William Sunderlin lived in Syracuse from 1976 to 1982, and has
managed to return to the area to visit friends and colleagues almost
every year since. These days Sunderlin hangs his hat in Bogor, a city
just outside Jakarta, Indonesia. From there he heads up a research team
studying what’s happening to our rainforests and how that affects
planetary climate change.
Based at the Center for International Forest Research (CIFOR), he
expects to spend much of the next three years traveling the
globe—Brazil, Tanzania, Cameroon, Indonesia, Vietnam and Bolivia—to
produce a report on one strategy for reducing the impact of climate
change on the earth’s rainforests. It’s mind-boggling stuff, and the
news from the front is not encouraging.
His project is part of a massive effort, funded in large part by the
Norwegian government, called the Global Comparative Study on REDD. No
irony here, REDD refers to Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and
Degradation. According to Sunderlin, about one-sixth of global warming
can be traced to the destruction of rainforests. Finding out what mix
of economic activities and social policies would encourage local people
to live with the forest instead of cutting it down is the focus of his
In 2013, as the Kyoto Protocols governing the world’s response to
climate change expire, he hopes to present his findings. REDD was a
major focus of last year’s Copenhagen convention on climate change.
Sunderlin was at the gathering for a week, and left with a mixture of
hope and angst. He still isn’t sure if the world’s leaders fully
understand the climate change crisis, which he says will require change
from all of us.
A green mall and a bigger recycling bin don’t begin to make a dent
in the problem, he contends. Cap and trade, the policy approach that
nearly passed the Senate this year but is now on hold, doesn’t impress
him as a long-term solution.
“The Kyoto agreement called for a 5.2 percent reduction from 1990s
levels of greenhouse gas emissions,” says Sunderlin, who worked as an
organizer at the Syracuse Peace Council during the seven years he lived
here before pursuing his doctorate in sociology at Cornell. “We’re
falling distressingly short of a mark that was inadequate to begin with.
“Copenhagen was kind of a mess,” he says. “We carried some hopes
that it would be kind of a breakthrough moment, because the United
States, which had been in denial over climate change for many years,
sent a delegation that finally recognized climate change as a real
problem. But that wasn’t enough to overcome the difficult problem of
whether the burden in reversing climate change falls more on richer
countries than on poorer.”
There are lots of variables in the evolving picture on climate
change. I asked Sunderlin for a number: “If someone put a gun to your
head and wanted to know how many years we have to make the transition
from fossil fuels to renewables, what number would you give them?”
He can’t set a firm date, which is an honest answer but which in
part explains the humdrum attitude of many Americans, who respond well
to crisis while enjoying the lifestyle that perpetuates the problem.
This much he will say with certainty: Climate change is not an equal
opportunity disaster. “Africa will suffer disproportionately as climate
change occurs. A drop in agricultural production will occur, there will
be water shortages. It will be worse in those areas that can least
So why shouldn’t we bury our heads in the ever toastier sands? How
can we hope to hold the line on climate change when a sizable chunk of
our political leadership, not to mention talk radio hosts, make their
living denying its existence?
“It’s crazy,” Sunderlin admits. He points to a 2007 report by the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the organization that won
the Nobel Peace Prize along with Al Gore in 2007. (Sunderlin, the most
informed person on global warming that I have ever spoken with, has yet
to see the 2006 Academy Award-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth,
a chronicle of Gore’s attempts to educate the public about global
warming). Eleven of the 12 years preceding the report were the warmest
in human history, and that warming is undeniably the result of human
With many scientists saying it’s already too late to reverse climate
change, what keeps a 55-year-old who presumably has better things to do
working on such a damning challenge? That has something to do with his
roots as an American, and his early experiences in Syracuse working to
stop nuclear power.
“There is a tradition in this country of people mobilizing against
injustice and succeeding against all odds. In the 1960s you would have
been deemed crazy if you said segregation could be eliminated. If the
1990s they would say you were crazy if you thought there would be a
black president in your lifetime. The solutions seem impossible. But
the United States is a place where the impossible happens.”
Here’s hoping he’s right, and that we are deserving of such faith.
Read Ed Griffin-Nolan’s award-winning commentary weekly in the Syracuse New Times.