The Irrationality of Indirect AnalysisJune 3, 2009, 5:32 p.m.
By Robert Zubrin
Special to Roll Call
Those wishing to counter global warming have for some time been pushing for measures that would favor fuels whose utilization adds the least carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. In recent statements, however, the Environmental Protection Agency has announced that in seeking to assess the ethanol program, it will take into account not only the carbon released as a direct measurable result of the production and use of the fuel, but immeasurable indirect effects, such as Third World deforestation, allegedly caused by business activity here. This is a mistake.
The indirect analysis method was first made popular by former Environmental Defense Fund staff attorney Tim Searchinger via a well-publicized report issued by the German Marshall Fund in February 2008. In that paper, Searchinger conceded that in terms of its role in replacing gasoline derived from petroleum with fuel derived from biomass, and thus the Earth’s atmosphere, the U.S. corn ethanol directly decreased carbon emissions. However, according to Searchinger, since the program also reduced the dumping of U.S. corn on Third World countries, it indirectly increased net global carbon emissions by encouraging the expansion of agriculture abroad.
The Searchinger indirect analysis approach has been criticized by scientists who pointed out that the putative indirect link between the U.S. corn ethanol program and deforestation elsewhere is not measurable or falsifiable, and thus simply not a scientific assertion. A more cogent critique, in my view, would be a moral one, as the Searchinger argument, now apparently embraced by the EPA, presupposes that it is or should be a proper goal of American policy to restrict the economic growth of underdeveloped nations.
However, whatever one might think of the right of poor foreign countries to economic development, the indirect analysis method of carbon accounting must be rejected by American policymakers because, if it is embraced, it must perforce prevent the implementation of any positive policies here, not just in biofuel production, but in any field of endeavor whatsoever.
Consider: If an American goes to the supermarket and buys groceries, regardless of their origin, he is acting to bid up the price of agricultural commodities internationally. This then encourages the growth of agriculture everywhere, and thus plausibly deforestation. So anything that allows Americans to buy increased quantities of groceries can be said to cause deforestation and thus global warming. Therefore, according to indirect analysis, any policy or technological development that contributes to income growth or increased levels of employment in the U.S. needs to be prevented. Instead of seeking to stimulate the economy that we should be seeking to depress it.
But that is not all. According to indirect analysis, public education should also be shut down because it leads to higher incomes and health care needs to be ruined as thoroughly as possible because, by keeping people alive, it also increases their total purchases. If indirect analysis is accepted, then the EPA’s otherwise commendable activity in combating toxic air pollution should be reversed because, by reducing smog-induced cancer rates, the EPA has extended the lives of thousands Americans, thereby allowing them to continue to buy things and thus further global warming. Also the EPA should think twice about encouraging high-fuel-economy cars because, by reducing the amount that consumers need to spend on gas, such vehicles indirectly allow more to be spent on groceries and thereby contribute to deforestation.
So to summarize, according to indirect analysis, all measures that improve the economy, education, health, the environment or technology are to be condemned. This result must follow because all of these help humanity, and so long as humanity engages in any activities that cause carbon emissions, anything that helps humanity can also be said to cause global warming.
Clearly such an absurd theory cannot be accepted as a basis for policy. If it is, we will end up legislating depression, banning all technological and medical advances, and ultimately, perhaps requiring environmental impact statements every time a lifeguard rescues a swimmer or a midwife assists in the birth of a child. Instead, the proper, scientific, ethical and sane way to proceed in assessing carbon emissions, whether of ethanol use or any other human activity, is to base such judgments strictly on the direct effects of the activity itself. These can be measured and therefore reduced in detail as technological alternatives permit. If we operate otherwise, then no constructive solutions will be possible.
Robert Zubrin is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.