Dan Rodricks

Give up the lawn, plant trees, spare your kids a living hell | COMMENTARY

Maggie and Zach Carnegie of Finksburg worked together last fall on planting trees, joined by other volunteers for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, at Knox Farm in Taneytown, Md. More than 2,000 trees were planted on more than eight acres along Piney Creek.

You might not know it from the number of parents who oppose masking kids against coronavirus infection, but most American adults care about their children and those of others. As cynical and as jaded as we might be — and as self-centered and ignorant as some so-called grown-ups might be — the parental instinct mostly endures, even long after our kids become adults and start families of their own.

That’s why, if the United Nations had a seismograph network to measure psychological conditions, it would show a spike in parental anxiety every time the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issues a report. There was another spike again last week, when the latest report went to code red about the planet’s condition.


It might not be obvious, but the anxiety is there. I’m sure of it. Parents and grandparents everywhere harbor fears that their children and grandchildren will inherit a thoroughly messed-up, possibly uninhabitable planet.

I don’t care who you are or where you are, that fear is real.


And it comes with a heavy dose of guilt.

Earlier generations got us burning coal, oil and gas, and we carried on despite numerous warnings about it. The everyday use of fossil fuels for energy over the last two centuries established the human epoch at a huge cost — nature permanently altered and producing extreme storms, floods, wildfires, heat waves and drought.

And dread.

Dread and a sense of helplessness.

Here’s the thing about climate change: It’s huge. It’s global. It’s a massive, invisible monster in the sky. Deep down, we like to believe we have the heroic parental instincts displayed by Sarah Connor in “The Terminator” films. But she was one woman with the knowledge, will and firepower to prevent an apocalypse. Climate change is not science fiction; it’s real and vast and impossible for one person to stop.

But the parental instinct is still strong, even in those who are not parents. So I say acknowledge it, let it power you into action. Don’t defer all the work on climate change to political leaders, scientists and technocrats.

Most of what I offer, down here on the ground, is obvious by now, but it bears repeating.

First thing: Don’t ignore the crisis or pretend it’s not as bad as scientists say. It is. The clock is ticking loudly on our efforts to stop burning fossil fuels to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide we put into the atmosphere.


We have to do the basics: Vote only for political candidates who make arresting climate change a priority; no person who denies the threat should be allowed into the Congress of the United States or any state legislature.

Change your wheels; give up a gas-guzzler for a more fuel-efficient car, or an electric vehicle, if you can afford one. Try using public transportation for a month; give it a chance.

Consider joining a cooperative, such as the nonprofit Solar United Neighbors, to get the best price on installing solar panels for your home or company.

Here’s my plan: To plant more trees and turn more of the lawn I own into gardens of carbon-absorbing native plants. I’m going to make donations to tree-planting efforts, and there are many to choose from.

Pennsylvania has a goal of converting 10,000 acres of lawns at schools, churches, hospitals and business parks into woodlands and meadows by 2025.

In Maryland, the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay has a Healthy Forest Healthy Waters program to encourage more private landowners to plant trees where there has been nothing but lawn. Since 2014, with money from a state trust fund, the Alliance has established about 1,000 acres of new woodlands. With more grants, the Alliance hopes to add more in 2022. “A large portion of those projects are on one- to three-acre lawns,” says Craig Highfield, the Alliance’s forest programs director. “Most of the funding for tree planting in Maryland is derived from water quality goals, but forests and trees provide so many other benefits like carbon sequestration and wildlife habitat.”


It seems inconsequential when scientists tell us that billions of acres of new forest are needed to slow climate change. In fact, there are plenty of articles in scientific journals and online news sources that make reforestation sound far more complex, even more problematic, than you might think. But nothing I’ve read should keep any Marylander — or any American, for that matter — from replacing an over-fertilized lawn with native trees and plants.

I know: You’ve heard all this tree-hugging stuff before. It’s hard to get motivated when you feel your part in saving the planet is puny.

But that’s the problem: We have not done enough in the decades since scientists started warning about a crisis in Earth’s atmosphere. We wasted a lot of time on denial and complacency.

I think about that a lot. It’s depressing.

But it’s not too late. It’s not hopeless. If we act now, the IPCC says, “strong and sustained reductions in emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases would limit climate change.” The panel adds, however, that, due to damage already done, it could take 20 to 30 years to see global temperatures stabilize.

That means the sacrifices we make now — collectively as nations or individually as responsible grown-ups — could save future generations from a living hell after many of us are gone. It’s past time to parent up on climate change.