David Wheeler on Climate, Development, and Forest Monitoring for Action

November 23, 2009
This week, my guest on the Global Prosperity Wonkcast is senior fellow David Wheeler, the lead researcher for CGD’s work on climate and development. Last week, David and his team released a new tool called Forest Monitoring for Action (FORMA). A major advance in the remote monitoring of forests, FORMA makes available rapid, high-resolution monitoring of ongoing deforestation in tropical areas to anybody with an Internet connection. Developed with financial support from the Foreign Ministry of Denmark, host for the upcoming Copenhagen climate summit, FORMA debuted with data through the end of October for all of Indonesia (read the press release).While coal-fired power plants and gas-guzzling cars are the poster children for carbon emissions, David says the destruction of forests is just as serious a concern. “There is a lot of carbon locked up in tropical rainforests,” he explains, “and when you burn forests to clear it for other economic activities, you release all of that carbon.” Deforestation contributes about 15-20% of total emissions worldwide, with most of this coming from tropical forests.Paying developing countries to preserve tropical forests is potentially one of the cheapest ways to reduce emissions (see the Guardian for one such plan involving Prince Charles), and could bring major economic benefits to poor people who live in and near the forests. But donors will only follow through on these plans if they know that the forests are actually preserved.David says that this is where FORMA can help. Using NASA and other satellite data, the system tracks deforestation with great accuracy, down to areas about the size of a football stadium. Eventually, FORMA could not only monitor compliance with large-scale climate agreements, but even enable direct payments from individuals or private organizations to protect small tracts of forested land.While there are some bright spots, including increased efforts in developing countries to slow their emissions growth, the overall climate picture is grim, with global talks gridlocked even as the most recent climate science showing us much closer to tipping points than previously estimated. In the second half of the podcast, I ask David about his views on this dilemma.“If we had the luxury of time,” says David, “this might be enough. The problem is we do not have that luxury.” He says much more serious commitments are needed from the United States, and suggests that we should not shy away from researching contentious ideas, including nuclear power and geo-engineering—such as potentially risky efforts to shroud the earth in extra water vapor.“For our grandchildren’s sake, and possibly for our children’s sake,” David argues, “we had better be honest about considering all the alternatives, in case we are truly out of time, as many scientists think.”Listen to the podcast to hear our full discussion, and visit FORMA’s website here. Have something to add to our discussion? Ideas for future interviews? Post a comment below. If you use iTunes, you can subscribe to get new episodes delivered straight to your computer every week.


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