Members of the Santa Barbara-based Tropical Forest Group (pictured here at City College) are heading to the UN Climate Change Conference in Bali this week. They're bringing Pali-X-Mano's inflatable trees, which will symbolize the conference's environmental progress and are likely to hit TV screens worldwide.
Paul Wellman

In the past decade, human-caused global warming has gone from a hotly debated theory to a widely accepted, scientifically validated truth. Simultaneously, many of the world’s countries have banded together under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and in various climate-related treaties to fight back, cut greenhouse gases, and hopefully cool the heat before more damage is done.

The most expansive of these treaties, the Kyoto Protocol-which legally committed countries to reaching benchmarks, placed the bigger burden on developed countries, and established a viable emissions trading market-is set to expire in 2012. To ensure the protocol’s accomplishments do not melt five years from now like the icebergs it’s trying to save, the United Nations and the nearly 200 countries who signed on are scrambling to establish a sequel to Kyoto. That mad rush will reach its peak next week on the Indonesian island of Bali, where the United Nations Climate Change Conference (UNCCC) is going down for two weeks starting on December 3.

But as the global media turn their cameras toward Bali next week to watch the planet’s leading politicians try to save the world, the visuals most likely to grace televisions screens from Jakarta to Johannesburg won’t be of gray-suited diplomats negotiating in a map-filled room over a paper-strewn conference table. Rather, the shots you’ll probably see plastered across the New York Times and on CNN will be of giant inflatable trees, posted with UN permission just outside the convention to symbolize the progress of the talks through their changing tones and shapes. And these soon-to-be-famous trees-which will stand 20-feet tall when talks are going well for the environment but will sprout inflatable flames if they go sour-have roots in Santa Barbara.

Envisioned, sponsored, and coordinated by the Tropical Forest Group (TFG)-a nonprofit headquartered in the S.B. foothills that’s dedicated to fighting deforestation-and created by Summer Solstice Parade artist Pali-X-Mano, these trees are just part of the publicity package being unveiled in Bali. The two-year-old TFG-which was launched by a team of scientists, lawyers, and activists led by environmental consultant John-O Niles in time to produce similar media stunts during the 2005 UNCCC in Montreal-is also hosting Balinese dancers during the conference’s main negotiation day, supporting a team of bloggers from Yale University who’ll report live on the talks, and providing technical support inside the talks for countries who need the help. Other Santa Barbara companies lending a hand include Boxtales, which provided theatrical visioning, Solforce, which is donating solar panels to power the trees, and Powell Skateboards, which is giving manpower and supplies as well.

“Saving tropical forests is priority number one, and in doing so, we’re also fighting climate change.”

So why is a nonprofit focused on saving tropical forests taking center stage at a climate change conference? According to TFG executive director Jeff Metcalfe, tropical deforestation is “a huge but less recognized source of greenhouse gas emissions. : Deforestation is just part of the negotiations, but when that is on the front page, attention is drawn to fighting deforestation as a means of reducing climate change.” The cutting down and burning of tropical forests for warmth and cooking amounts to about 20 percent of global emissions while at the same time reducing the number of trees that would otherwise turn that carbon dioxide into oxygen. “We have a two-fold mission,” said Metcalfe, a Michigan native who works as a marketing consultant to pay the bills. “Saving tropical forests is priority number one, and in doing so, we’re also fighting climate change.”

Although the nonprofit, which formally incorporated as a 501(c)(3) this year, will be making the biggest waves in Bali, they’re also quietly supporting tropical forest conservation work around the world. “What we look for are projects that are ideally protecting areas from becoming deforested,” Metcalfe said. “If they are reforesting projects, we make sure they’re using indigenous species. But rather than getting into a country and starting something new, we look for projects that are already doing well and meeting certain success criteria.” The group lends a special hand to forests in conflict regions, where governments and other nonprofits are typically busy dealing with more pressing humanitarian concerns.

Domestically, TFG is raising awareness that the American government-which is one of the few developed nations to have backed out of Kyoto-is continually trying to cut back its financial commitment to saving such forests. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is realizing, thanks to a November report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, that “saving tropical forests is one of the fastest, cheapest, smartest, and most equitable ways to fight climate change,” explained Niles, a TFG cofounder.

Why should the American government care about forests that aren’t within its borders? “They house more than half of the Earth’s species, so they’re valuable in that respect,” said Metcalfe. “But the tropical forests are also more threatened because there is a huge demand for products that involve clearing them, such as cattle, coffee, and soybeans. There’s a high demand for that agricultural land, and it’s being deforested at the rate of 30 million acres per year.”

It’s facts like this that Metcalfe, Niles, and the rest of TFG hope will become widespread wisdom due to their involvement in the December talks in Bali. And until then, be on the lookout for inflatable trees on your TV screen.


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