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Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation tapped University of Virginia climate change expert Deborah Lawrence to write about the crucial importance of forests, just ahead of the United Nations’ landmark report on the dire situation the Earth is facing due to rising temperatures.

The world’s top scientific body studying climate change said Monday that nations will need to take “unprecedented” steps to stem rising temperatures that, if unchecked, would create dangerous rising seas, food shortages, wildfires and the mass destruction of coral reefs by 2040 – years earlier than had previously been forecast.

The mission of the DiCaprio Foundation, founded in 1998, is to ensure the well-being of all Earth’s inhabitants. Lawrence, a professor of environmental sciences, connected with the foundation in November 2017 at the U.N.’s Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany. She’d just spoken about the importance of forests in keeping the Earth cool when she caught the attention of Karl Burkart, the foundation’s director of innovation, media and technology.
“We talked, and I really pushed to enhance the profile of forests on the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation,” she said.

Fast forward to Oct. 4, when Lawrence and 39 other leading scientists published “Five Reasons the Earth’s Climate Depends on Forests” on the website of Climate and Land Use Alliance. Once again, Burkart’s interest was piqued and he reached out to Lawrence to pen a piece for the DiCaprio Foundation.

Her article, “Deforestation is Tearing Through Our Carbon Budget,” appeared Sunday evening on the foundation’s news homepage, just ahead of the media coverage avalanche in response to the U.N.’s alarming report.

Talking with UVA Today, Lawrence likened forests to giant air conditioners.

“Forests, especially tropical forests, cool the atmosphere because they move a lot of water,” she said. “This process cools the air over the tropical rainforest, over the entire tropics, and it actually contributes to cooling the planet. So it’s like a giant air conditioner.”

What happens if the world cannot do what it takes to slow global warming? “We are heading toward a three-degree Celsius warming [above preindustrial levels]. I can’t even tell you how incredibly dangerous that would be.”

In the grand scheme of things, an increase of that size may not sound alarming, but Lawrence, who is focusing new research on how to convey the seriousness of global warming, said it should. “When I tell you that Charlottesville, which now has 30 days above 90 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer, will have 90 or 95 days over 90 degrees in the summer, that is really different,” she said.