Felix Finkbeiner, the thirteen-year-old German wunderkind stood to speak to the United Nations General Assembly in his Harry Potter spectacles, gray hoodie, and a mop-top haircut on the somber topic of climate change. He started a remarkable environmental cause for restoring forests in the world at the tender age of nine. His initiative has since then expanded into a global network of children activists working to slow the Earth’s warming by reforesting the planet.
He said, “We children know adults know the challenges and they know the solutions. We don’t know why there is so little action. For most adults, it’s an academic question. For many of us children, it’s a question of survival. Twenty-one hundred is still in our lifetime.”
He offered climate denial as a possible explanation for this inaction
He continued, “If you let a monkey choose if he wants one banana now or six bananas later, the monkey will always choose the one banana now. From this, we children understood we cannot trust that adults alone will save our future. To do that, we have to take our future in our hands.”
Today, the little boy has grown into a 19-year-old young man and the environmental group founded by him- Plant-for-the-Planet, has planted more than 14 billion trees in more than 130 nations in collaboration with the UN’s Billion Tree campaign. The group also promotes the planting goal upward to one trillion trees making it 150 trees for every person on the Earth.
The organization prompted the first ever scientific, full-scale global tree count. This statistic is now aiding an ongoing study of forests’ abilities by NASA to store carbon dioxide and their potential to protect the Earth better. In more ways than one, Finkbeiner has contributed more than any other activist to energetically recruit youth to the climate change movement. His Plant-for-the-Planet currently boasts an army of 55,000 “climate justice ambassadors,” with training in one-day workshops to become climate activists in their home societies. Amazingly, a majority of them are between the ages of nine to 12.
Thomas Crowther, an ecologist who conducted the tree count while working at Yale University in Connecticut says, “Felix is a combination of inspirational and articulate. A lot of people are good at one of those things. Felix is really good at both.”
Plant-for-the-Planet was originally the result of a fourth-grade school assignment in Uffing am Staffelsee, Finkbeiner’s hometown just south of Munich. The subject was climate change and the nine-year-old interpreted that as the danger to his favorite animal, the polar bear. His research on Google brought up stories about the heroic campaign by Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan woman who planted 30 million saplings to recover barren land from sheared of trees and won her the 2004 Nobel Prize.
“I realized it’s not really about the polar bear, it’s about saving humans,” Finkbeiner said in a telephone interview from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies where he is presently studying. His school report about trees was a hit and dramatically Finkbeiner set up the challenge to plant one million trees in Germany. Finkbeiner’s teacher asked him to share his presentation with other students and the headmaster, and a couple of months later, he planted a stunted, unimpressive crab apple, near the entrance to his school as his first tree. He ruefully says now that had he known then how much international media coverage that first crab apple tree would receive; he would have insisted that his mother get a more majestic first tree.
At the time, a passionate nine-year-old kid with a cherubic face, a gifted public speaker with a one-million tree-planting challenge was irresistible to the world media. Word of Finkbeiner’s project and challenge spread rapidly. Soon, he found himself speaking to the European Parliament and attending UN conferences in Norway and South Korea. By the time he was invited to speak at the UN in New York in 2011, Germany had planted its millionth tree, and he had officially launched his Plant-for-the-Planet foundation, complete with a website and a full-time employee. The impressed UN also handed over handling of its Billion Tree campaign to the group.
Aji Piper, a 15-year-old tree “ambassador” in Seattle who met Finkbeiner in 2015 says, “I knew he was this legendary kid”. Piper, himself an activist and plaintiff in a children’s’ lawsuit against the United States government over climate change, considers Finkbeiner as a role model.
Finkbeiner spoke in an Urban Futures conference in Austria last year, “If we follow the scientists and we act and in 20 years find out that they were wrong, we didn’t do any mistakes. But if we follow the skeptics and in 20 years find out that they were wrong, it will be too late to save our future.”
One of the largest reforestation efforts is currently underway on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico where the group has built a nursery containing 300,000 seedlings of native trees with plans to ultimately plant 10 million trees by 2020.
The expansion of the ambitious Plant-for-the-Planet resulted in The tree study. Scientists have long considered conducting a tree census to understand whether planting trees could keep up with the continuing deforestation around the world, but till now, no one had undertaken this task. Tom Crowther and his team at Yale stepped in with their two yearlong studies that were published in Nature in 2015.
Crowther says, “Felix asked the simple question: how many trees are there? Plant-for-the-Planet was certainly the inspiration for me.”
They found that Earth has 3 trillion trees about seven times more than the number of previous estimates and the number of trees since the emergence of agriculture 12,000 years ago has fallen to nearly half placing the count of annual tree loss at 10 billion trees every year.
Crowther shared, “I thought they might be disheartened. Instead, they said, ‘Okay, now we have to scale up.’ They didn’t hesitate. They’re contacting billionaires all over the world. It is amazing.”
Plant-for-the-Planet now aims to scale up by planting one trillion trees that will potentially absorb an additional 10 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere every year subsequently, buying some time for the world to get serious about reducing carbon emissions.
Meanwhile, he’ll keep giving speeches to the grownups.
Finkbeiner says, “We’re going to be the victims of climate change. It is in our own self-interest to get children to act. At the same time, I don’t think we can give up on this generation of adults and wait 20 or 30 years for our generation to come to power. We don’t have that time. All we can do is push them in the right direction.”