Danna Smith’s Statement at the Congressional Hearing “Climate Change or Emergency: Where Do We Go From Here?”

On March 12, 2020, Danna Smith testified on Capitol Hill at a Congressional Briefing entitled, “Climate Change or Emergency: Where Do We Go From Here?” The event was hosted by Rep. A. Donald McEachin (VA-04) in collaboration with the House of Representatives United for Climate and Environmental Justice Task Force and the Senate Environmental Justice Caucus.

You can watch the full briefing here.

She was joined on stage by a powerful group of environmental and climate justice leaders including Mustafa Santiago Ali of the National Wildlife Federation, Keya Chatterjee of United States Climate Action Network, Malik Saafir of GreenFaith, Pedro Cruz of Sierra Club, and Dr. Astrid Caldas of Union of Concerned Scientists. The second half of the briefing featured Rev. Leo Woodberry of New Alpha Community Development Corporation, Loretta Slater of The Whitney M. Slater Foundation, Nsombi Lambert Haynes of One-Voice, Nana Firman of Islamic Society of North America, Alex Easdale of Southeast Climate Energy Network, and Kendyl Crawford of Virginia Interfaith Power & Light.

Below is Danna Smith’s full statement:

Good Afternoon. My name is Danna Smith and I am the Executive Director of Dogwood Alliance, a nonprofit organization working with communities across the Southern US to protect forests and advance climate justice. It is an honor to be here with this group of esteemed colleagues, who represent some of the most inspiring luminaries of the climate justice movement in America.

I’d like to thank Representative McEachin and the other members of Congress for hosting this press briefing. Your leadership at this moment is critical. Over the past year, over 11,000 scientists (1) and over 1400 jurisdictions around the world have declared a Climate Emergency calling for immediate, broad-sweeping action. Our window of opportunity is rapidly closing. The ice is melting. Forests are burning. Communities are flooding. People are dying.

Across America, forests play a critical, yet often misunderstood role in the Climate Emergency. Recent scientific studies underscore that to avoid catastrophic climate change letting forests grow to soak up carbon out of the atmosphere is as essential as getting off fossil fuels. When left standing, living forests remove and keep vast amounts of heat-trapping carbon out of the atmosphere, provide natural flood control, stabilize fresh water supplies and help purify and cool the air. At a time when flooding, droughts and heat waves are becoming more extreme, letting forests grow(2) is one of the smartest things we can do to stop the ongoing warming of the planet and protect our communities against extreme weather events.

To effectively address the climate crisis, we must acknowledge that our forests are in trouble. Our nation is the world’s largest consumer and producer of wood products, with rates of industrial logging that are among the highest on Earth. The hardest hit region is the Coastal Plain of the US South where the rate and scale of logging has been estimated at 4 times that of South American rainforests.(3) When forests are logged, carbon that would otherwise be stored is released and important natural protections against extreme weather events are compromised. It can take up to a century for new forests to fully regenerate, recapture the carbon lost and for ecosystem functions to be restored.

Decades of widespread, indiscriminate industrial logging has left our forests and communities in a degraded condition with disproportionate impacts to low-income rural communities and people of color. Along with a degraded landscape, these communities are suffering health impacts from nearby wood processing plants and other polluting industries that emit toxic air and water pollution. These same communities are bearing the brunt of the impacts of recent extreme flooding linked to climate change.

Rural communities living on the front-lines of industrial logging also disproportionately suffer from economic distress, having some of the highest poverty and unemployment rates in the country.(4) Meanwhile, the economic value of the public benefits of standing forests along the rivers for things like clean drinking water and natural flood control are estimated to be fifteen times greater than their value for wood products.

In the past several years, the situation has gotten worse due to the rapidly expanding global market for wood pellets that are being burned in power stations in Europe under the guise of renewable “biomass” energy. The Southern US is now the world’s largest exporter of wood pellets, with 20 mills wiping out approximately 180,000 acres of forests a year.

Meanwhile the science is clear, burning trees to generate electricity releases up to 50% more carbon than coal per unit of energy generated,(5) degrades carbon sinks, natural storm protection, impacts wildlife and causes pollution on par with fossil fuels.

I have witnessed first-hand, the way in which the concerns of my friends like Debra David and Belinda Joyner, who have been fighting the expansion in the wood pellet industry, have been brushed aside by policy makers in the name of “green energy jobs”. This industry is not green. Those most directly impacted do not want or need any more of this kind of destructive and polluting economic development. Yet, as I stand here today, more than a dozen new wood pellet plants are proposed across the South from Mississippi to North Carolina.

Policy makers are failing to take the action necessary to stop this false solution to climate change. As a result, the climate emergency is getting worse not better, the problem is getting bigger by the day.

Though the industrial forest industry is far from green it often promotes itself as such. Like the fossil fuel industry it uses distraction tactics, pointing to climate change, wildfire, insects and urban development as the culprits that “kill trees” and release carbon. But the data tell a different story: the largest driver of tree mortality and forest carbon emissions in the US is, in fact, industrial logging.(6)  Yet, our current national GHG inventory fails to transparently report or account for these emissions. However, several recent scientific reports document the magnitude of carbon emissions associated with logging. In Oregon, scientists found that emissions from the forestry sector exceeded those from the fossil fuel sector.(7) In North Carolina, logging is estimated to be the third largest emitter of carbon, only slightly behind the electricity and transportation sectors.(8)

Governments’ failure to acknowledge the carbon emissions and other climate impacts of industrial logging has benefited big industry at the expense of our climate forests and communities. The mad rush to plant a trillion trees has further distracted the public and policy makers away from the urgent need to protect forests. Even worse, policies promoting the expansion in the production of wood products, such as replacing steel in skyscrapers with wood, have been put forward under the guise of “natural climate solutions.”

The good news is that government leaders at the state level are beginning to take action. In North Carolina, the state’s recently adopted Clean Energy Plan, specifically rejects wood pellets and biomass as providing a pathway to a clean energy, low-carbon future. A resolution discrediting biomass and calling for greater forest protection now has bipartisan support in the Georgia legislature. The State of Virginia voted this year to phase out all power generation from burning wood.

Today we call for lawmakers to declare a climate emergency. To swiftly activate resources and directives to not only make drastic cuts in GHG emissions across the fossil fuel and agriculture sectors of the economy, but also the forestry sector. We call for an immediate halt to the expansion in production of all dirty fuels, including fracked gas and biomass wood pellets so that 100% of our efforts and investments can flow towards rapidly achieving 100% affordable, clean, renewable energy such solar and wind power for all. We call for plans at every level of government to begin an immediate and far-reaching transition away from a dirty, extractive industrial economy to one that supports a transition to clean energy and the protection and restoration of nature. We stand united in calling for a new green economy that truly works to improve the conditions of low-income communities and people of color, not just in urban areas but across rural America as well.

(1) World scientists’ warning of a climate emergency, WJ Ripple, C Wolf, TM Newsome, P Barnard, 2019 – academic.oup.com
(2) William R. Moomaw1*, Susan A. Masino2,3 and Edward K. Faison4 Frontiers in Forests in Global Change, 11 June 2019 | https://doi.org/10.3389/ffgc.2019.00027 Intact Forests in the United States: Proforestation Mitigates Climate Change and Serves the Greatest Good
(3) Hansen, M. C. et al High-resolution global maps of 21st-century forest cover change. Science 342, 850–853 (2013). http://science.sciencemag.org/content/342/6160/850
(4) See https://medium.com/@dannadogwood/forests-climate-and-justice-in-the-southern-us-68202f80ce4d for sources
(5) Not carbon neutral: Assessing the net emissions impact of residues burned for bioenergy, Mary S Booth, Published 21 February 2018 by IOP Publishing Ltd Environmental Research Letters, Volume 13, Number 3
(6) Harris, N. L. et al. Attribution of net carbon change by disturbance type across forest lands of the conterminous United States. Carbon Balance Manag. 11, 24 (2016). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5108824/
(7) Beverly E. Law, et. al. Land use strategies to mitigate climate change in carbon dense temperate forests, PNAS November 16, 2017
(8) https://www.newscientist.com/article/2215913-logging-study-reveals-huge-hidden-emissions-of-the-forestry-industry/

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