How Research-Driven Organizations Become Thought Leaders

Nerds vs. Trees

There should be a German word for the special despair researchers feel when an idea they’ve debunked takes off in the mass imagination.

For if we had such a word, we’d be using it right now to describe the pain and frustration researchers feel at the Trillion Tree Initiative. Signing on to 1t.org was, as the journalist James Temple has put it, basically the price of admission for attending Davos this year, and “the rare issue on which even Jane Goodall and Donald Trump could get on the same page.” That’s because planting 1 trillion trees has quickly become, in the minds of both citizens and elites, an essential, relatively painless, 100% natural and very science-based way of fixing the climate mess.

(To be fair, the website of 1t.org, which is a World Economic Forum initiative, says nothing about climate change, instead maintaining that its work is about making the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration a success. But the announcement of the initiative at Davos was framed as a response to the climate emergency. Wink and nod.)

Temple has just published a piece in MIT Technology Review explaining why, while planting and protecting trees are important for a wide range of reasons, addressing climate change at scale is not one of those reasons. The piece is engaging and persuasive for nerds such as ourselves. It’s also a symptom of science’s utter inability to police bad but attractive ideas based in peer-reviewed research.

The catalyzing study for the Trillion Tree Initiative was published by a leading journal — in this case, Science. The conclusions have been hotly debated, and to science’s credit that debate moved quickly into the press and Twitter instead of being ghettoized in letters and commentaries to paywalled journals. But that broadening clearly wasn’t enough, as it seldom is for grimpact studies. Planting 1 trillion trees to stop climate change has an excellent chance to become a zombie idea— an idea that will outlive its debunking, usually because it benefits elites, but in this case (as Temple reminds us) because it seems to benefit all of us:

But the thing is, people want trees to be able to solve this problem. Natural-sounding solutions are far more appealing than technological ones. They avoid unsettling and expensive compromises like natural-gas plants with carbon capture systems, nuclear power plants, and long-distance transmission lines.

So people and publications across the political spectrum will be inclined to embrace the myth that trees will save us, and those hoping to stall or limit more effective efforts will very happily exploit it.

What research needs is pieces like Temple’s not after the zombies have gotten out of the basement, but before they’ve had a chance to become zombies. A zombie task force, if you will; a unit or NGO of zombie-busters to identify and squash as soon as possible through large public campaigns all the skull horns and trillion-tree solutions yet to come.

Or we could just wait for that German word.