Woodwell research informing Congress’ “climate think tank”

US Capital, photo by Eric Lee

photo by Eric Lee

On October 27, Woodwell Climate Research Center scientists Dr. Jennifer Watts and Dr. Rich Birdsey presented their research on natural climate solutions to the congressional staff of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. Established in 2019, the Select Committee is charged with developing innovative policies and strategies to address climate change. 

Since January, Woodwell’s External Affairs Department and Carbon Program have been working to incorporate more effective provisions for natural climate solutions into the upcoming Farm Bill—U.S. federal omnibus legislation that includes a wide array of agricultural and forestry programs and is due for renewal in 2023. Woodwell has identified priority issues for the 2023 Farm Bill, and the External Affairs team has been conducting outreach to congressional offices in addition to Drs. Watts and Birdsey’s presentation to the Select Committee.  

A specialist in quantitative methods for large-scale forest inventories, Dr. Birdsey has pioneered the estimation of national carbon budgets for forest lands. His portion of the presentation highlighted the declining carbon storage potential of U.S. forests due to factors such as deforestation and increasing natural disturbances, underscoring the need for more effective forest management to mitigate climate change.

“There are significant opportunities to reduce emissions from forest disturbances and increase carbon stocks on the land, but policies need to include safeguards to avoid unintended consequences, such as degrading unprotected lands that have disproportionately high carbon stocks and high biodiversity values,” Dr. Birdsey said.

Dr. Watts currently co-leads the Carbon Monitoring in Rangelands project, which is focused on creating the Rangeland Carbon Tracking and Management Tool (RCTM) to assess the true greenhouse gas consequences of rangeland management.

“Most U.S. agricultural lands are extremely vulnerable to climate change. We need a comprehensive risk assessment and mitigation plan in place to safeguard our nation’s food systems, while also restoring lands to protect and improve key ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration and biodiversity,” Dr. Watts said.

Her portion of the presentation detailed how climate change and land mismanagement are undermining the significant carbon storage potential of rangelands. The development of a widespread monitoring platform, like RCTM, would provide a robust process for monitoring, reporting, and verifying carbon credits and would inform more effective management practices.

Our nation’s policies must be informed by robust science to best harness the natural carbon storage potential of these ecosystems. Policymakers can help enable the successful implementation of natural climate solutions by incentivizing climate-smart land use, supporting the development of data-based carbon crediting systems, and investing in climate mitigation activities that leverage the potential carbon storage capacity of natural ecosystems. 

According to Woodwell External Affairs Analyst Natalie Baillargeon, the 2023 Farm Bill represents a unique opportunity to implement some of these solutions, and reaching out to policymakers is an important step.

“The House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis effectively serves as a congressional think tank on climate solutions,” Baillargeon said. “It is incredibly important to make sure they have all the science and research necessary to develop strong policy approaches to addressing the climate crisis.”

Research area