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Monday, May 4

The Train, Part 1 of 2

First they said biofuels were good. Then they said biofuels were bad. Now they're all going straight to hell. Why?  

They made an unwarranted assumption. If they'd just stopped there but they didn't. Drunk with power, puffed up with vast intellect, oozing moral superiority, they used governments to ram through laws and channel obscene amounts of tax money into saving the planet from getting too warm.  

The unwarranted assumption, however, was that whatever warming they feared was the direct result of excessive burning of fossil fuels.  And from this they somehow decided that one way to save the planet was if everyone switched from fuels made from crude oil to fuels from plants.

As one forest after another around the world was razed to make way for soybeans, palms, and sugar cane for biofuels, a Brazilian scientist was trying to make his voice heard over ringing cash registers as farmers racked up fortunes from biofuel plantations and carbon credit swaps specialists cleaned up.  

See, he explained patiently, you are going to get drier weather if you keep chopping down so many forests and especially so much of the Amazon rain forest.   

Then he'd get down on his tummy and draw stick figures for the geniuses of global warming to show how trees transpire moisture into the air, and how this moisture rises up and makes huge vapor rivers -- oceans of vapor, actually. 

Then he'd stand and make flapping motions with his arms to illustrate how the vapors rise and sail through the sky.*     

These vapors, he explained, are critical to maintaining adequate rainfall and if no rainfall, well, this is how you have a drier planet.   

But where were the soybeans?  The carbon credits?  Where was Al Gore?  And what did chopping down trees have to do with melting glaciers except the dead trees released carbon dioxide or something like that and there you are, manmade greenhouse gases destroying the planet.

The decades rolled on.  By the time the first biofuels food riots broke out in 2007, some people in the Green movement were openly questioning the wisdom of biofuels, which were skyrocketing the price of basic foodstuffs in the poorest regions of the world, and making big inroads on forests. By that same year Brazil's government had put a satellite in the sky with the pointed acronym DETER to deter loggers and farmers from cutting down too many trees so the planet wouldn't die from manmade greenhouse gases.

But stopping unlawful deforestation turned out to be devilishly hard . By 2008 Monga Bay's Rhett Butler and his crew, keeping tabs on a small but growing number of scientists who were questioning hyperfocus on carbon emissions and biofuels, reported on what had been a mystery.  With all the energetic government policies in Brazil to stop excessive deforestation of the Amazon, how did it to continue to spread like a metastasizing cancer? 

The answer was "indirectly:"
William Laurance, a senior scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, says that massive subsidies to promote American corn production for ethanol have shifted soy production to Brazil where large areas of cerrado grasslands are being torn up for soybean farms. The expansion of soy in the region is contributing to deforestation in the Amazon.

"Some forests are directly cleared for soy farms. Farmers also purchase large expanses of cattle pasture for soy production, effectively pushing the ranchers further into the Amazonian frontier or onto lands unsuitable for soy production," said Laurance.
"In addition, higher soy costs tend to raise beef prices because soy-based livestock feeds become more expensive, creating an indirect incentive for forest conversion to pasture," added Laurance. "Finally, the powerful Brazilian soy lobby has been a driving force behind initiatives to expand Amazonian highway networks, which greatly increase access to forests for ranchers, farmers, loggers, and land speculators."

Satellite imagery from NASA supports Laurance. [...]
By 2009 even Bill Clinton was worried about the relentless pace of deforestation in the Amazon. Tree Hugger reported on June 4 of that year:
I guess when you're a former US president with a well-respected eponymous humanitarian foundation you can really lay into a touchy subject without much mincing of words. The example: Bill Clinton talking to Brazil on how being a world leader in ethanol production is no victory if it is coupled with escalating carbon emissions from deforestation:Speaking at the Ethanol Summit 2009, Clinton was quoted as saying by Reuters:
"What people are worried about, Brazil, is not whether you have the most efficient biofuel in the world ... everybody knows that is true. But the world would say if we let Brazil help us solve our problem at the price of more rainforest destruction, have we really gained anything? That's what you have to answer."
Clinton also pointed out that though Brazil has made great strides in renewable energy, 75 percent of its greenhouse gas emissions come from deforestation and agriculture. When these are included in the country's total, Brazil rises to being the world's third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases. [...]
On December 18, 2009, six months after Clinton's speech, Christine Dell'Amore reported for National Geographic on an odd claim made at the Copenhagen Climate Conference. The claim sounded suspiciously like a counter-theory to the manmade greenhouses gases theory of global warming -- although as I think I noted the first time I mentioned the report Dell'Amore strove to square the circle:
Amazon Losing "Flying Rivers," Ability to Curb Warming
The Amazon's "flying rivers"—humid air currents that deliver water to the vast rain forest—may be ebbing, which could have dire consequences for the region's ability to help curb global warming, an expert said this week at the Copenhagen climate conference.
Rising temperatures in the Amazon region, in large part due to climate change, are creating more arid savannas, which disrupt the water cycle vital to Brazil's farming and energy industries.
Deforestation also plays a role. As more of Brazil's rain forests fall to logging and agriculture, there are fewer trees to release the water vapor that creates these flying rivers.
Until recently, Amazon forest loss has been primarily linked to the trees' role in trapping greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide (CO2), which are a root cause of global warming.
"Most people look at the Amazon as the lungs of the world, or as a solution to capture CO2," said Gérard Moss, an engineer and founder of the Flying Rivers Project, an ongoing effort to document the humid air currents and their effects.
"But I'd like people to realize that the Amazon Basin is a huge water pump—rain is [our] most valuable asset," he said by phone Wednesday in Copenhagen, where he gave a press briefing on the project earlier this week.
Flying rivers may transport as much water as the Amazon River itself, he added. "This huge rain machine needs to be preserved." [...]
Unlike the scientists Eneas Salati and Antonio Nobre, who'd taken the purist approach to explaining the importance of flying rivers, the more practical-minded Moss had clearly decided if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.  As long as he sprinkled his talk with "warming," he could get his research findings, and the findings of Salati and Nobre, past the gates at a big international climate change confab.

Yet the fact that National Geographic had picked up on his points was like the mournful whistle of a freight train coming nearer in the night.

*  I hope the good Dr Salati would indulge the poetic license I've taken in describing his efforts to explain the significance of flying rivers, which were surely more dignified than I've imagined.

The Train, Part 2

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