The Legal Planet blog tends to focus on serious subjects. I salute this but I always try to cross the line. A few years ago, Matt Kotchen and I wrote a good paper documenting that the deep recession had chilled interest in combating climate change. Our empirical study used Google search trends by state/year/month. We documented that searches for the words “global warming” declined the most in states where the unemployment rate had increased the most while searches for the word “unemployment” increased the most in these same states. Rush Limbaugh read our paper and proceeded to give us a thrashing on his nation wide radio show. You can read his funny transcript here and our unfunny paper here.
These next 48 hours are critical for advancing reform of US international food aid, which I have blogged about previously. Short version: because current rules essentially demand that we provide aid in food grown in the US via government subsidy, our current aid regime wastes money, delays delivery of aid by weeks, lines the pockets of agribusiness and big shipping, often undermines farmers in the Global South, and leaves 2-4 million people starving who could otherwise be helped.
The basic answer is to allow food to be procured locally; the Obama Administration’s budget proposal did just that, and was given the back of the hand by special interests in the Senate. The Senate bill, which passed the Upper House, did add some extra money for local procurement, but fell far short of what was really needed. The pathetic justifications offered by the agribusiness and shipping lobbies show just how weak their policy position is.
And now — maybe the House to the rescue. The House? The current House? You gotta be kidding, right?
Wrong. The hero here is House International Relations Committee chair Ed Royce, a very conservative Republican from Orange County, who studied the way food aid rules work, and got outraged. That’s hardly odd for a conservative, because farm policy represents about the clearest case of government waste we have. It didn’t hurt, of course, that allowing for local procurement would also take much food aid from the Agriculture Committee and give it to the IR committee, but that really wasn’t what was happening here: this is an outrage and everyone who looks at it realizes it.
Originally, Royce teamed up with IR Global Affairs Subcommittee ranking member Karen Bass, a liberal African-American Democrat from Los Angeles, to introduce the Food Aid Reform Act, which would allow for local procurement as a general matter. Before the House can vote on that, however, it needs to consider the Farm Bill, so Royce and IR Committee ranking member Eliot Engel (D – NY) have proposed an amendment to the House bill that essentially replicates the Food Aid Reform Act. The House will consider that amendment as early as Wednesday.
Think about that for a second: “the House will consider that amendment as early as Wednesday.” That says a lot. Amendments don’t get considered on the floor of the House unless the Rules Committee allows them to be considered, and the Rules Committee doesn’t allow them to be considered unless it’s okay with the leadership. That means that at least, there is substantial support in the Republican Conference for this measure. GOP to the rescue!
Of course, they should support it. Reforming food aid to allow for local procurement (as well as other crucial reforms) is such a no-brainer that it is perhaps the last genuinely bipartisan policy initiative out there. Don’t believe me? Even the Heritage Foundation favors this. Does that make you as a liberal Democrat get nauseous? Well, me too, sort of, but the same reforms are backed by the Center for American Progress.
So now — which is to say, right now, as soon as the business day starts in Washington DC — call your Congresscritter and ask them to support the Royce-Engel Amendment (#55) to the Farm Bill. After the jump, I’m including the talking points prepared by the American Jewish World Service, which in conjunction with lots of other charities like Bread for the World, Oxfam, Catholic Relief Services, and many others, has spearheaded this campaign. You should drop a dime for them, too, by the way.
But really: call. write. E-mail. This means life or death for people. Do it.
As the current U.S. Supreme Court term winds down–the justices’ final opinions are due next week–attention begins to turn to the Court’s next session, scheduled to begin in October 2013. Until this week, the justices had one environmental law case on their docket for next year: U.S. Forest Service v. Pacific Rivers Council, No. 12-625. Not anymore.
This week, the Court issued a cryptic order dismissing the Pacific Rivers case as moot. But it’s the back-story that’s interesting–and troubling.
A bit of background: in 2012, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its decision in Pacific Rivers, upholding environmentalists’ claims that the environmental impact statement prepared by the U.S. Forest Service in connection with its Sierra Nevada Forest Plan (encompassing 11 different U.S. forests within the Sierra Nevada range) was defective under the National Environmental Policy Act. As recounted in an earlier Legal Planet post, among the Ninth Circuit’s criticisms of the Forest Service’s EIS was that the document was replete with obfuscating and Orwellian language that undermined the EIS’s value as a source of environmental information for the interested public.
But the environmentalists’ victory was short-lived. Once the Supreme Court justices granted certiorari earlier this year, the environmentalists immediately had two strikes against them. First, the Supreme Court had thus granted review in a “pro-environmental” decision from the Ninth Circuit. Recent judicial history demonstrates that such Ninth Circuit rulings have a short shelf life: the Supreme Court already reversed two such Clean Water Act rulings from the Ninth Circuit earlier this year, continuing a strong trend of Supreme Court reversals of the Ninth Circuit in environmental cases over the past several years. Second, and as legal observers including Richard Lazarus have noted, environmentalists have never won a NEPA case in the Supreme Court–not one–over the entire 44-year history of that iconic environmental law.
So Pacific Rivers Council and its environmental allies could perhaps be forgiven for seeing the jurisprudential writing on the wall and (to mix metaphors) folding their hand. They reportedly “killed the case” by abandoning it and agreeing with the federal government to have the prior Ninth Circuit ruling in Pacific Rivers Council’s favor vacated and dismissed as moot. The goal, of course, was to avoid a broad, unfavorable NEPA ruling by the Supreme Court. With the justices’ agreement to dismiss the case, the environmentalists have achieved that objective.
But the dismissal in Pacific Rivers Council raises some difficult questions. First, one must wonder what the judges of the Ninth Circuit, who wrote what this observer believes was a thoughtful and well-reasoned decision, must think of the actions by Pacific Rivers Council to jettison that decision without so much as a defense on the merits before the Supreme Court? Second, and more broadly, have the results in environmental cases coming before the Supreme Court become so predictable that litigants will effectively confess error and abandon their defense of favorable lower court rulings if and when a case reaches the Supreme Court?
Troubling questions for troubling times…
I’ve posted before on the competing systems of forest certification, in particular the fight between the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC), which is really the gold standard, and the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), an industry-driven effort that has substantially weaker standards and many have accused of greenwashing. SFI has improved its standards in recent years, but often retreats into vagueness and opens up huge loopholes for environmentally destructive practices.
Now, the right wing has come to SFI’s aid, issuing a “study” that is bizarre on its face:
Sustainable forest management can come at a price.
That’s the finding of a recent study of the three major sustainable forest maintenance certifications. Researchers found that landowners who manage their woods in accordance with the certification standards could experience reduced economic returns.
The study [was] released by George Mason University’s EconoSTATS and Forisk Consulting today…
“There are significant economic costs in these cases that were examined,” said Wayne Winegarden, contributing editor to EconoSTATS.
The study found that implementing one certification program — the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), most hailed by environmentalists — can lead to the lowest economic returns for landowners.
Researchers used a combination of simulated models and interviews with stakeholders to conclude that implementing FSC standards in Oregon could reduce profitability by 31 percent to 46 percent over 46 years. They compared program results in Oregon and Arkansas to simulate the forestry industry in both the Pacific Northwest and the South.
The researchers recommend that suppliers use products certified by the American Tree Farm System (ATFS) or the affiliated Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) instead.
This is from Greenwire, and subscription is required. More here.
I suppose that if a forestry corporation decides to ignore sustainability standards and the sorts of labor and community benefits practices that are part of FSC certification, then yes — it will have higher profits. If, say, a company pays its workers good wages with benefits, then it will have lower profits than if it doesn’t. If you chop down all the forests, then you could get higher returns, especially if you use a high discount rate. And that tells us — exactly nothing.
But what this “study” actually demonstrates is how little these things cost, if the reporter, who appears to have been spun so hard that she doesn’t know her right from her left, has stated the conclusions correctly. Let’s see: in 46 years, using FSC standards would reduce their profits by 46%? That’s all? FSC must be a really great deal! It’s not clear what the “study” really means by 1% per year, but suppose that without certification, profits are 5%. If you lose 1% of profits, that means that the profit is 4.95%. Horrors! (This isn’t precisely right because of compounding, but you get the idea). So far, I have been unable to locate the “study” itself, and it would be interesting to see what the peer reviewers said, if in fact there are any. (Or could this be another Reinhardt/Rogoff debacle?).
I also tried to find out a little about Wayne Winegarden, the “contributing editor” at EconoSTATS. So I Googled him, and sure enough: the first thing that pops up is that he’s a columnist for the far right-wing website townhall.com, where his pieces comprise mostly of Tea Party-style agitprop. Okay, so he’s a right-winger: in and of itself, that doesn’t necessarily mean that his model is bad. But when someone’s theoretically scholarly work just so happens to conform perfectly to his ideological priors, then deep and profound suspicion is warranted.
This danger of ideological infection of results emerges with particular salience here because recently Winegarden has argued that FSC represents a “monopoly” that should be broken up by “competition.” No one likes monopoly, but this fundamentally distorts the situation. FSC isn’t “selling” anything. It’s a certification organization. The entire point of certifications is to give consumers information. If you have a million different forms of certification, that destroys competition because consumers do not have a unified benchmark to compare — and if I were in a cynical mood, I would say that that is precisely what SFI wants. Talking about “competition” and “monopoly” in this context reveals a distorted worldview that undermines the research –possibly fatally.
As far as I can tell, the “study” is not online (UPDATE: found it, here). I have not seen the peer review reports, if it has even been peer reviewed. It could be perfectly legitimate. But even taken at face value, it does not appear to be serious. Instead, at this stage it appears to be something close to an op-ed written by a right-winger who wants to trash FSC and enhance SFI. And it should be treated as such. Despite another slick PR effort, SFI still cannot undermine FSC’s role as the most credible forest certification effort.
This is again what might be called a Kinshasa Situation, because it reminds me of Muhammed Ali’s famous taunt to George Foreman during the Rumble In The Jungle: “Is that all you got, George? Is that all you got?” If this is all SFI has, then it deserves Foreman’s fate. Of course, it’s got more money, so it might be able to avoid it.
UPDATE: As noted, I found the “study.” So far, it’s not encouraging. Basically, it concludes that since FSC will prevent more forest harvesting than SFI, then that means that FSC certification will lead to less harvesting and thus lower profits. Well, yeah. The report also concludes that both systems “advance responsible forest management activities in the US” but have no basis for concluding this. That makes it look like an advertisement for SFI. So far — and it is a tentative conclusion on my part — this does not look like a serious product.
At the end of April, the Supreme Court decided an obscure case called McBurney v. Young about state public records law. Quite unexpectedly, the court’s opinion turns out to be good news for state environmental regulators. In particular, it clarifies how cap and trade relates to what lawyers call the dormant commerce clause — a doctrine that prevents states from creating barriers to interstate commerce. McBurney may also have some implications for renewable portfolio standards, although that’s less clear.
The case involved a Virginia law that allowed state residents, but not non-residents, to make FOIA requests for state documents. One issue was whether the law discriminated against interstate commerce. Here’s what the Court had to say about that issue:
We have held that a State does not violate the dormant Commerce Clause when, having created a market through a state program, it “limits benefits generated by [that] state program to those who fund the state treasury and whom the State was created to serve.” “Such policies, while perhaps ‘protectionist’ in a loose sense, reflect the essential and patently unobjectionable purpose of state government—to serve the citizens of the State.” [citations omitted]
This logic applies equally to cap-and-trade systems. Emissions trading is the market for a product (emissions allowances) which the state has created, so it is free to limit participation in the market to in-state firms under the reasoning of McBurney. The same reasoning seems to apply to offset credits.
Of course, language in a single Supreme Court case isn’t necessarily decisive, since future cases have to be considered in light of other existing precedents, and differences in facts matter too. But McBurney is definitely a helpful precedent for defending cap and trade.
What about renewable portfolio standards that give credit only for locally generated power? This is a trickier question. Read more…
A journal called Energy Policy will soon publish my paper titled; Local Non-Market Quality of Life Dynamics in New Wind Farm Communities. We know that renewable power generation (both solar panels and wind turbines) requires land. It wouldn’t be efficient to transform Beverly Hills into wind farms even if it was a windy place. Thus, much renewable power generation takes place far from our cities. While this activity offers social benefits to society as reliance on power generated by fossil fuels declines, do the rural communities benefit? Do the people there believe they benefit? This matter because if there is a rural perception that wind turbines are noisy and ugly then this could slow down the renewable power build up. In my empirical paper, I document three facts with my focus on wind turbines in West Texas. First, few people actually live close to any of the turbines. Second, in counties where turbines are built property taxes rates fall. Third, in these same counties the public schools’ expenditure per pupil rises and the students per teacher ratio declines. So, there is fiscal evidence of an improvement in local rural quality of life.
UCLA is releasing today the first-ever detailed study of the effects of climate change on local snowfall, examining both business-as-usual and mitigation emission scenarios. Snow loss is predicted to be very significant both in the mid-term (2041-2060) and by the end of the century. The image above shows the study’s projections for reduced end-of-century snowfall under a business-as-usual emission scenario. Details on the study are available at the C-ChangeLA website, a great portal designed by Climate Resolve to disseminate this work to the public.
This is the latest in a groundbreaking series of papers by UCLA’s Dr. Alex Hall, who has been funded in part by the City of LA to create downscaled climate models predicting impacts to LA at a neighborhood scale. His work on temperatures in LA was reviewed by Sean here and showed (among other things) that some LA communities will see triple the number of extreme heat days by the end of the century. Notably, Dr. Hall’s snowfall study here doesn’t account for increased snowmelt from higher temps, so these results understate impacts to total snowpack.
It’s easy to think that snow is great for skiers and sledders but not so meaningful for everyone else. Our snowpack, however, provides an important source of surface water, especially in drier months. The good news from this study is that mitigation makes a difference. Cutting greenhouse gases significantly curbs snowfall loss by the end of the century: