treeDr. Tom Kimmerer is Chief Scientist at Venerable Trees, Inc., a nonprofit corporation dedicated to the conservation of ancient trees in the Bluegrass Region of Kentucky. 

Dr. Kimmerer’s research publications are concerned with tree physiology, plant stress and plant/animal interactions. His first book Venerable Trees; Ancient Trees in an Agricultural and Urban Landscape will be published in 2015, and his book The Lives of Trees will appear in 2016.

Dr. Kimmerer received his undergraduate degree in Forest Biology at SUNY College of Environmental Science of Forestry at Syracuse University, and his PhD in Forestry and Botany (Plant Physiology and Biochemistry) from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is a Fulbright Scholar, and has taught forestry, urban forestry, tree physiology and plant physiology in the United States, Indonesia and Malaysia.

Planet Experts: You are Chief Scientist at Venerable Trees, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of ancient trees in the Bluegrass region of Kentucky. Please describe a typical day in your role.

Tom Kimmerer: My favorite days are the ones I spend outdoors, scouting for trees or taking care of an ancient tree. Along with our Chief Scout, Jason DeBold, I spend a lot of time looking at properties for individual trees or, even better, extensive woodland pastures of many trees, and then working with property owners to conserve them. Other days I work on fundraising and preparing materials such as maps and workshop outlines for our education programs. I am also working on another book, so some days, or parts of a day, I spend in my writing studio disconnected from the world.

PE: Many American forests are at risk due to a variety of issues — invasive species, drought, wildfires, and over-harvesting to name a few. What challenge most concerns you?

TK: There is no question that climate change is the biggest challenge facing every organism on earth right now. If we do not reduce our greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible, forests will suffer as much as we will. Invasive species, drought, wildfire are all components of a larger picture, but one that is dominated by climate change. It is the imperative of our time.

PE: How healthy are Kentucky’s forests compared to the rest of the United States? Internationally?

TK: Excellent. Kentucky is more forested than it has been in well over 100 years as unproductive farmland was abandoned. Most of the forests that are developing now are healthy and growing vigorously. We do face some problems, of course. We have over 750,000 acres of abandoned surface mines that will not come back in forest in anything short of a geological time frame, and we have a responsibility to address that issue. The emerald ash borer is sweeping through the state right now, wiping out our white and green ash trees. Ash trees represent about 11 percent of the standing biomass of Kentucky forests, so the borer is having a huge impact on forest health and on our very important forest industries. We could certainly be doing a better job of managing our forests, especially on private land.

PE: You have written for Planet Experts about the shift from a coal-based industry to renewable energy jobs. Have you observed a shift in consciousness among the people of Kentucky — a traditional coal state — that going green does not necessarily translate to unemployment?

TK: The majority of Kentuckians have no connection to the coal economy, and probably wouldn’t notice if coal went away tomorrow. I believe that we are going to make the transition away from coal and toward renewables faster than anybody currently realizes. It will take some time to realize the health, economic and environmental benefits of the transition to renewables, but it will happen.

People in Kentucky right now do not directly feel the impacts of climate change. Our weather has been relatively cool for a couple of years, and we have had two wet summers in a row. It is too easy for people to ignore climate change when they don’t feel the effects. This is actually a more important factor than concerns about coal.

PE: Kentucky is dominated by conservative politicians. How much resistance do you encounter advocating for the environment?

TK: I consider myself a Teddy Roosevelt Republican in that I believe in the wise use of natural resources. I have worked in forestry, on surface mines, in power plants and in a variety of other venues with people who are more politically conservative than I am, and always got along by using truth and reason, and understanding the other person’s point of view. And I don’t advocate for “the environment” because advocating for vague things has vague outcomes. It is extremely important in talking about climate change to tell people about specific outcomes. For example, if addressing someone in the insurance business, you can talk about the skyrocketing premiums required to cover losses due to increased fire, storms and sea level rise.

If we are to survive, we need to leave the rest of the fossil fuels in the ground, and that is a big task. We need to be making the economic case to our business leaders that we have to get off fossil fuels and onto renewables. We are making headway in many industries. Politicians are followers, not leaders, with rare exceptions. Once the business community begins to fully embrace a carbon-neutral economy, the politicians will come along. Business leaders are highly risk averse, and they are increasingly coming to understand the grave risks to their own businesses of doing nothing about climate change.

PE: Do you believe that, in the near future, these conservative politicians will have no choice but to admit that climate change is real and is, at least primarily, due to human activity?

TK: Our political system is corrupted by money, and I don’t expect that to change anytime soon. Leadership will have to come from the private sector, and the politicians will follow.

PE: It is generally understood that trees benefit air quality by absorbing carbon dioxide and emitting oxygen. What other less well known ways do trees benefit the environment?

TK: Well, I could write a book on this. In fact, I am. Most of the world’s population is now urban, and we are doing a very poor job of managing our urban forests. Trees in cities reduce urban heat, improve air and water quality, and make people feel good. Yet in far too many cities, the amount of urban canopy cover is declining even as our cities are getting hotter. Many tropical cities that would benefit the most from trees have few or none. We need to reverse this trend and invest a lot more money in urban forestry. I will be writing about this quite a bit in my Planet Expert columns. We may as individuals feel helpless to cope with climate change or the loss of biodiversity, but each of us can contribute to the health of our urban forests.

PE: In your upcoming book, Venerable Trees: Ancient Trees in an Agricultural and Urban Landscape, you write about two trees standing on opposite sides of the earth, a bodhi tree near the grave of a Sumatran royal family and a bur oak shading a grave in the Bluegrass of Kentucky. It is clear from your work that trees are a foundational part of human culture. Is there a way to re-insert that veneration into urban settings, or do most city trees serve merely as ornamentation?

TK: Not long ago, an ancient bur oak in Lexington, Kentucky, was threatened by development. You would be amazed at the outpouring of citizen outrage and spirited arguments in favor of keeping that tree. In public hearings and the pages of our local paper, the outcry to save the tree was remarkable. Fortunately, when a new developer took over the project, they made a strong commitment to saving the tree, and we are now taking care of it.

I think that people care deeply about trees, but they need opportunities to express that care. Lexington is home to Reforest the Bluegrass, one of the largest citizen urban forestry programs in the country. Every year, hundreds of volunteers come out to plant trees. We need to find more ways to engage citizens in urban forestry, and a lot of cities are making strides through Citizen Forester and other programs.

We also need to get kids out in the woods. I sometimes have to drag my kids away from their screens, but once we get them away from town and out in the woods, they have a blast. You only care about things you are familiar with, and if we spend more and more of our time indoors and away from nature, I think we will stop caring about it.

PE: You have written books that interpret and make science accessible to the layperson, a goal that we here at Planet Experts strongly support.  Do you believe it is the duty of more scientists to do the same in order to combat the vast amount of misinformation that exists?

TK: No, I don’t. I wish more scientists would learn to communicate with the public, but I don’t think it is their duty. Most scientists are extremely good at their own specialty, and if they take time away from their research to communicate with the public, that may be at a loss to their productivity. Some of the finest and most productive scientists I know are incapable of explaining their work to someone without a doctorate in the same field, and that is fine.

Each scientist has to decide on his or her own career path, and where they feel most comfortable. It is the very rare scientist, like Planet Expert Michael Mann, who can continue to do top-level science while explaining his work to a lay audience in an engaging way.

We have a lack of intermediaries who can interpret the work of scientists for a lay audience. I am a great admirer of the work of James Bruggers at the Louisville Courier-Journal, who seems to have a knack for distilling complex issues down to something a newspaper reader find interesting and understandable. If every newspaper and TV station had a guy like him, we’d be much better off as a society.

PE: Every day, there seems to be a new doom and gloom story in the news concerning environmental degradation.  What positive signs can you point to that evidence a shift in human behavior when it comes to protecting the environment?

TK: I have never been a doom-and-gloom guy. I grew up in Baltimore before the Clean Air Act, with the foulest air you can imagine. Today, Baltimore has much better air quality thanks to 40 years of incremental improvement. When the Clean Air Act was up for consideration, all the prophets, from politicians to the Chamber of Commerce, predicted the demise of our economy. In fact, the marginal cost of each improvement in the Clean Air Act has been less than zero – the economic benefits have greatly outweighed the costs. The naysayers were wrong 40 years ago and they are wrong today.

Climate change is the greatest challenge that humans have ever faced, and if we are unable to address it quickly and fully, we are in big trouble. It is a much more complex problem than we have ever solved, and requires deep and fundamental change across our entire economy.

The most positive sign that I see is the amazing speed with which renewable energy systems are coming online. I don’t think we will see another coal fired power plant built in the U.S. because the cost of renewables makes centralized power uneconomical. Fossil fuel industries and their political minions are fighting a rear-guard action against renewables, but the battle will be over soon.

It is too late to avoid really huge and negative impacts of climate change – we have already released too much greenhouse gas into the atmosphere – but it may not be too late to avoid complete disaster.

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One Response

  1. hikesocal says:

    EXCELLENT interview that confirmed a lot of my own thoughts.

    We do need to get kids (and adults) to spend time in nature. That experience motivates actions when people get back home.

    We should stop expecting scientists to communicate their message to the public. That's not what they do. There should also be less focus on preaching to the converted and more on delivering a palatable message to those more inclined to belief than fact.

    And I'm in total agreement about private industry being the key. Money. It's all about money. But with the new reports about the financial viability of renewables that's going to happen very, very quickly.

    Thanks for this. Good stuff.

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