense.”

Moving on…

“I was in third grade. I learned about photosynthesis and I got it right away.”

This amazing quote appears as the last line of a paragraph; the rest of it goes thus: “Slashing fossil fuel consumption is critical to slowing warming, but scientists say we also need to pull carbon that’s already in the air back out of it. Trees are really good at that, drawing in CO2 and then releasing oxygen.” Then Benioff’s third-grade quote appears. It’s just comedy.

His other statements make for an important reminder of the oft-understated purpose of scientific communication. Aside from being published by a ‘prestige’ journal — Nature — the Crowther et al. paper presented an easy and straightforward solution to reducing the concentration of atmospheric carbon: to fix lots and lots of trees. Even without knowing the specific details of the study’s merits, any environmental scientist in South and Southeast Asia, Africa, and South America, i.e. the “Global South”, would have said this is a terrible idea.

“I said, ‘What? One trillion trees will sequester more than 200 gigatons of carbon? We have to get on this right now. Who’s working on this?’”

“Everybody agreed on tree diplomacy. I was in shock.”

“The greatest, most scalable technology we have today to sequester carbon is the tree.”

The countries in these regions have become sites of aggressive afforestation that provide carbon credits for the “Global North” to encash as licenses to keep emitting carbon. But the flip sides of these exercises are: (i) only some areas are naturally amenable to hosting trees, and it’s not feasible to plant them willy-nilly through ecosystems that don’t naturally support them; (ii) unless those in charge plant native species, afforestation will only precipitate local ecosystem decline, which will further lower the sequestration potential; (iii) unafforested land runs the risk of being perceived as ‘waste land’, sidelining the ecosystem services provided by wetlands, deserts, grasslands, etc.; and (iv) many of these countries need to be able to emit more carbon before being expected to reach net-zero, in order to pull their populations out of poverty and become economically developed — the same right the “Global North” countries had in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Scientists have known all this from well before the Crowther et al. paper turned up. Yet Benioff leapt for it the moment it appeared, and was keen on seeing it to its not-so-logical end. It’s impossible to miss the fact that his being worth $10 billion didn’t encourage him to use all that wealth and his clout to tackle the more complex actions in the soup of all actions that make up humankind’s response to climate change. Instead, he used his wealth to go for an easy way out, while dismissing informed criticism of it as “nonsense”

In fact, a similar sort of ‘ease-seeking’ is visible in the Crowther et al. paper as well, as brought out in a comment published by Veldman et al. In response to this, Crowther et al. wrote in October 2019 that their first paper simply presented value-neutral knowledge and that it shouldn’t be blamed for how it’s been construed:

Veldman et al. (4) criticize our results in dryland biomes, stating that many of these areas simply should not be considered suitable for tree restoration. Generally, we must highlight that our analysis does not ever address whether any actions “should” or “should not” take place. Our analysis simply estimated the biophysical limits of global forest growth by highlighting where trees “can” exist.

In fact, the October 2019 correction to Crowther et al., in which the authors walked back on the “trees are the best way” claim, was particularly important because it has come to mirror the challenges Benioff has found himself facing through it isn’t just that there are other ways to improve climate mitigation and adaptation, it’s that those ways are required, and giving up on them for any reason could never be short of a moral hazard, if not an existential one.

Featured image credit: Dawid Zawiła/Unsplash.