President-elect Joe Biden can position the U.S. as a global leader in stabilizing runaway climate change by expanding on two key campaign pledges. First, he needs to ban new oil and gas permitting on federal lands and waters while ushering in 10 million clean-energy jobs. Then, he needs to back his pledge of $20 billion for the Amazon and lead by example in creating the nation’s strategic natural-carbon reserve. Getting this right has never been more urgent. We have a mere decade or so before the climate becomes even more disrupted with devastating consequences to people and 1 million species facing extinction.

To build a bridge to a net zero carbon economy, we must preserve forests from Amazonia to America as the planet’s “lungs” and “water towers.” This means ending the damaging practice of clear-cut logging on federal lands and the Amazon. Protecting wild places reduces the likelihood of future disease outbreaks. Malaria in Amazonia and Lyme disease in North America have been linked to disease spillover from wild animals forced into human contact because of habitat destruction.

The Amazon is the world’s Sky River because on any given day some 20 billion metric tons of water flow upward to the atmosphere from evaporation creating rainfall. Clear-cutting breaks this cycle by triggering droughts, displacing Indigenous peoples, causing unnatural wildfires and releasing massive amounts of sediment into streams while turning the rainforest into a source of emissions. Deforestation already has taken one-fifth of the Amazon, contributing to 40% of all carbon dioxide emissions from tropical forest losses. A deforestation tipping point is nearing where the Amazon may flip from rainforest to dry scrublands. 

U.S. forests collectively absorb the equivalent of about 12 percent of the nation’s annual carbon pollution, and the carbon is stored in live and dead trees and soils for centuries. Cutting down forests releases 10 times more carbon emissions than wildfires. Like the Amazon, our forests are a wellspring of water, with almost two-thirds of freshwater originating on national forests that service 180 million people in 68,000 communities. The purest drinking water is in unlogged watersheds.

President-elect Biden can jump-start the strategic natural carbon reserve by immediately protecting mature forests from the Pacific Northwest to the Tongass Rainforest in Alaska.

The Tongass is the crown jewel of the national forest system. Centuries old spruce and hemlock forests tower to its skyline. Spawning salmon jam up streams like rush-hour traffic — their bountiful runs supply rich protein to eagles and wolves, food for Alaskan tribes and the backbone of the regional economy. This irreplaceable temperate rainforest absorbs the equivalent of some 8% of all carbon sequestered by U.S. forests.

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Recently approved logging of more than 9 million acres of pristine Tongass roadless areas by the outgoing, climate-denying Trump administration would release the equivalent emissions of some 10 million vehicles while damaging water quality, salmon run and deer herds that Alaskans depend on. Tongass logging costs the American taxpayer some $600 million over 20 years in subsidies that at best support 640 total jobs compared to the thousands employed in fishing and tourism that depend on intact ecosystems.

As Biden’s team formulates climate policy, they need to immediately restore protections to roadless and old-growth forests on the Tongass by shifting timber jobs to previously cut over but reforested young forests. They also need to preserve millions of acres of carbon-dense mature forests from coast to coast to put the U.S. on a solid trajectory toward 30% of all lands and waters protected by 2030, a target supported internationally by many scientists.

For decades, scientists have called on presidential administrations to save the Tongass and forests capable of large increases in carbon accumulation like those in the Pacific Northwest. President-elect Biden needs to make the strategic natural carbon reserve a flagship climate change initiative while he reaches out to Amazon nations to follow suit.

Contributing to this Op-Ed: Stuart Pimm, professor of conservation, Duke University; Brian Buma, assisted professor, University of Colorado; Wayne Walker, carbon program director, Woodwell Climate Research Center.