The future

9780300176483The bet between the biologist Paul Ehrlich and the economist Julian Simon, which was described as  ”the scholarly wager of the decade” by the Chronicle of Higher Education, was settled without drama–or graciousness. As Paul Sabin writes in The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon and Our Gamble over Earth’s Future:

One day in October 1990, Julian Simon picked up his mail at his house in suburban Chevy Chase, Maryland. In a small envelope sent from Palo Alto, California, Simon found a sheet of metal prices along with a check from Paul Ehrlich for $576.07. There was no note.

It was a victory not just for Simon but for optimists everywhere, and so a fitting way to start the year of 2014. The two men–who did not like one another–had in 1980, at Simon’s urging, placed a $1,000 bet on the price of five metals ten years hence. Ehrlich, whose book The Population Bomb warning of a coming global catastrophe had made him a celebrity, as well as one of the most influential environmentalists of all time, believed that food, energy and commodities would all grow scarce, and thus more expensive over the decade. Simon, a free-market economist, had enormous faith in the power of markets, prices and innovation to solve problems. (Before the bet, Simon was best known as the inventor of the auction system used by airlines to pay passengers not to take overbooked flights.) Between 1980 and 1990, the prices of the five minerals–chromium, copper, nickel, tin and tungsten–had fallen by an average of almost 50 percent.

Simon was lucky as well as smart. A global recession in the early 1980s depressed the prices of metals, and they never recovered. As Sabin reports in his first-rate and very readable book, economists who ran simulations of the bet during every 10-year period between 1900 and 2008 found that Ehrlich would have won the bet 63 percent of the time. Yet the history of the past 45 years, since Ehrlich published The Population Bomb, weighs heavily in favor of Simon’s worldview. Market signals, human ingenuity and technological progress have solved problems that Ehrlich said would doom us all. [click to continue...]

The toxic debate over climate science

Can the climate-science debate get any more toxic?

The Heartland Institute, a free-market think tank that challenges the scientific consensus about climate change, was embarrassed by the release yesterday (Feb. 14) of confidential documents, including the names of corporate donors. They were published by environmental bloggers led by the DeSmog Blog, which describes its purpose as “clearing the PR pollution that clouds climate science.”

Today, Heartland struck back, saying that a key document was a forgery and that others were stolen “by an unknown person who fraudulently assumed the identity of a Heartland board member and persuaded a staff member here to ‘re-send’ board materials to a new email address.” Heartland said: “We intend to find this person and see him or her put in prison for these crimes.”

Wow. It’s getting nasty out there.

Heartland, the DeSmog blog and others who rushed to report on the purloined documents–one of which may turn out to be a fake–all come out of this tainted, some worse then others.

Here are my reactions to the documents, and the ensuing brouhaha: [click to continue...]

Just how big is the Amazon?

It’s one thing to read about the Amazon, and quite another to see it first-hand, as I did for the first time last week. Even then it’s hard to get your head around the size of the world’s largest rainforest and the world’s largest river.

Yet size is really important when talking about the Amazon.

Size is why the fate of the Amazon matters to everyone: it’s a crucial storehouse for carbon, and the richest repository of  biodiversity in the world. It’s also the reason why “managing” the rainforest is hard, if indeed it can be done at all. (Back in the 1970s, for better or worse, Brazil tried to build a 5,200km road called the Trans Amazonian Highway, but it never finished the job. Too much heat, rain, flooding, etc.) While Brazil has made great strides in stopping illegal deforestation (See Can Brazil Save the Amazon?), protecting what’s left of the forest remains a daunting task.

My government-sponsored trip with a group of international reporters focused on climate and the Amazon. When we met with Izabella Teixeira, Brazil’s environment minister, someone asked her whether the ministry needs more cops on the ground to enforce laws prohibiting deforestation. Of course, she said, smiling, but she was honest enough to add that there’s no way to catch all the violators. Remember, she said, we’re talking about a region of 3.5 million kilometers, or  1.6 million square miles, and that’s just the portion of the rainforest inside Brazil. “If you put an army unit there, it would not be enough,” she said.

Size also makes predicting the Amazon’s future very difficult. Just last week, Andrew Revkin of The New York Times, who has reported on the region for more than 20 years, wrote on his blog:

I’m convinced that the system of rivers and forests is durable enough — not to mention expansive enough — to persist, and even thrive, as Brazil and its neighbors develop their economies.

But Lou Gold, a well-informed American blogger in Brazil, sees things very differently, warns that there’s a rush to develop the rainforest with roads, dams, energy projects, and more of the cattle ranches and soy plantations that have destroyed so much of it. A World Bank study called “Assessment of the Risk of Amazon Dieback,” available here, is summarized like this by the Bank Information Center:

The study predicts with more certainty than any other prior study that the legal Amazon (one of the four primary global climate feedback mechanisms) is very close (about 2-3% of total deforestation) to a tipping point of combined events that will lead ultimately to its collapse

Who’s right? I’m not expert enough to offer an opinion. Meanwhile, here are a few words, numbers and pictures from the trip, most chosen to give you a sense of the size of the river and rainforest.

First, a few words: Brazil is the world’s fifth biggest country and almost half the country is covered by the Amazon. One day, we flew for 90 minutes from the city of Manaus to an oil-and-gas outpost in the forest and in between saw nothing but treetops. They looked like a giant carpet of broccoli. Another day, we flew an hour in the opposite direction, from Manaus to Santerem and, again, saw nothing but forest between the two cities.

No bridges cross the Amazon. That’s not because the river is too wide, I was told, although there are places where, during the rainy season, the river grows to more than 120 miles (!) across. It’s because there aren’t enough people living alongside it to create a need for bridges. People travel from place to place by ferryboats like these, bringing hammocks to sleep in because riverboat journeys often take several days.

Ferryboats in Santerem

Now, a few numbers: The Amazonian forest holds 20% of the world’s fresh water. It’s home to about 45,000 species of plants, 1,800 species of butterflies and 2000 species of fish–ten times as many as all of Europe. (One night at dinner in Santerem, we enjoyed the ribs of a big fish called the Tambaqui that eats plants, by swimming among the trees that get covered during the rainy season when rivers rise by as much as 45 feet. A treat not to be missed if you visit Brazil.)


Some other things that I saw on the trip…

The Negro River, one of several huge tributaries to the Amazon, from our hotel in Manaus:

The Negro River

The Tabajo River, another big tributary, seen from the riverfront in Santerem. Way in the background, you can see a big Cargill dock, used to ship soy to Europe.

The Topajos River

Trees in the Tapajo national forest, part of the Amazon biome:

A church at dusk in Santerem:

Tomorrow, in my last report from Brazil, I’ll explore the question: Is sustainable development possible in the Amazon? Or is it an oxymoron?

Disclosure: My trip was organized by Apex-Brasil, a government backed agency that promotes trade and investment in Brazil, and financed by Petrobras, Eletrobras and Banco do Brasil.

The technology that could save the planet

What if the technology we need to curb climate change turns out to be not a solar panel, smart grid or electric car battery but social media powered by cellphones, laptops and online networks like Facebook? event in Copenhagen event in Copenhagen

As I prepare to leave today for the climate negotiations in Copenhagen, I’m struck by–actually, flooded, overwhelmed, swamped and dizzied by–the sheer volume of user-generated content coming out of Copenhagen, much of it created by people in their 20s and 30s. Groups like and the Youth Climate Movement (“It’s getting hot in here”) and TckTckTck (“right now your leaders are deciding our future”). It’s not just the kids, of course: Traditional NGOs are also blogging and tweeting like crazy from Copenhagen, as are the mainstream media (Juliet Elperin of The Washington Post is worth following on the Post Carbon blog), and even global companies are tapping into the power of social media to spread information. The real-time carbon counter below comes courtesy of Deutsche Bank’s Asset Management division; it was launched earlier this year in Times Square and now can be seen on blogs and websites around the world.

Our Climate is Changing!

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Of course, those who want to block climate regulation are using social media as well. The controversy known as ClimateGate has been [click to continue...]