Friday, December 23, 2005

Preserving the Rainforests

Old Business: Spying on Americans:

The Justice Department released a letter today defending the legality of Bush's order to allow the NSA to spy on American citizens without obtaining a warrant. The letter contains substantially the same arguments that Gonzales presented on CNN and which I discussed in Spying on Americans III. The same objections apply.

(1) The claim that Presidential powers as Commander in Chief trumps all other parts of the Constitution effectively interprets the Constitution out of existence.

(2) The Justice Department is saying that President Bush has the authority to rewrite every law ever written that contains the phrase "except as authorized by Congress" or any similar phrase, thus turning virtually every law into, at most, a body of polite suggestions.

(3) The President has used this "power" to eliminate any judicial oversight on how he conducts his business. He alone gets to decide whether his own actions are reasonable, and no tyrant has ever thought of his own actions as unreasonable.

In short, President Bush has assumed the right to edit and rewrite all legislation to suit his ends, subject solely to his own approval. He has created a Presidency with all of the powers of a dictator and left us defenseless against any future tyranny.

Now, does that not make you feel all safe and warm?

Old Business: Global Warming

Two weeks ago, the Bush Administration took credit for a 0.8 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in the United States from 2000 to 2003. I argued in my blog entry, American Behavior at the Climate Change Conference that the Bush Administration couldn't reasonably claim responsibility for this reduction unless it wanted to claim responsibility for the recession that shut down the factories that reduced the demand for fossil fuels.

Yesterday, news reports carried the story that America’s greenhouse gas emissions rose to a record high in 2004. Somehow, I suspect the Bush Administration is not going to accept responsibility for the increase and, instead, say that it is due to factors outside of its control.

Does anybody in the Bush administration even have an inkling that there is a word in the English Language called "responsibility?" They certainly show no signs of understanding the concept.

New Business: Rainforests

Today, I would like to take one of the points that I made yesterday and apply it to another of the world's problems -- the disappearing rainforests.

Yesterday, I wrote that if society truly does value the Arctic wilderness more than the oil, than society should be willing to compensate Alaska for the revenue it is forced to give up by not drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. If we are not willing to compensate Alaska for what we are asking it to give up, this says that we either do not value that wilderness as much as we say we do, or, like any thief, we seek to take what we value while forcing others to suffer the costs -- in this case, the cost of revenue that the state of Alaska has to give up.

By analogy, I wrote that if you had $500 locked in a case, and society says that the preservation of the case is worth $1000, then society should be willing to compensate you for the $500 that it is asking you to give up. If society is not really interested in paying you the $500, then we have reason to doubt society's claim that preserving the case is worth $1000.

If society pays you the $500, and the case is worth $1000 to it, then society is still better off, since it realizes $1000 worth of value at a cost of $500. If society does not think that it is worthwhile to pay you the $500 to preserve the box, then it makes no sense for society to claim that preserving the box is worth more to it than the contents of the box are worth to you.

Application: Rainforests

The same issue applies to the way we regard the rainforests. We have set up a world economy where we tell the governments with large tracts of rainforest (e.g., Brazil and Indonesia) that we will pay them if they destroy their rainforests, but not if they preserve those rainforests. If they tear down the rainforests, sell the lumber and then sell the land to farmers to grow crops, they can make money. If they leave the rainforests alone, they get nothing.

Then, we turn around and notice to our shock and dismay, "THEY ARE DESTROYING ALL THE RAINFORESTS."

My question: "Why are we acting so surprised?"

This is, in fact, the only predictable result of the system that we have set up. If we are going to pay these countries to destroy their rainforests and nothing to preserve them, then of course these countries are going to destroy their rain forests. Furthermore, they will have an incentive to invest in a growing technology that will allow them to destroy rainforests as efficiently as possible.

If we want to reverse this trend, we have an easy solution. We tell the governments of these countries, "Your rainforests are more valuable to us than your lumber and farm products, so we will now pay you to preserve your rainforests."

Then, destroying the rainforests will cost these countries money. In this case, instead of investing in the destruction of the rainforests, they will be investing in their preservation.

The Moral Dimension

Brazil has a rainforest. This rainforest contains a lot of what many people around the world value. It tempers the world's climate, provides for a wide diversity of plant and animal life, produces oxygen, instantiates wilderness values, and provides a DNA bank for genetic research that can help to produce new drugs and other medical breakthroughs.

Rainforests are also becoming valuable for their ability to sequester carbon, mitigating the damage that greenhouse gasses do. Given that those who produce greenhouse gasses cause harm to others and, thereby, have a moral obligation to compensate those harmed harmed (an issue that I discussed in "Global Warming: Who Pays?" greenhouse gas producers such as the United States can mitigate our responsibility by financing carbon sequestering -- that is, by funding rainforest preservation and regrowth.

Unfortunately, we want Brazil to provide us with these goods without actually paying for them. Therefore, our actions towards Brazil and countries like it take two forms.

(1) We attempt to use economic and political coercion to force them to provide us with these goods.

(2) We use moral language to tell them that they have an obligation to provide us with these goods as an act of charity -- that they have a moral obligation not to destroy the rain forests.

In both of these cases, we are wrong.

Because we are dealing with public goods, we are able to demand that a country provide us with goods that we value without actually taking anything out of that country. This is the nature of a "public good." Furthermore, the fact that its benefits are not tangible, free markets tend to destroy these goods in favor of physical entities. Yet, insofar as we force Brazil to preserve its rainforests and its values by threatening sanctions, we are, in fact, taking value by force, as plainly as if we were stealing commodities.

Morality requires that charity flows from those who have to those who do not not. If Brazil were an economically advanced country, and the United States was an impoverished developing nation, then we would be able to make the case that Brazil should provide us with charitable contributions including the values we can realize from public goods. However, the situation is reversed. We are the economically advantaged nation and Brazil is struggling to catch up. Therefore, Brazil owes us no charity. If we want Brazil to provide the goods contained within the preservation of the rainforests, then we have an obligation to compensate Brazil for the other opportunities that it must give up.

In this case, I am not talking about charity for third world countries. I am talking about paying them an honest amount of money comparable to the values that to be found in preserving their rain forests. We can use satellites to continue to measure their success at preserving these rain forests, and make the payments proportional to their success.

It seems a lot more fairer than coercing them into providing us with these goods, and it makes more sense than saying that they have a moral obligation to provide these goods.

Furthermore, if we pay them for preserving these forests rather than paying them only to destroy the forests, we might turn around one day and discover that they have quit destroying all of the rain forests.

Imagine that.

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