Muckraker: Grist on Politics

Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), leaders of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called on Monday for action to prevent deforestation and thereby slow down climate change. Clearing and burning forests accounts for 20 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions.

“There’s no point in words. It’s time for action,” Kerry told the crowd at a special event focused on the issue. “What we need is leadership, leadership, leadership, and leadership. It’s got to start with the heads of states.”

Kerry and Lugar were joined by Kenyan environmental advocate and Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai, as well as leaders from big green groups like Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy and businesses like Marriott International and American Electric Power. The event was hosted by the group Avoided Deforestation Partners (how’s that for an unappealing moniker?), an international network that works to stop tropical deforestation, in part by promoting carbon offsets.

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Maathai said that as the world moves toward major climate talks in Copenhagen in December, efforts to curb deforestation should play an important role. She also emphasized that the conversation should not be about saving the planet, but about saving people. “You cannot save the planet. What you need to do is see if you can try to save yourself,” said Maathai. “The planet is not going to die. The planet will survive. It will adjust itself, as it has always done.”

Former U.S. climate negotiator Stuart Eizenstat also spoke at the event, emphasizing that programs to incentivize avoided deforestation will be critical in engaging developing nations in climate talks. Developing nations and their citizens depend more directly on forests for their livelihoods, and deforestation is often the result of a lack of other economic options.

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“There was an impasse [during Kyoto Protocol negotiations] between developed and developing nations that must be avoided in Copenhagen,” said Eizenstat. “This is a way to engage developing countries that want to come to the table, who want to make their contribution to avoiding climate change.”

The two senators at the event have indicated that they will make climate a focus of the Foreign Relations Committee this year. Last month, the panel heard testimony from Al Gore at its first hearing of the 111th Congress.

On Jan. 29, Lugar and Kerry introduced a bill to reauthorize for three years the Tropical Rain Forest Conservation Act of 1998, legislation that Lugar and former Sen. Joe Biden first initiated. Since original passage of the bill, an estimated 50 million acres of tropical forests around the world have been preserved through so-called “debt-for-nature swaps,” which allow countries to reduce their foreign debt in exchange for protecting forests.

Efforts to reauthorize the act stalled last year amid squabbling, but Lugar said Monday that he’s more optimistic in the current political climate. “I’m hopeful this year we will be able to overcome the objections and get this bill passed,” he said.

Grist caught up with Kerry after today’s event and inquired about his committee’s next moves. He wasn’t very specific. “We’re going to do additional hearings,” said Kerry. “We’ll be following up on the road to Copenhagen, we’re going to be staying with it consistently from now until Copenhagen.”

As for crafting a domestic climate plan, Kerry said his committee is “working very closely” with members of other committees to develop a cap-and-trade bill.