Friday, August 30, 2019

The most dangerous thing about the Amazon fires is the apocalyptic rhetoric

Matt Ridley

Cristiano Ronaldo is a Portuguese expert on forests who also plays football, so when he shared a picture online of a recent forest fire in the Amazon, it went viral. Perhaps he was in a rush that day to get out of the laboratory to football training, because it later transpired that the photograph was actually taken in 2013, not this year, and in southern Brazil, nowhere near the Amazon.

But at least his picture was only six years old. Emmanuel Macron, another forest ecologist who moonlights as president of France, claimed that ‘the Amazon rainforest — the lungs which produce 20 per cent of our planet’s oxygen — is on fire!’ alongside a picture that was 20 years old. A third bioscientist, who goes under the name of Madonna and sings, capped both their achievements by sharing a 30-year-old picture.

Now imagine if some celebrity — Donald Trump, say, or Nigel Lawson — had shared a picture of a pristine tropical forest with the caption ‘Amazon rainforest’s doing fine!’ and it had turned out to be decades old or from the wrong area. The BBC’s ‘fact-checkers’ would have been all over it, seizing the opportunity to mock, censor and ostracise.

In fact, ‘Amazon rainforest’s doing fine’ is a lot closer to the truth than ‘Amazon rainforest — the lungs which produce 20 per cent of our planet’s oxygen — is on fire!’. The forest is not on fire. The vast majority of this year’s fires are on farmland or already cleared areas, and the claim that the Amazon forest produces 20 per cent of the oxygen in the air is either nonsensical or wrong depending on how you interpret it (in any case, lungs don’t produce oxygen). The Amazon, like every ecosystem, consumes about as much oxygen through respiration as it produces through photosynthesis so there is no net contribution; and even on a gross basis, the Amazon comprises less than 6 per cent of oxygen production, most of which happens in the ocean.

But it is the outdated nature of the pictures shared by celebs that is most revealing, because the number of fires in Brazil this year is more than last year, but about the same as in 2016 and less than in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2010 and 2012. For most of those years, Brazil’s president was a socialist, not a right-wing populist, so in BBC-world those fires did not count. More significantly, the rate of deforestation in the Amazon basin is down by 70 per cent since 2004.

It is probably true that President Jair Bolsonaro’s rhetoric has encouraged those who want to resume logging and clearing forest and contributed to this year’s uptick in fires in the country. But was it really necessary to claim global catastrophe to make this point, and was it counterproductive? ‘Macron’s tweet had the same impact on Bolsonaro’s base as Hillary calling Trump’s base deplorable,’ says one Brazilian commentator.

I sometimes wonder if the line wrongly attributed to Mark Twain, ‘a lie is halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on’, is now taken as an instruction by environmental pressure groups. They operate in a viciously competitive market for media attention and donations, and those who scream loudest do best, even if it later turns out they were telling fibs.

Around the world, wild fires are generally declining, according to Nasa. Deforestation, too, is happening less and less. The United Nations’ ‘state of the world’s forests’report concluded last year that ‘the net loss of forest area continues to slow, from 0.18 per cent [a year] in the 1990s to 0.08 per cent over the last five-year period’. A study in Nature last year by scientists from the University of Maryland concluded that even this is too pessimistic: ‘We show that — contrary to the prevailing view that forest area has declined globally — tree cover has increased by 2.24 million km2 (+7.1 per cent relative to the 1982 level).’

This net increase is driven by rapid reforestation in cool, rich countries outweighing slower net deforestation in warm, poor countries. But more and more nations are now reaching the sort of income levels at which they stop deforesting and start reforesting. Bangladesh, for example, has been increasing its forest cover for several years. Costa Rica has doubled its tree cover in 40 years. Brazil is poised to join the reforesters soon.

Possibly the biggest driver of this encouraging trend is the rising productivity of agriculture. The more yields increase, the less land we need to steal from nature to feed ourselves. Jesse Ausubel of Rockefeller University has calculated that the world needs only 35 per cent as much land to produce a given quantity of food as 50 years ago. That has spared wild land on a massive scale.

Likewise, getting people on to fossil fuels and away from burning wood for fuel spares trees. It is in the poorest countries, mainly in Africa, that men and women still gather firewood for cooking and bushmeat for food, instead of using electricity or gas and farmed meat.

The trouble with the apocalyptic rhetoric is that it can seem to justify drastic but dangerous solutions. The obsession with climate change has slowed the decline of deforestation. An estimated 700,000 hectares of forest has been felled in South-East Asia to grow palm oil to add to supposedly green ‘bio-diesel’ fuel in Europe, while the world is feeding 5 per cent of its grain crop to motor cars rather than people, which means 5 per cent of cultivated land that could be released for forest. Britain imports timber from wild forests in the Americas to burn for electricity at Drax in North Yorkshire, depriving beetles and woodpeckers of their lunch.

The temptation to moralise on social media is so strong among footballers, actors and politicians alike that it is actually doing harm. Get the economic incentives right and the world will save its forests. Preach and preen and prevaricate, and you’ll probably end up inadvertently depriving more toucans and tapirs of their rainforest habitat.


State or climate — an easy choice

Looking at remote sensing data from NASA’s satellites across the past two decades, the Earth has increased its green leaf area by a total of 5 per cent, roughly 5.5 million square kilo­metres — equivalent to the size of the entire Amazon rainforest.

Who knew?

Certainly not French President Emmanuel Macron. In an alarmist tweet featuring a photo of an Amazon fire said to have been taken 30 years ago, he told the G7 leaders conference: “Our house is burning. Literally. The Amazon rainforest — the lung which produces 20 per cent of our planet’s oxygen — is on fire.” Well, not really. Atmospheric scientists claim that even though plant photosynthesis is ultimately responsible for breathable oxygen, only a fraction of that plant growth actually adds to the store of oxygen in the air. Even if all organic matter on Earth were burned at once, less than 1 per cent of the world’s oxygen would be consumed.

No doubt the Amazon fires are worrying. However, an analysis of NASA satellite data indicates that total fire activity across the entire Amazon Basin this year seems relatively unexceptional. Indeed, NASA observed on ­August 21: “It is not unusual to see fires in Brazil at this time of year due to high temperatures and low ­humidity. Time will tell if this year is record-breaking or just within normal limits.”

Nevertheless, with the next UN Climate Summit due on September 23, it’s time to ring the alarm bells. Before each UN climate action conference the media rhetoric ramps up and new evidence of an existential threat is provided. A blazing Amazon rainforest is perfect propaganda ­material. But then, as British scientist Philip Stott observes: “In essence, the Earth has been given a 10-year survival warning regularly for the last 50 or so years.”

Still, CNN obediently turns NASA’s cautious observation into a catastrophe, declaring: “Amazon rainforest is burning at an unprecedented rate.” NBC News despairs: “Amazon wildfires could be game over for climate-change fight.” And, predictably, The New York Times fails to mention that while today’s fires are significantly worse than last year’s, they appear close to the ­average of the past 15 years.

For Macron, the Amazon fires give him ammunition to attack someone he dislikes, right-wing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro’s unfiltered style has seen him dubbed the “Trump of the Tropics” and, like the US President, he attracts condemnation for his attitude, ­especially on climate change.

It’s true, since coming to office in January, Bolsonaro has moved Brazil further away from climate action and Brazil’s commitments under the Paris Agreement. Critics argue his government has weakened the institutional and legal framework that helps fight deforestation and lessened the participation of pro-environment groups. Indeed, before Bolso­naro coming to office, Amazon deforestation had declined almost 80 per cent in a little more than a decade. Now the Brazilian President is opening up previously protected areas to private ownership. He believes forests and forest protection are impediments to Brazil’s economic growth and that his critics are leading a “disinformation campaign built against our nation’s sovereignty”.

Indeed, Brazilian farmers ­believe they have a right to burn. They see fires as a natural part of life. Most fires are agricultural in nature; smallholders burning stubble after harvest or clearing forest for crop land. For this, Don­ald Trump is also blamed. Toby Gardner, director of non-government organisation Trase, reckons the huge growth in Brazil’s farms is because of Trump’s trade war that “sent China, the top buyer of US soybeans, shopping in South America”.

But while international condemnation is directed at Brazil, what largely goes unreported is that the worst fires are in Bolivia. But then Bolivian President Evo Morales is of the hard left and seeking a fourth term in office. Unlike Bolsonaro, Morales talks the global warming talk. In 2010 he hosted a summit to tackle “the threats of capitalism against life, climate change and the culture of life”. Having politically correct credentials gives him a free pass. He can approve oil ­exploration and fracking in indigenous territories. All 11 of the ­nation’s protected areas have been opened for oil and gas exploration. But still Morales is spared criticism.

Of course, Bolsonaro’s threat to withdraw from the Paris Agreement and his abandonment of Brazil’s offer to host a key Latin America and Caribbean climate week on the grounds “the event only serves as a platform for NGOs … which has nothing to do with climate change” did nothing for his global standing.

Nor with Macron, whose relationship with the Brazilian is now toxic. A proud Bolsonaro accuses Macron of having a “colonialist mentality”, while the Frenchman calls him a liar over a broken pledge to fight global warming. Macron says he will block efforts to seal a major trade deal with Brazil. Now the relationship has completely broken apart after a Brazilian supporter posted an insulting comment about Macron’s wife that Bolsonaro re-tweeted.

Such are the politics of climate change. Like the US, Brazil believes its national interest lies outside the Paris Agreement. It is not alone. Countries such as Bolivia, Poland and others, including Aus­tralia, find it increasingly difficult to balance domestic priorities with the economically crippling demands of their Paris commitments.

Something will have to give. Environmental awareness is one thing but outsourcing sovereignty is something else. Amazon fires have exposed what has long been suspected. Despite international agreements and peer group coercion, in the end nations will pursue their self-interest. With the passing of each survival deadline that decision becomes easier.


What My Friends on the Left Need to Know About the Green New Deal

“Nowhere has our public discourse failed us more egregiously than on the environment and climate change,” I wrote last year while reviewing the first sketches of a proposed Green New Deal. It’s since become a buzzword, but until now it remained only vaguely defined.

Now Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has significantly upped the ante. Sanders’ Green New Deal proposal is very specific, earmarking $16 trillion over 10 years to initiatives from “reaching 100 percent renewable energy for electricity and transportation by 2030” to reauthorizing the New Deal-era Civilian Conservation Corps to “coming together in a truly inclusive movement that prioritizes young people, workers, indigenous peoples, communities of color, and other historically marginalized groups.”

The opening to the Sanders campaign’s new page on the Green New Deal encapsulates the candidate’s view of the issue:

The climate crisis is not only the single greatest challenge facing our country; it is also our single greatest opportunity to build a more just and equitable future, but we must act immediately.

Sanders and I wouldn’t disagree that his plan represents a sea change in the way our government, society, and economy interact. The plan is gigantic. I want to fill page after page with factoids about how big it is, but just a few will suffice:

The proposal’s total cost is $16 trillion, over 20 times the cost of the New Deal (in today’s dollars, just under $700 billion).

If the proposal succeeded in creating 20 million jobs, it would raise the percentage of the workforce employed by the government to around a third, double what it is now.

Remember that goal of 100 percent renewables by 2030? We’re only at 15 percent now, meaning almost the entire U.S. energy system would be overhauled.

I rarely post my articles on my personal Facebook page. I’d say most of my friends are somewhere on the left, and I haven’t yet learned how to not get sucked into multi-day social media debates. This one goes out to them, because setting aside all the proxy wars fought about climate change, Bernie Sanders’ proposed Green New Deal is a really, really bad idea.

The Four Fallacies
I approach climate change from the presumption that it is real, that a significant portion is caused by humankind, and that it’s potentially a very big problem. I don’t doubt the intentions of Senator Sanders or especially supporters of his proposal. And I’m not funded by anyone with a net worth even a penny over $1 billion. I’m just an economist living in the woods.

So, in the harsh, occasionally scathing criticism that follows, I want everyone to remember it’s not because of any of the things above. But then how do I reach conclusions so different than Sanders? I think Sanders’ view of the problem is based on four major fallacies, incorrect assumptions so hardwired that he doesn’t even know he’s making them.

What are the four fallacies?

Climate change is a binary (0/1) variable.

Climate change is primarily the fault of a few people rather than a complex, emergent phenomenon.

Planning from the top down is a good way to solve climate change.

Planning from the top down is the only means to solve climate change.

A plan like Sanders’ Green New Deal will not successfully achieve the goals it lays out, and is likely to cause significant damage to the economy. I’m not so naive as to think this article will change minds, but if it gets a few people to stop and question their assumptions in the midst of a public debate with more bad blood than ever, I’ll take it.

Fallacy 1: Climate change is a binary (0/1) variable

In his proposal Sanders writes:

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report last year issued a dire warning to the world: we have no time left to come together as a global force and aggressively reduce our carbon pollution emissions. It also made a strong case for limiting warming at or below 1.5 degrees Celsius if we hope to continue to have a habitable planet.

The October 2018 report Sanders references is a massive document, but even a quick read of the boldface statements in the Summary for Policymakers is eye-opening. For example:

Climate-related risks for natural and human systems are higher for global warming of 1.5°C than at present, but lower than at 2°C (high confidence). These risks depend on the magnitude and rate of warming, geographic location, levels of development and vulnerability, and on the choices and implementation of adaptation and mitigation options (high confidence).

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change scientists frame climate change as a deeply complex issue nested in the way we live in which more efforts at mitigation now will reduce the incidence and risk of a host of adverse weather and environmental events.

Sanders mischaracterizes the scientists’ findings, framing the issue as a choice between massively overhauling society and doing nothing, with the latter posing a serious risk of human extinction (“habitable planet” leaves a bit more wiggle room than extinction, but I don’t know another way to read it).

This sword-of-Damocles view of climate change, common in today’s discussions, will not get us anywhere. In addition to not being true, it takes people who are open to taking significant action and forces them to choose sides. It helps fuel the denialist movement and has likely prevented many smaller actions, both government and individual, that would have left us in a better spot than where we find ourselves.

Fallacy 2: Climate change is the fault of a few people

Climate change is an emergent phenomenon, not one caused by a small group of people.

Sanders sees climate change as a problem primarily caused by a small group of people. Their motivation is greed and a Sanders presidency will be different because he will fight those people.

Or, as stated in Sanders’ Green New Deal proposal:

We cannot accomplish any of these goals without taking on the fossil fuel billionaires whose greed lies at the very heart of the climate crisis. These executives have spent hundreds of millions of dollars protecting their profits at the expense of our future, and they will do whatever it takes to squeeze every last penny out of the Earth.

Billionaires and corporate executives do bad things. Sometimes they have bad intentions. But climate change is an emergent phenomenon, primarily the product of billions if not trillions of decisions made every day by everyone in an increasingly complex global network. From Americans’ decisions about what kind of car to buy to urbanization in the developing world, causes of climate change are all around us and frequently not separable.

Sanders proposes a top-down solution to what he envisions as a top-down problem. His analogy to the Second World War speaks volumes:

The scope of the challenge ahead of us shares similarities with the crisis faced by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1940s. Battling a world war on two fronts — both in the East and the West — the United States came together, and within three short years restructured the entire economy in order to win the war and defeat fascism.

The challenge posed by climate change is nothing like winning a war, which is about focusing a nation’s efforts into one or a few points of conflict. Instead, one has to focus on thousands or millions of “fronts” in addressing climate change, and as I’ll argue below federal governments just aren’t good at that, especially in an increasingly networked and technological society.

A far more apt comparison for Sanders’ formulation of climate change is to the U.S. government’s War on Drugs. Drugs are another emergent phenomenon, embedded in poverty, mental health, and global politics. And large-scale government action has proven futile if not counterproductive.

Fallacy 3:We Can Control the Environment and Economy From The Top Down

Attempting to control a complex system from the top down is not effective and is likely to do considerable economic damage.

Why can’t we solve climate change from the top down?

I want to think about your self-awareness — the volume of information you’ve learned about yourself, what products you like, what you consider fulfilling, how you might perform or react in different situations. Now imagine going out and trying to find a job, or a good investment, without the use of that self-awareness or similar awareness of the person with whom you’re doing business.

Supporters of Sanders’ proposals might say they have no intention for this model to take over the economy but in one fell swoop are seizing control of 8 percent of GDP and about 16 percent of the U.S. workforce.

The analogy is not to suggest that Sanders is after socializing the entire labor market, but rather how easy good or decent outcomes collapse under the weight of information. You couldn’t possibly even write down most of your intuition about yourself to pass up the chain of command to an economic planner.

When economic decisions are centrally made, as they ultimately are in the Green New Deal, planners must throw out an incalculably large store of information. That’s why we’re usually better off letting people make their own decisions. It’s why we need markets and why socialist economies are known for odd and vexing shortages of goods.

Sanders’ proposal takes a considerable chunk of society’s resources out of people’s hands and leaves them at the White House door. When Sanders writes, “We will spend $1.52 trillion on renewable energy and $852 billion to build energy storage capacity,” how on earth does he know how to spend it?

That brings us to one more shortcoming of top-down responses to bottom-up problems. They rely on several smart people in a room whose intelligence may be formidable but is put to shame by the most creative force we know, evolution. We need thousands of small private firms, informed or incentivized by the price mechanism, to develop technology to both mitigate and address the impacts of climate change.

Fallacy 4: Nation-states are our only hope to address climate change

This may leave you saying, “Okay, Gulker, then what are we supposed to do?” I’m not going to pretend that’s an easy question, and I wish there were more people focused on it. A climate policy that relies more heavily on the evolution inherent in markets as a bottom-up force for change can’t really be presented as a “plan” like what we’ve gotten from Sanders.

To get there, though, we must free ourselves from the flawed idea that only nation-states are big, powerful, and well-informed enough to have a meaningful impact on global issues. Virtually everyone on any side of the climate issue makes this final mistake. Take the money and time spent lobbying, campaigning, and waiting for the government to catch up to one’s view on climate change. Invest in a prominent technology with a GoFundMe instead.

A plan like Sanders’ proposal may actually suck some of that creative energy out of the market by making massive, centrally planned investments in technologies picked by the best and brightest to win.

Sounds like a drop in the bucket, but think about if hundreds of millions of people did that. Nobody would oppose or care enough to stop someone’s volunteerism, and economic and cultural change would happen if more people were simply demanding firms they do business with follow certain rules.

More than any other takeaway, we do not face a choice between the Sanders’ proposal reshuffling our economic deck (I’ve argued for the worse), and certain doom. It might not give environmentalists everything they want, but think if we’d deployed this decentralized strategy 20 years ago, how much better a spot we’d be in.

Climate change is but one example of how our society and technology have evolved faster than our governance institutions. And that is something we ignore at our own peril.


Forests Make a Comeback

In the last week, there have been many reports about the fires in the Amazonian forests. Many of these reports led news shows or were on the front pages of leading newspapers. The Amazon forest, which produces about 20% of earth's oxygen and is the world’s largest rainforest, is often referred to as "the planet's lungs." The nickname strikes the imagination and it is frequently used in campaigns regarding the perils of deforestation. As such, the news reports about the fire strike a fear that one of the last great forests is disappearing.

That’s completely untrue. Forests are making a comeback! More precisely, the tree cover of the planet is increasing. To be sure, it is nowhere near what it was at the beginning of the 19th century when the world’s population was below 1 billion individuals (most of whom were abjectly poor). Indeed, many forests on the planet were destroyed and cleared as population grew in number and wealth. However, globally speaking, the tree cover has begun to recover. Since 1982, a recent peer-reviewed paper in Nature suggests, the planet’s tree cover increased by 2.24 million km2 (an increase of roughly 7%).

The transition also differs by region as some countries saw a recovery of forest much earlier. Many European countries saw the beginning of this recovery in the early decades of the twentieth century (and some began the transition much earlier). For the United States, there are some studies placing the beginning of the recovery in the 1930s but many states (especially in New England and the Middle Atlantic states) saw their forest recoveries begin as early as 1907. To be sure, some regions on Earth are experiencing falls in forest cover. This is the case for Brazil and many other Latin American countries (not all as Chile and Uruguay have already seen their forest recoveries begin). Nevertheless, the global picture is one of optimism.

And there is cause for being optimistic that the trend will continue.

Geographer Pierre Desrochers and economist Hiroko Shimizu noted that nine-tenths of all the deforestation caused by humans took place before 1950. The main reason for this was that forest-clearing was one of the easiest channels by which to increase the food supply while also providing energy.

However, as we are now vastly more productive in our agriculture, we require less land to feed the same population. The effects of productivity growth in agriculture are so strong that some agricultural scientists are speaking of “peak farmland” – the idea that we will need less and less land to feed a growing population.

Moreover, as transports and communication technologies have also improved, we have been able to concentrate production in the most productive areas of the planet in ways that explain a sizable share of total gains in productivity. As we grow more productive in farming, mankind can now leave some acres to return to nature to be reforested. With the prospect of new advances in bio-engineering, meat printing, sky-farms and other innovations, this is a force for reforestation that will only strengthen.

There have also been considerable improvements in the ability to transform wood into products. Consider simply the role of saws. A few decades ago, most saws were quite thick. This meant that large portions of trees became saw dust which could not be reused. Today, most saws are razor-thin. This minimizes the waste which, anyways, we now reuse as plywood.

While this may appear like a trivial example to use, but this was the margin to play on a few decades ago to improve productivity. Today, considerable resources are invested in the scientific management of forests and bioengineering better trees. This ability to derive more value from tree incentivizes reforestation.

These sources of reforestation are also the channels that improve the well-being of mankind: greater productivity makes us richer. This is why some researchers have noted that improvements in human well-being (using both narrow and broad measures such as GDP and the Human Development Index) and forest expansion seem to go hand in hand.

Other researchers have noted the same, in a more indirect fashion, when they pointed out that the institutions that generate improvements in living standards may also hasten forest recoveries. As living standards are globally on the rise, this only reinforces the case for optimism with the fate of forests.

To be sure, none of this suggests that the fires in the Amazonian ought to be ignored. However, it does suggest that one should not focus exclusively on those fires to infer anything about the state of forests worldwide.


Climate crisis canceled: Where did all the drought go?

A record low amount of drought occurred in the United States in 2017, but that didn’t stop climate alarmists from blaming 2018 California wildfires on global warming. Yes, even though California state officials determined Pacific Gas & Electric power lines were to blame. So if global warming was a major factor in the 2018 wildfires, is global warming due praise for the record lack of drought in 2017? And what is the state of drought in California and the United States today?

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports good news for Americans and bad news for climate alarmists. As the late summer/early autumn drought season kicks in, the entire state of California is free of drought. A couple small areas of southern California are experiencing minor dry conditions that do not rise to the level of drought. The rest of the state is experiencing normal or wetter than normal conditions. Did global warming suddenly stop?

It’s not just California, by the way. NOAA also reports the United States just experienced its most abundant rainfall in any recorded 12-month period. And examining extreme drought versus merely regularly drought, this spring marked the smallest portion of the country experiencing drought in nearly two decades. So 2017 brought the smallest amount of drought ever recorded, and mid-2018 through mid-2019 brought the most abundant rainfall on record. But when faulty PG&E power lines sparked wildfires during the middle of this abundant rainfall, alarmists say global warming is causing drought which causes or exacerbates wildfires.

It is for reasons like this that alarmists lack credibility with the American people….



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1 comment:

C. S. P. Schofield said...

French President Emmanuel Macron has more than he can handle running his own country. He should keep his nose out of the business of others'.