Democratic Courage Media Moment: New York Times Op-ed Calls on Congress to Save Tropical Forests, Stop Global Warming

DEEP within Madagascar, more than 1,300 square miles of rainforest continue to breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen every day, helping to keep the planet cool. That may not seem like a big achievement for a bunch of trees, but elsewhere around the world tropical forests like this one are being felled to make way for timber and mining operations, cattle ranches and, increasingly, sugar and palm oil plantations to fuel the world’s growing thirst for ethanol.

So how did this particular rainforest — a tropical paradise whose canopy teems with rare lemurs and serpent eagles — avoid destruction? Its survival is the fruit of one of the first experiments in carbon ranching: allowing polluters to make up for their greenhouse gas emissions by paying third world countries like Madagascar to preserve their tropical forests. Madagascar uses the money it gets from multinational corporations to safeguard the forest and pay for poverty reduction programs.

Programs like this represent the world’s best hope to save vanishing tropical forests and avert global climate catastrophe. It’s vital that the senators and representatives now racing to create new climate legislation include incentives for carbon ranching. Otherwise they will not come up with the comprehensive solution that’s needed to address the climate crisis. Despite all the attention paid to China’s industrial pollution splurge, that country’s inefficient factories, power plants and vehicles don’t contribute as much to global warming as the destruction of the world’s tropical forests does.

Reversing tropical deforestation could be surprisingly cheap and easy because it can be driven by simple economics. Right now, it’s worth more to a logging company or a peasant to convert the rainforest to stumps or soybeans than it is to leave that rainforest intact. One hectare (about 2.5 acres) of forest cleared and converted to ranchland or crops produces a piece of land worth, on average, $200 to $500. But that’s nothing compared to the value of preserving the rainforest as a sponge for carbon dioxide.

On European markets, the right to emit one ton of carbon dioxide trades today at more than $20. With each hectare of intact rainforest storing around 500 tons of carbon dioxide, that means that each hectare has a value of $10,000 as carbon dioxide storage, far more than the value of even the most productive tea or soy plantation.

As a recent World Bank report put it, “Farmers are destroying a $10,000 asset to create one worth $200.” To the farmer or agribusiness corporation, of course, that makes perfect sense, because that $10,000 is all theoretical. It can’t put food on the table or deliver dividends to shareholders.

That’s got to change — or we could see the rapid disappearance of much of the world’s remaining tropical forests and the oxygen and animal habitat they provide.

The indigenous people who make the world’s forests their home are retreating in the face of agricultural expansion. Their interactions with loggers, miners and ranchers are destroying their cultures and bringing disease to their communities. By providing powerful incentives to leave the forests intact, carbon ranching can allow these people and their cultures to survive as well.

Carbon ranching would also be a good way to bring the developing world into the effort to reduce emissions. A coalition of “rainforest nations” led by Papua New Guinea and Costa Rica has indicated it will participate in carbon ranching projects without demanding any increase in foreign aid.

Corporate polluters also like carbon ranching because conserving rainforest is often cheaper than reducing their own emissions. Some, like Mitsubishi in Madagascar, are already doing it voluntarily because they want to be seen as supporting environmental efforts and anticipate that future legislation will let them get credit for it. Crucially, support from business guarantees that the idea will get a hearing in this polluter-friendly White House.

Indeed, the Bush administration has already financed some relatively small tropical forest conservation projects — most recently forgiving $24 million of Guatemala’s debt in exchange for that country’s putting the money toward conservation. So carbon ranching may provide a rare piece of common ground for the president and Congress.

To be effective, however, any legislation must include certain safeguards. First, no polluter should be allowed a free pass on cleaning up its own industrial pollution just because it protects rainforest — saving tropical forests should be part of the climate equation, not the whole equation.

Second, if a company pays to protect a forest that for whatever reason ends up getting destroyed anyway — as the politics or economics of the tropical country change — both the company and the country should face strict financial penalties. That would provide a powerful incentive to make sure those forests stay protected.

Time is short. The world’s rainforests are shrinking. With global temperatures rising rapidly, it’s essential that Congress and President Bush act quickly before the vast forests that cool the planet disappear forever.

William Powers is the author, most recently, of “Whispering in the Giant’s Ear.” Glenn Hurowitz is working on a book about the importance of courage in Democratic Party politics.

Trade And Consequences

In their rush to prove that they could pass significant legislation and conclude a deal with President Bush on trade, it seems that Democrats forgot to consider the crippling political consequences of their last bipartisan pursuit of a trade deal: the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement.

From the get-go, the pursuit of NAFTA was damaging to Democrats in general and President Clinton in particular. With pro-labor and pro-environment congressional Democrats lined up against business oriented New Democrats in their own caucus and the White House, the treaty precipitated intra-party strife that got in the way of other parts of President Clinton’s agenda. From a tactical perspective, it was even worse: labor unions were telling the White House that while they would prefer to spend their war chest to build support for universal health care, they were prepared to spend it instead on beating NAFTA.

Clinton ultimately eked out a narrow victory on NAFTA, and many pundits initially deemed it smart politics: Clinton got a short-term boost in his approval ratings and showed that he was strong enough and skilled enough to defy the Democratic leadership in Congress. “He stood up against his two prime constituents, labor and the environment, to drive it home over their dead bodies,” American Express chairman James Robinson was quoted saying in a 2000 book by journalist James MacArthur.

But there were serious long-term consequences to leaving two of your best constituencies “dead.”

Labor was so angry about NAFTA that it cut off its contributions to the DNC for six months. This dealt a fatal blow to the Clintons’ efforts to raise the $10 million they wanted to finance an advertising and grassroots campaign in support of health care reform. And despite everything Clinton had done to help big corporations pass NAFTA, big business made clear that their gratitude didn’t extend to helping the DNC with the health care drive (though corporations like American Express and General Electric did slightly boost their giving to Democrats in the elections). As a result, the Democrats were seriously outmatched when the health care industry started running their infamous Harry and Louise ads against health reform, contributing to the defeat of Clintoncare.

And when the elections came around, Clinton’s advocacy of NAFTA seriously hurt the Democrats, especially with Ross Perot voters who responded to Perot’s spirited opposition to the deal. In both 1994 and 1996, 1992 Perot voters went Republican in congressional races by a 2-1 margin, compared to just 53 percent in 1992. That provided the decisive swing that ousted the Democrats from Congress.

But NAFTA’s most lasting political effect was how it transformed the American economy and political landscape. Bill Clinton’s NAFTA put a lot of Democrats out of work. A 2003 study by the Economic Policy Institute found that NAFTA caused 879,000 more job losses than job gains, with many of those jobs coming from the heavily unionized, Democratic-leaning, manufacturing sector.

Now Democrats are repeating the same mistakes. Although the current deal includes marginally tougher labor and environmental standards than NAFTA, the fact that Democrats gave Bush a victory on this issue before winning concessions on other higher priority parts of their agenda has infuriated progressives in the Democratic party, especially in the labor movement.

“We’re going to go on a jihad and make sure every Joe Labor guy knows that the Democrats sold them out on this,” a trade deal opponent told me this weekend. With 18 months left facing President Bush, the last thing Democrats need is the core of their political coalition out on a holy war against them, rather than providing backing in their fights to increase the minimum wage, end the Iraq war, and tackle the global climate crisis.

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