“One Trillion Trees”… But Where to Plant Them?

11:52 minutes

a man stands at a podium in front of the american flag
President Trump delivers his State of the Union address Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2020, in the House chamber in Washington, D.C. Credit: Shealah Craighead/flickr/Public Domain

a stylized version of the earth with cloudsThis story is part of Degrees Of Change, a series that explores the problem of climate change and how we as a planet are adapting to it. Tell us how you or your community are responding to climate change here.

In this week’s State of the Union address, President Trump didn’t utter the words “climate change”—but he did say this: “To protect the environment, days ago I announced the United States will join the One Trillion Trees Initiative, an ambitious effort to bring together government and private sector to plant new trees in America and all around the world.”

Planting trees to suck up carbon is an increasingly popular Republican alternative to limiting fossil fuel emissions—but how practical is it? 

In this segment, E&E News White House reporter Scott Waldman discusses the strategy, along with President Trump’s views on electric vehicles and water-efficient showers, and why the failed Iowa caucuses may signal a shift in how candidates roll out their climate agendas.

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Segment Guests

Scott Waldman

Scott Waldman is the White House reporter for E&E News/Climatewire, based in Washington, DC.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow.


The climate is changing. And because we need to deal with it now, we open the next chapter of our series, Degrees of Change. Our series explores the challenges of a changing climate and how we as a planet and a people are adapting to the crisis. This hour, we will be talking about the climate issues facing Native American communities and how they are tackling and planning for environmental changes. More info on how you can get involved in our coverage. And sign up for our climate newsletter at ScienceFriday.com/degreesofchange.

First, we check in on the gatekeepers, the decision makers, the controllers of the purse strings. In this week’s State of the Union address, President Trump did not mention two little words with big consequences– climate change. But he did say this.

DONALD TRUMP: To protect the environment, days ago, I announced that the United States will join the One Trillion Trees Initiative, an ambitious effort to bring together government and private sector to plant new trees in America and all around the world.

IRA FLATOW: Planting trees to suck up carbon is an increasingly popular Republican alternative to limiting fossil fuel emissions. But how practical is it? Joining me to talk about that and other climate stories in the news this week, Scott Waldman, White House reporter at E&E News in Washington. Welcome back, Scott.

SCOTT WALDMAN: Thanks for having me, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Could you unpack this One Trillion Trees Initiative for us, please?

SCOTT WALDMAN: Sure. Well, Trump first announced that the US is going to participate in this a couple weeks ago at Davos for the World Economic Forum. And essentially, it’s a bunch of world leaders getting together, saying that they’re going to have this goal over the next few decades. It’s planning a trillion trees all around the world. It’s not just in the US. It’s in places all around the world. And certainly, this is part of what House Republicans are talking about right now as they craft their own climate policy.

IRA FLATOW: We talked about this issue with Abigail Whittaker, a project leader at the Center for Economic Development at Cal State University, Chico. And here is what she had to say.

ABIGAIL WHITTAKER: What you often see is that these public forest lands are, they’re kind of used as a regional piggy bank, where if your primary income source fails, you turn to the gig economy and these public lands and public resources that everybody kind of dips into when they have an economic need in their household. So they’re going to look there for opportunities to harvest firewood, food to create charcoal products.

So if, say, a government or business steps in and says we’re going to take advantage of all of this public land that exists here, we’re going to plant a large amount of trees, there are often kind of two ways this scenario plays out. Either the government brings in law enforcement to exclude those local people from using the common areas, and local people will lose out on those gig economy livelihood options, or they don’t protect the land where they’ve planted the trees. The local people continue to use it for these other activities. And there’s a pretty good chance that the survival rate of the trees will be pretty low. So in terms of carbon sequestration outcomes, it’s not a great situation in either case.

IRA FLATOW: It does not look like a win-win here. Scott, Republican lawmakers are working on a climate plan of their own that goes beyond the tree planting, right? Any hints of what that plan might be?

SCOTT WALDMAN: It’s a little vague right now. But they did specifically mention this, and there’s a bill that’s going to be introduced soon that basically would help us participate in this initiative, sort of force the country to participate in it.

But I think they’re talking about carbon capture techniques, investing in technology that would capture carbon dioxide from fossil fuel production. And they’re also looking at clean energy investments, better nuclear plants, potentially more smaller nuclear plants, things like that, things that are going to produce less carbon dioxide.

But ultimately, their plan does not include any sort of ideas that would restrict or reduce our usage of fossil fuels. It all really allows for just continued consumption of fossil fuels at roughly the current levels.

IRA FLATOW: One of your colleagues at E&E News had a story about how this snafu with the Iowa caucuses– this was interesting– how that snafu might change how candidates roll out their climate policies in the future. Can you fill us in on that?

SCOTT WALDMAN: Yeah, if you look at some of the other early states like North Carolina and Nevada, which could become more prominent if Iowa is knocked down from its place as the first in the nation caucuses that really sets the pace for the primary season, those other states have sort of more urgent climate needs. North Carolina has rising sea levels, tremendous inland flooding problems. Some communities are having to relocate. In Nevada, of course, you have drought, serious water shortage issues that are made worse by climate change.

So if you have a yearlong campaign where the candidates are visiting frequently in one of those states, you really can’t get away without talking about climate change probably fairly regularly. In Iowa, you sort of can. They’re focused on agricultural issues and other things, but less so on climate. So we could see a shift there.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, unless you can tie the farmers and the land into carbon capture sequestration, things like that, so.


IRA FLATOW: That’s climate change, also. You’ve also been reporting on President Trump’s views on energy and water efficiency. I had trouble understanding this– making toilets and showers great again?

SCOTT WALDMAN: Yes, it’s certainly unexpected, but when he gets to the environmental part of his speeches at rallies, he’s really been going back to these talking points in the last few weeks I guess since about two months ago, where he talks about how toilets don’t work like they used to. You have to flush them 10 times. And showers don’t wash, what he said, “my beautiful head of hair.”

And what he’s really talking about is stripping away regulations. That’s obviously been a feature of his presidency, is the deregulatory message. But showers are more efficient. They use a lot less water. So do toilets. And they operate just as well as they used to. The president seems to be suggesting sort of looking at our toilet or bathroom fixtures through the lens of nostalgia, where they used to work as well, much better in the past. But that’s not really the case.

So what he’s really selling here is a deregulatory message. I think it’s fairly abstract for the average person to sort of come to terms with when Trump is streamlining environmental impact statements for oil and gas production on public lands, that seems more abstract. But if they think about their bathroom, the toilets don’t work like they used to, they may sort of buy into his overall message about regulations.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Same thing was true about the LED bulbs making him look orange. I mean that– on the bulbs.

SCOTT WALDMAN: That’s exactly right. And you can get a whole range of bulbs, by the way, because I’ve done this in my own house. They look exactly like the old incandescent bulbs we’re used to.

IRA FLATOW: Hey, you’re right. It’s all part of the messaging that he’s trying to reach out to his core voters. But let’s talk about electric vehicles. You also wrote about President Trump’s views on Tesla, whose stock has gone bananas this week, right?

SCOTT WALDMAN: That’s right. I think he has this respect for Elon Musk, you know, the CEO of Tesla. He sort of sees him as this Einstein-like figure. Trump, I think, is impressed by the way– obviously, he’s impressed by things like the way stock prices rise and fall. And Musk, through all the turmoil that Tesla’s had as a company, has really had a pretty– they had a really good last quarter. And just sort of overall, they have a future that’s looking brighter than it ever has.

I think the president respects that. Now, I don’t see him turning around and suggesting that we should invest in electric charging stations all around the country, which is something we absolutely need to do if we’re going to switch more of our cars away from fossil fuels.

IRA FLATOW: Of course he thinks that the American inventors and inventions like Tesla and the wheels should be protected–

SCOTT WALDMAN: That’s right.

IRA FLATOW: –in this country. One last story, which is– I don’t know how to approach this. It’s so sad. It’s the canary in the coal mine. There was news this week about a glacier in Antarctica larger than the state of Florida. And we could get into what that means for the state of Florida– and how quickly it is melting. And then there’s warm water coming up from beneath that’s eating away at its foundation.

SCOTT WALDMAN: That’s right, and some of the glaciers in Antartica, the reason they’re so important is when you have ice that’s on land, and that melts, that’s what causes sea levels to rise. So if the ice sits over the water, it breaks off. It becomes an iceberg. That’s not going to cause sea levels to rise.

But if you have this intrusion underneath the glacier where it is essentially connecting to the land or close to the land and the warmer water is sort of flowing into there, it’s going to make the glacier– it’s going to accelerate the ice loss and bring more of that ice into the water where it melts and causes sea level rise.

This is the kind of thing that years down the road, this could lead to three feet of sea level rise in some areas, including probably Florida. But I think that’s on the scale of centuries that we’re talking about.

But nonetheless, it’s a very troubling sign that the warming there is escalating. And also, just, I should say, yesterday, Antarctica set an all-time temperature record of 65 degrees there, the highest temperature ever recorded for Antarctica.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, that was crazy. That was in the peninsula that’s the part that’s closest to South America.

SCOTT WALDMAN: That’s right.

IRA FLATOW: It comes up and runs over there. This is really interesting stuff. There’s going to be a debate tonight, a presidential debate. And I’m sure climate change is going to come up because climate change has now moved, right, to the top of people’s– or close to the top.

I bring this up all the time whenever I talk about it. Who would have thought that after no one talked about climate change, in the last presidential debate, it is now running on top of the news? It’s just–


IRA FLATOW: It’s amazing.

SCOTT WALDMAN: –preaching to the choir.

IRA FLATOW: Are you as wowed by this as I am?

SCOTT WALDMAN: I absolutely am. As somebody who covers climate and [INAUDIBLE] you’ve paid attention to it for many years, we’ve never seen anything like this. Certainly, there’s a Trump effect here, where the president has sort of been a hard line denier of climate science. I think that’s sort of motivating a lot of people.

But we’ve seen a lot of pretty terrible natural disasters during his presidency, from devastating hurricanes to flooding, to deadly wildfires. I think people, those things in particular, there’s plenty of research that shows that’s really moving the needle on voters’ concerns. And it’s not just Democrats. It’s also more and more Republicans that are worried about this. And they want something done about it.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, they have to find a way of owning this issue that they’ve denied for so many years, don’t they?

SCOTT WALDMAN: That’s right, and that’s what they’re trying to do now in the House. But I think it really– right now, it centers around messaging where they want to be seen as doing something. And it’s hard to imagine an effective climate policy where you don’t limit the use of fossil fuels.

IRA FLATOW: Now you can’t go to South Carolina where the big primary is coming, and that’s a border state that’s got all the shoreline, rising sea levels. You can’t go there and not have some kind of climate change message or a sea level rise message, can you?

SCOTT WALDMAN: No, that’s right, and same thing with Florida. It’s going to be an important swing state for a long time. A lot of Republicans down there are driving the need in Congress to come up with a viable climate policy. Because you just can’t deny it anymore. If you spend any time in a place like Miami, streets are flooding when it’s sunny out.

IRA FLATOW: Always great to talk to you, Scott. Thank you very much for taking the time to talk with us.


IRA FLATOW: Scott Waldman, White House reporter at E&E News in Washington, DC.

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