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Brazil is ground zero for global greens. Home of the largest and richest rainforest system in the world, Brazil is where the fight for biodiversity and the fight against deforestation will be either won or lost. At the Copenhagen Summit, Brazil played a key role in failed negotiations that killed the Green Dream of a universal treaty to stop global warming. And as I learned this week, Brazil is the country whose creativity and ingenuity is changing the terms of the global climate and food debates in ways that greens find hard to fathom.

This week I visited Rio de Janeiro on a lecture tour in Brazil, returning to the place where I first learned that the global green movement is chock full of nuts.  The good news about Rio first: the city is cleaner and safer (if more expensive) than it used to be — and it is as beautiful as ever.  Locals are skeptical that the city will be ready for the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016; my advice would be to give the city a miss during those events but come between them or afterwards to enjoy one of the most beautiful and unforgettable cities in the world.

Christ the Redeemer statue on Corcovado Mountain overlooking Rio de Janeiro (Wikimedia)

I went to Rio in 1992 for the environmental summit, the disastrous meeting that focused the world’s attention on the first giant misstep of the climate change movement: the misbegotten Kyoto Protocol that consumed two decades of green political energy around the world, alienated the United States from its European allies and at great cost achieved absolutely nothing worthwhile.  Global warming was not slowed, greenhouse gas emissions were essentially unaffected, green credibility took the first in a series of crippling hits, and opposition in the US to the global green agenda hardened.

That’s what happens when green Malthusian panic meets the political system.  At Rio back in 1992 I first began to dimly suspect what now seems sadly clear: that green political activists are afflicted with a kind of reverse Midas curse.  Whatever they touch turns to — compost.

In the twenty years I’ve been tracking the global green movement since the Rio summit,  the scientific evidence for climate change, still controversial and incomplete, became more convincing — even as the evidence that the environmental movement is headless and clueless became overwhelming. There is far more evidence that environmentalists in general have no idea how to address climate change than there is that the climate is actually changing.  Between the greenhouse gasses emitted by green activists globetrotting to international conferences and the unexpected side effects of green policy fiascoes (like the ethanol from corn program in the US), the environmental movement as a whole may well be responsible for a modest net increase in greenhouse gas production over the last twenty years.  The planet, in other words, might be slightly cooler if the greens had all just shut up and stayed home.  Certainly the world’s taxpayers would be better off.

We would also likely be closer to some kind of reasonable policy mix if the green activists had spent more time perfecting their home composting techniques and less time pushing a hopelessly unworkable global agenda.  (It’s not the fault of the greens that environmental problems don’t have easy and simple solutions, by the way.  I don’t blame greens for giving us magically easy and popular solutions.  But green ideas tend to be the opposite: greens habitually propose clumsy, expensive and unwieldy programs that won’t work and will ultimately go down in flames.)

I first became aware of the high nut factor among the greens in Rio back in the day when the Antarctic ozone hole was the leading environmental issue.  This year, of course, it’s the Arctic ozone hole; record low temperatures in the upper atmosphere have degraded the ozone layer over the Arctic.  Greens pointed to the warm surface temperatures in the Arctic this year to show how record snows and numbing cold across North America this year were actually, when viewed with the proper dialectical squint,proof of accelerating global warming.  Fair enough; since global warming is a religious rather than a scientific idea in the minds of many greens, no logical problems apply if the dogma is scientifically unfalsifiable.  All evidence — of temperatures warming, temperatures cooling, temperature stability and temperature change — is equally grist for the global warming mill.  I am sure that the climate change tap dancers can explain why record cold in the upper atmosphere over the arctic just makes the case for global warming even stronger.  They could even be right.

But back in the halcyon days of 1992, the concern was over the Antarctic ozone hole; already, said the Chicken Littles who so frequently rise to prominence among green activists, the sheep were going blind in Patagonia as deadly solar rays, unfiltered by the protective ozone Mother Gaia provides, burned out their fragile eyes.  I had actually gone to Patagonia to try to check this out; the various shepherds and ranchers I talked to laughed themselves sick at the idea of an epidemic of sheep blindness.

Melting glaciers in Patagonia. Evidence, scientists say, of global warming. (Seattle Times)

I actually continue to believe that the climate is indeed trending warmer, and lacking the scientific chops to challenge the climatologists at their own game, I accept as a working hypothesis that increased greenhouse gases emitted as byproducts of human activity bears some responsibility for the change.

But that is cold comfort indeed when every week brings new evidence that the clueless green lobby (despite the intelligence and even wisdom found among some serious environmentalists) is not only its own worst enemy, its policy incompetence combined with its demagogic panic mongering makes it a menace to global well-being.  If climate change proceeds far enough to cause serious problems, future historians are likely to assign much of the blame to this generation of incompetent green policy hacks, hot headed alarmists, woolly-headed ego trippers (like hack novelist and ex-green hero Rajendra Pachauri), clueless foundation staff and direct mail scaremongers who between them have muddied the waters of the climate debate and wasted precious years and resources.

Fortunately, most of the money they burn is their own.  Look at what happened to investors in the much ballyhooed global carbon market.  Al Gore had it all figured out.  The world was headed, obviously, to a great global system of effective carbon control.  Every factory, every kitchen cook stove, every electricity user around the world would have their carbon usage cleanly and transparently monitored.  An elaborate system of international agreements, solemnly sworn to and piously kept, would allocate every country and every enterprise a certain amount of carbon use.  Those whose use exceeded their targets (fairly assigned by rational and incorruptible bureaucrats from Nigeria to Nepal) would purchase carbon permits.  The price of these permits would be monitored by those same incorruptible bureaucrats so that  the world’s use of carbon would gradually be cut.

It was the silliest parody of serious politics since the Kellog-Briand Pact of 1929 declared war illegal — to the applause of exactly the same kind of clueless idealists who rejoiced that the election of Barack Obama was the moment when the temperatures would begin to fall, the oceans return to their beds, and the planet would begin to heal.

But the world is full of fools, and many of them rushed into what they were sure would be the latest El Dorado: the fast-growing global market in carbon permits and related securities.  After all, if all the governments of the world are going to collaborate to create a market in carbon permits, why not get in on the ground floor?

And all over the world, investors followed Gore into the carbon markets.

It now appears that many of them lost their shirts. That at least is what it looks like from a recent news story.  “Global Carbon Credits Die,” ran the Bloomberg headline last month over an article describing the collapse of the global carbon trading system.

But all is not lost.  North Korea has decided to jump on the bandwagon; the miserably misgoverned communist hellhole, having inflicted one man-made famine after another on its hapless and voiceless inhabitants, now hopes to make money out of economic collapse.  Since North Korea’s economic failure makes it a poster child for environmental success (a dead economy doesn’t produce much CO2), North Korea now hopes to subsidize the lifestyle of its elite by getting UN “clean development” money for hydroelectric dams.

This trip to Brazil I learned more about why the green Malthusians are barking up the wrong policy tree.  It turns out that global warming may increase the Earth’s food supply rather than decrease it.  Why?

Because Brazilian scientists, among others, have discovered ways to make formerly temperate zone crops (first soybeans and now wheat) grow in the tropics.  The green panic scenario holds that as the earth’s temperature rises, the productivity of agriculture will fall.  This always struck me as a little counter-intuitive; even a bad gardener like me knows that longer growing seasons make for better yields from more varieties of plants.  You can grow more tomatoes in Louisiana than in Greenland.

But the green argument rests on the idea that the main sources of the world’s food supply — particularly wheat and soybeans — don’t grow well in the tropics.  And they didn’t — until recently.  Today Brazil is the world’s largest exporter of soybeans, growing them in the tropical climate zone on land once thought to be hopelessly infertile.  A combination of better agricultural techniques and new varieties of soybeans adapted to the tropics has turned a wasteland into whatever one calls the tofu equivalent of a breadbasket.

A field of soybeans

This is not problem free, nothing is.  While soybean cultivation takes place mostly on semi-arid savannah land rather than in rain forests, there can be a knock-on effect.  As more of the savannahs are converted to soybean production, cattle ranchers may clear more rainforest to replace the lost pastureland.  Nevertheless, using grasslands to produce protein directly rather than feeding it to cattle is a more efficient and more sustainable way to use the land.

And it turns out that you can actually grow more soybeans in the tropics than in the temperate zone: with the tropical year-round growing season you can get two and even three crops a year from the same fields in Brazil.  (New techniques involving the use ofnitrogen fixing bacteria help reduce the need for fertilizer even with the extra crops.)  According to Brazilian agronomists I’ve met, much of Africa’s unproductive, hot and semi-arid land could also be used to grow protein-rich soy, and Brazilians are already working to share these ideas and techniques with African farmers.  [The link takes you to an HTML version of a pdf file; the pdf file is more legible and can be accessed from the link.]

There’s more good news.  Greens tell us that the earth’s climate will not only be hotter; it will be drier.  Perhaps: I have little confidence in the ability of computer models to forecast climactic trends and predict regional climate effects.  But even if they are right, one of the triumphs of Brazilian scientists has been to develop soybeans that flourish in previously inhospitable soil under relatively dry conditions.

At the minimum, this means that the world’s long term food supply is in much better shape than Malthusian panic-mongers want you to think.  Warming temperatures could expand, not wipe out, the global production of key food crops.  And Brazilian agronomists believe that they are just in the beginning stages of an agricultural revolution that may be more sweeping and more productive than the Green Revolution that dramatically raised food production in the last generation and turned the Malthusian panic artists of the 1970s into global laughingstocks.

Many greens hate the thought, but there is far more evidence that genetically modified food is safe than there is that the earth’s climate will warm by four degrees centigrade in the next century — and genetic modification is going to accelerate the rate at which new and more productive varieties of key crops appear.  Already the Brazilians have mapped the sugar cane genome and found ways to produce “super sweet” forms of sugar cane.  This makes the production of ethanol a much more economically and environmentally sustainable activity.

The ability to modify plant and animal genetic material may be the most consequential and revolutionary human advance since the taming of fire.  We can barely begin to comprehend how this could change our world.  There is more much more to come and one effect is going to be the demolition of the panicky scenarios that underpin green arguments for expensive, ill-conceived approaches to the problems of greenhouse gas production.

GMOs aren’t the only frontier in humanity’s accelerating campaign to make agriculture more productive.  If Brazilians are making agriculture more productive under the hot sun, the Dutch are figuring out how to make urban environments more productive.  Regular readers of this blog have already seen a report on a PETA-assisted effort to clone humanitarian meat in labs.  PETA likes it because people could chow down on tasty ‘shamburgers’ without killing cows; greens should welcome the arrival of vat based agriculture because cows are a leading source of greenhouse gasses; I like it because it means more food choices at better prices for more people  (The South Carolina effort seems to have run intosome hitches; the concept, however, will not go away — and PETA is still offering a $1 million prize for lab grown ‘meat’.)

The human presence on this planet is dynamic and changing.  Yes, the impact of human activity on natural ecosystems can be harsh and at times overwhelming.  It makes sense to think about reducing the collateral damage that human activity has on the planet that sustains us.  But human beings and natural systems share a characteristic that repeatedly defeats all projections and predictions: both people and nature are adaptable.  We discover new resources and modify our behavior as conditions change.  This is the characteristic that will enable human society and the natural environment to coexist and even to thrive moving ahead.  A green movement that embraces this truth rather than fights it will get more done and do more good than the poorly led, intellectually confused green circus that we now unfortunately have.

Brazil is a country where optimism still counts for something.  Unlike American intellectuals, whose world view in these declining days of the blue social model is wrapped in pessimism and gloom, Brazilians can see hope in change.  It is sometimes easier to see the opportunities of the 21st century from Brazil than from the embattled ivory towers of the United States; Brazil’s natural abundance is only beginning to raise its people to a new kind of affluent lifestyle.

The world’s greens are going to have to learn to think more like creative Brazilians than like Malthusian puritans as we move forward.  The samba, not the dirge, is the beat to which the human race moves; greens need to get the beat.

The American Interest, 13 April 2011