Around the same time that teenagers were bringing traffic to a standstill at the main intersection in Vermont’s capital city last week, urging swift and decisive action on climate change and a focus in their education to prepare them for the hardships they will endure in an altered world, Ethiopia’s citizens were busy planting trees.
The governments of Ethiopia, Kenya and some other African nations are pursuing large-scale, organized tree-planting programs to increase Earth’s capacity to capture and store carbon dioxide, in hopes of restoring the natural processes that have made the planet habitable for our species and others for several million years.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has instituted a “Green Legacy Initiative.” Its first major undertaking was to recruit citizens to participate in an ambitious project to plant 200 million trees in a single day in 1,000 sites across the country.
Instead, they planted 350 million in just 12 hours.
There are many approaches we can employ to slow, and hopefully curtail, the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that scientists are telling us, with increasing urgency, are a clear and present danger to the human race and the ecosystem that sustains us. We can reduce emissions by getting internal-combustion vehicles off the road; we can turn our energies and our financial investments away from fracking fields and oil and gas reserves, and invest instead in industries with a vision of the future, such as carbon-capture technologies, rather than a doomed, greed-driven allegiance to the past.
But simple tree-planting is an effective means immediately within our grasp. Recent research published by Science magazine estimated that a worldwide tree-planting program could remove two-thirds of all the emissions that have been pumped into the atmosphere as a result of human activities.
Ethiopia embodies the harm wrought by deforestation. The United Nations Environment Program estimates that a century ago, 35% of Ethiopia was forested; today, it’s less than 4%. Juliette Biao Koudenoukpo, director of UN Environment’s Africa Office, urged other African nations to emulate Ethiopia’s vigorous and ambitious program.
“Afforestation,” she said (the term connotes the opposite of deforestation), “is the most effective climate change solution to date.”
Yet it seems almost certain that Ethiopia would have been among the places our president was referring to some months ago when he famously disparaged Third World, non-white nations as “s-hole” countries.
Perhaps the definition of “s-hole countries” is the eye of the beholder. Ethiopia may have deforested itself — partly motivated, if regional realities apply, by the capitalist forces of colonialism — but the United States, the world’s second-leading contributor of greenhouse gases, is significantly responsible for the atmospheric conditions now stressing that country and others around the globe. And while Ethiopia’s government launches a remedial tree-planting program, our government withdraws from the Paris climate accord, our president seeks to roll back mileage requirements on auto manufacturers and expand oil and gas exploration on land and sea, and lets the coal industry off the hook from intercessions established under President Barack Obama to reduce their emissions.
The students from Vermont communities and elsewhere, affiliated with a weeklong Uprise Youth Action Camp in Marshfield, inconvenienced motorists in Montpelier for at least a half-hour. Some drivers signaled their support, while others were put off and angry. Montpelier’s assistant city manager, quoted in the Times Argus, said, “I hope we can work out something that will be more cooperative, and they can find a way to speak without making the city inconvenienced and residents and businesses very unhappy.”
Tom Terenzini, a Republican legislator from Rutland Town, was blunter, opining that the protest was characteristic of what he denounced as a “sanctuary city.”
“You can disrupt the downtown [with impunity],” he said. “You can disrupt business, you can disrupt people trying to get through their daily life.”
Such reactions are understandable. Adults have schedules, obligations, responsibilities, and endure significant stress in trying every day to live up to them.
It’s notable, though, that the “inconvenience,” the “unhappiness” and the “disruption” referred to by these adult speakers doesn’t hold a candle to the inconvenience, the despair, the disruption and actual danger those teenagers will face in the increasingly imminent future, and endure through the rest of their (perhaps abbreviated) lives if as a state, a nation, and a community of nations we don’t act decisively to alter our course.
That was their “inconvenient” message to us. And they have every right to wonder when — when! — the adults who profess to have such deep, abiding love for them will begin to act like it.