POWER PLANTER: Felix Finkbeiner

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STANDARDS

NGSS: Core Idea: ESS2A

CCSS: Reading Informational Text 7

TEKS: 6.3B, 7.5A, 8.11, B.9B


Champion for Trees

A teen battles climate change with a plan to plant a trillion trees around the globe

ESSENTIAL QUESTION: What actions can individuals take to help protect the environment?

When Felix Finkbeiner was in fourth grade, his teacher assigned a simple class project: Research climate change and give a presentation. The 9-yearold student from Germany focused on trees’ role in protecting the planet. He concluded his presentation by challenging classmates to plant 1 million trees in their country.

Felix led the charge by planting a crab apple tree at his school in 2007. Other schools joined in to see which could plant the most trees. They set up a website to track their tree tally. German newspapers covered their progress. By 2008, Felix’s idea had blossomed into a global movement, called Plant for the Planet.

When Felix Finkbeiner was in fourth grade, his teacher gave the class a project. They had to research climate change and give a presentation. Nine-year-old Felix talked about how trees protect the planet. His presentation ended with a challenge. He asked his classmates to plant 1 million trees in their country, Germany.

Felix led the charge. He planted a crab apple tree at his school in 2007. Other schools joined in to see which could plant the most trees. They set up a website to track their tree count. German newspapers covered their progress. By 2008, Felix’s idea had grown into a global movement. It’s called Plant for the Planet.

TOBIAS HASE/PICTURE-ALLIANCE/DPA/AP IMAGES

Plant for the Planet’s “Stop Talking, Start Planting” campaign encourages climate action.

Plant for the Planet organizes kids to plant trees in countries all over the world—a small step that could help in a big way. “Anyone anywhere can plant a tree,” says Felix. “It’s a beautifully simple and positive action.”

So far, volunteers with the group have planted 14.2 billion trees worldwide. Now 19, Felix has set a mind-boggling new goal: Plant 1 trillion trees—about 150 for every person on the planet—to fight climate change.

Plant for the Planet organizes kids to plant trees in countries all over the world. This small step could help in a big way. “Anyone anywhere can plant a tree,” says Felix. “It’s a beautifully simple and positive action.”

Volunteers with the group have been busy. So far, they’ve planted 14.2 billion trees worldwide. Felix, now 19, has set an amazing new goal to fight climate change. He wants to plant 1 trillion trees. That’s about 150 for every person on the planet.

PLANET IN PERIL

For the past hundred years, Earth’s average temperature has been steadily increasing. Scientists have found that human actions are driving the planet’s climate to change. Burning fossil fuels—such as coal, oil, and gas—for energy releases greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide. These gases build up in Earth’s atmosphere and form an invisible blanket around the planet, trapping heat from the sun.

Earth’s rising temperatures can lead to heat waves and droughts. It can also cause ice caps and glaciers to melt. Meltwater flows into the ocean, raising sea levels and increasing coastal flooding. To slow climate change, people must reduce production of greenhouse gases or find a way to remove them from the atmosphere. That’s where trees come in.

Earth’s average temperature has been steadily rising for the past hundred years. Scientists have found that human actions are driving the planet’s climate to change. Humans burn fossil fuels, such as coal, oil, and gas, for energy. This releases greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide. These gases build up in Earth’s atmosphere. They form an invisible blanket around the planet and trap heat from the sun.

Earth’s rising temperatures can lead to heat waves and droughts. It can cause ice caps and glaciers to melt. Meltwater flows into the ocean. This raises sea levels and increases flooding along coasts. To slow climate change, people have to act. They must lower production of greenhouse gases or find a way to take them out of the atmosphere. That’s where trees come in.

COURTESY OF PLANT FOR THE PLANET

Students attend a workshop in Togo, a country in West Africa.

LEAFY GUARDIANS

While researching climate change for his fourth-grade assignment, Felix came across the work of Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai. She led a successful campaign to plant 30 million trees in parts of Africa that had been stripped of their forests.

Felix also learned that trees absorb carbon dioxide from the air and store it in their tissues (see Soaking Up Carbon). Trees use sunlight to convert carbon dioxide and water into sugar and oxygen. Through this process, called photosynthesis, they make their own food.

Forests all over the world have been shrinking rapidly as people cut down trees for lumber or to make room for buildings or farmland. Inspired by Maathai, Felix decided to rally kids to restore their countries’ forests and help protect the planet.

For his fourth-grade project, Felix researched climate change. He came across the work of Wangari Maathai. This environmentalist from Kenya set out to plant 30 million trees in parts of Africa. These areas had been stripped of their forests. Her campaign was a success.

Felix also learned that trees soak up carbon dioxide from the air. They store it in their tissues (see Soaking Up Carbon). Trees use sunlight to change carbon dioxide and water into sugar and oxygen. This process is called photosynthesis. That’s how trees make their own food.

Forests all over the world have been shrinking quickly. People cut down trees for lumber or to make room for buildings or farmland. Felix was inspired by Maathai. So he decided to get kids working together. They could bring back their countries’ forests and help protect the planet.

GOING GLOBAL

In 2008, Felix was elected to the junior board of the United Nations (U.N.) Environment Programme. At a conference in South Korea, he explained his proposal to kids from around the world. When he finished, 500 students from 58 countries had pledged to get a million trees planted in their home countries.

In 2010, Germany became the first nation to reach the 1-million-tree mark. The following year, Felix addressed the U.N. in New York City. He explained that many adults don’t take climate change seriously enough because its worst consequences won’t happen in their lifetimes. “For us children, it’s a question of survival,” he told global leaders. “We cannot trust that adults alone will save our future. We have to take our future in our own hands.”

Felix’s speech impressed U.N. leaders so much that they put Plant for the Planet in charge of the U.N.’s own tree-planting campaign, which had a goal of 1 billion trees.

In 2008, Felix was elected to the junior board of the United Nations (U.N.) Environment Programme. He spoke at a conference in South Korea. He explained his idea to kids from around the world. Five hundred students from 58 countries joined his plan. They pledged to get a million trees planted in their home countries.

In 2010, Germany became the first nation to plant 1 million trees. The next year, Felix spoke to the U.N. in New York City. He explained that many adults don’t take climate change seriously enough. That’s because its worst effects won’t happen in their lifetimes. “For us children, it’s a question of survival,” he told global leaders. “We cannot trust that adults alone will save our future. We have to take our future in our own hands.”

Felix’s speech greatly impressed U.N. leaders. They put Plant for the Planet in charge of the U.N.’s own tree-planting campaign. It had a goal of 1 billion trees.

JOHN MCILWAINE/UN PHOTO

SPEAKING OUT: Felix, 13, addresses the United Nations in 2011.

HOW MANY TREES?

The new goal was a big one. But would a billion trees be enough to make a difference in slowing climate change? To find out, Felix’s organization needed to know how the number of trees on Earth changes over time.

Ecologist Tom Crowther, who was then based at Yale University in Connecticut, and a group of colleagues decided to help Plant for the Planet get some answers. “We thought this would be a quick project,” says Crowther. “But then we looked and realized that nobody had addressed these questions reliably.”

The new goal was a big one. But would a billion trees be enough to slow climate change? To find out, Felix’s group needed the answer to another question: How does the number of trees on Earth change over time?

Ecologist Tom Crowther was based at Yale University. He and his colleagues decided to help Plant for the Planet get some answers. “We thought this would be a quick project,” says Crowther. “But then we looked and realized that nobody had addressed these questions reliably.”

COURTESY OF PLANT FOR THE PLANET

The organization hosts workshops that train students to be climate justice ambassadors.

Crowther’s team gathered data from studies in which people on the ground had counted trees one by one on more than 400,000 plots of land around the world, covering a total area of 4,300 square kilometers (1,660 square miles). They paired that data with satellite images to get detailed global estimates of tree density (see The World’s Trees). They determined that the planet has 3 trillion trees, and the number is dropping by 10 billion per year. At that rate, the world’s forests will disappear in 300 years.

Crowther dreaded delivering the news to Plant for the Planet. “I thought it was going to be horrible, saying, ‘I hate to tell you, but a billion trees isn’t going to do anything,’” he says. It turns out he shouldn’t have worried. “They said, ‘Fantastic, finally we have reliable numbers to use to scale up our efforts.’ The way they took the information and ran with it was inspirational,” says Crowther.

Crowther’s team gathered data from past studies. People on the ground had counted trees one by one on more than 400,000 plots of land around the world. They’d covered 4,300 square kilometers (1,660 square miles). The team put that data together with satellite images. This helped them to figure out the number of trees all around the globe (see The World’s Trees). They found that the planet has 3 trillion trees. The number is dropping by 10 billion per year. At that rate, the world’s forests will disappear in 300 years.

Crowther was nervous about giving the news to Plant for the Planet. “I thought it was going to be horrible, saying, ‘I hate to tell you, but a billion trees isn’t going to do anything,’ ” he says. But he shouldn’t have worried. “They said, ‘Fantastic, finally we have reliable numbers to use to scale up our efforts.’ The way they took the information and ran with it was inspirational,” says Crowther.

Felix and his collaborators decided that slowing climate change would require not 1 billion new trees but 1 trillion. That number might soak up roughly a quarter of all the carbon dioxide emitted each year. Crowther is now working on precise measurements of how much carbon trees can store so that the project can make sure their latest goal is on target.

“Trees alone can’t solve the climate crisis,” says Felix, “but they can buy us more time. The more we make use of their abilities, the better off we’ll be.”

Felix and his helpers decided that 1 billion new trees wouldn’t slow climate change. They needed 1 trillion. That number might soak up about a quarter of all the carbon dioxide released each year. Crowther is now working on finding out exactly how much carbon trees can store. Then the project can make sure their new goal is on target.

“Trees alone can’t solve the climate crisis,” says Felix, “but they can buy us more time. The more we make use of their abilities, the better off we’ll be.”

CORE QUESTION: How did Felix and his collaborators evaluate whether their project would be effective?

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