Responsible Impact Podcast Launch: Episode 101, Environmental Economist Jonah Busch

Posted: July 2, 2020

We’re thrilled to announce we’ve launched a podcast dedicated to all things e-commerce and environmental!

Our first episode discusses tropical deforestation with environmental economist, Jonah Busch. His model for building-in economic protections for tropical forests could change the way we shop, and could make our normal purchases part of the climate solution. Plus, he shares fun facts and a new way to think of ice cream as economics.

 

Give it a listen, or enjoy the transcript below. Let us know if there’s something you’d like featured by writing us at responsibleimpact@magiclinks.com.

 

 

 

 

 

Episode 101 – Environmental Economist Jonah Busch

Natalie (10s):
Welcome to the inaugural episode of “Responsible Impact.” This show is a production of MagicLinks, and in each episode, we’ll do a deep dive across all manner of things environmental and e-commerce In environmental terms, we know it’s not feasible to reach exactly zero impact, and so we’re striving to be as responsible about our impact as we can. In this episode, I spoke with Jonah Busch. He’s made his life’s work out of climate change and the value of forests. And if what he’s proposing is implemented, the way we buy goods could become part of the way we fight climate change. To kick things off though, here’s his quick introduction to ice cream as economics.

Jonah (50s):
Economics is the study of choices that people make when they can’t have everything. So let’s say you go to the ice cream store and you’re deciding, should I have a chocolate or a vanilla ice cream? And probably in the moment, you’re just making that decision based on which one will taste better. But there are farmers in Ghana and Madagascar who are anxiously awaiting your decision, because if you buy a chocolate ice cream, that means you’re going to spend money that goes to an ice cream company, that goes to a farmer in Ghana for the chocolate.

Jonah (1m 23s):
And if you buy the vanilla ice cream, that money goes to the farmer in Madagascar who grew the vanilla. Decisions like these – millions of them – get made all over the world, every day on what to buy or what to do with your land or many other decisions. And these millions of individual choices get made through markets. And that’s what economists study. So basically long story short, I study chocolate,

Natalie (1m 47s):
Not only is Jonah an economist, he’s an environmental economist, and that has some pretty specific things that go along with it.

Jonah (1m 54s):
So an environmental economist studies the choices people make that interact with the environment, and these come in two big categories. We take resources out of the environment. You know, we mine gold or we log forests and we put pollution into the environment. The trash that we make goes into landfills or the plastic into the oceans or the carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And we have a name for pollution. We call it externalities, meaning something that is harming.

Jonah (2m 26s):
Usually it’s harming someone else, who’s not involved in the decision to buy something.

Natalie (2m 36s):
I’m going to jump in to give a quick breakdown. So when he says externalities, the reason they think of them as external is because they’re not the immediate transaction that’s happening. So when I buy ice cream, for instance, I might think that the deal is just between me and the ice cream vendor. In reality, there are fossil fuels that were burned. There’s packaging, there’s materials that might end up as pollution or as waste. There are all sorts of things that are external to that immediate deal, but are still part of the equation. And in this case, he’s talking about externalities that contribute to climate change or are just outright pollution.

Jonah (3m 9s):
So when you’re buying that chocolate ice cream, again, you’re helping that farmer in Ghana, but you’re also affecting other people. You’re affecting everybody who breathes air and two likes to have a cool, not warmed planet. And the reason for that is the chocolate might get cleared from, might get grown on, land that was cleared from forest. And so if you have chocolate farms instead of forest, you have less carbon on the ground.

Jonah (3m 40s):
You have more carbon in the atmosphere where it’s causing global warming for us. It turns out economists have a term for this rebalancing of the scales. Economists have an idea for how to correct that problem. Our jargony word is called “internalizing the externality.”

Natalie (3m 57s):
In case you need to hear that one more time, it’s internalizing the externality, which is a mouthful,

Jonah (4m 4s):
When you’re buying that ice cream, again, you’re sending a signal to the farmer in Ghana that you value the chocolate that they’re growing, but we would like to have a way that you can also tell the same farmer that you value the trees that are there – because you probably value the chocolate AND you value the trees. But right now you’re only sending a signal that you value the chocolate through the money that you spend.

Natalie (4m 27s):
So in a nutshell, what Jonah and his colleagues are trying to do is make the forest worth as much to the people who have the land by being a forest, as it could be by being something else. Because the contribution that the forest makes to the rest of the world in terms of keeping our climate stable is as valuable to us as almost anything else they could put there, if not moreso. So this brings up a couple of questions for me, and I’d like to kind of segue into them for a second if that’s okay. So one is, I want to make sure that I have the right understanding. A policy is the rule.

Natalie (4m 58s):
So like if I’m playing monopoly and somebody changes the rules, they’ve changed the policies. And that’s, so it’s basically just another way of saying we would have to change the rules around this so that we can encourage the kind of game play we want to see. Is that a fair way to think of policies?

Jonah (5m 11s):
Certainly. Yeah. So yeah. Let me maybe be specific about some of the sorts of policies that are out there that have been very helpful in addressing the issue of tropical deforestation. Look at Brazil. Brazil had the highest rates of deforestation of any country in the world for several decades leading up to 2004. And because of that, they were also one of the largest contributors to climate change.

Jonah (5m 42s):
And then in 2004, they had a government that changed their policy towards the rainforest, from encouraging, clearing it, to encouraging, preserving it. They put in a bunch of protected areas, national parks, essentially saying on these public lands, it’s no longer permissible to cut down forests and clear it. They also recognized the territorial claims of a lot of the indigenous people that were living in the Amazon rainforest.

Jonah (6m 13s):
And we’re doing so with, with minimal destruction of the forest on private lands, there were laws for a long time that only allowed a certain amount of clearing, but not a larger amount. And those laws hadn’t been followed. But then with the help of satellite monitoring and environmental police, they started enforcing those forest laws. And one last example of it that was included, the soy and the beef industries of Brazil, who were the big contributors to clearing the forest, voluntarily decided if you are a farmer and you clear forest to grow soy and beef, you can no longer sell those products through our association.

Jonah (6m 55s):
And all of these policies put together worked, and the rate of deforestation fell by 80% from its high. And in 2004 to a, to a low in 2012, that was, that was a great success story over that nearly a decade. Brazil went from being an environmental villain to being an environmental hero.

Natalie (7m 16s):
If like me, you wanted to bust out the champagne and celebrate, hang tight because –

Jonah (7m 21s):
Since 2012, those policies are being undone and the successes being reversed by successive administrations in Brazil, and then much more quickly unwound by the current administration in Brazil. And is that, is that is wrapped up with a disrespect or a denial of science, for sure. You know, in the Brazilian government, the same sort of denial of climate change that we’ve seen, particularly in the, in the US is spreading there as well.

Jonah (7m 52s):
Oh boy. So when I think about cycles, there’s a carbon cycle that scientists know about. Carbon in the land is there in, in trees. Trees, store carbon in their trunks and their roots branches and so forth. There’s also carbon of course, stored in fossil fuels the oil and gas that accumulate mostly from trees and other living things that died a long time ago.

Jonah (8m 23s):
And, and the cycle is that when we burn those things or when the trees die, naturally the carbon goes up, it combines with oxygen and goes into the atmosphere and forms carbon dioxide, the right amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a good thing. It’s what keeps earth at a nice warm habitable temperature. But with too much carbon dioxide, you trap the heat that comes in more heat comes in and goes out. And so the earth gets hotter and hotter beyond the point that humans have adapted to.

Jonah (8m 55s):
And our agriculture has adapted and the other species here have adapted to. So it’s a problem when there’s balance the natural ecosystems, the ocean, the land, the forest would be taking out as much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as is going up. But right now we’re out of balance. We’re sending way more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than the trees and oceans are taking out of the atmosphere. We’re doing that by burning fossil fuels.

Jonah (9m 26s):
We’re doing that by burning forests, especially in the tropics, but that’s a correctable problem. And the way economists think we can correct that problem essentially is to make it more expensive to, to burn carbon and to make it profitable, or to to have payments for taking carbon out of the atmosphere, by having more forest,

Natalie (9m 53s):
What are some things that you’re like, man, if people could only see this and this, they would understand why I’ve made this my life’s work, why this is important. What are those things? Or if you had to tell a five-year-old, you know, this is why my work is important. What would you say?

Jonah (10m 9s):
Jonah: I think for a five-year-old maybe I’d just say forests are, are important and we should have more of them. But you know, as kids get older, I might start to add to that, you know, why are forests important? Because they’re home to lots of plants and animals, certainly, but they also help people in lots of different ways. So forests keep our air clean. They keep our water clean so that we’re healthier forests keep our climate cool so that our planet stays a nice place to live.

Jonah (10m 40s):
That’s the climate aspect. I mean, now of course, with COVID, there’s another really important reason to keep forests intact, prevent diseases from jumping, from forest animals, to people, you know, I’m recording this from home today. You’re home, everybody who’s listening is probably at home. And, and the reason is we have this global disease outbreak that started from an organism that, that used to live in animals in the forest. And this is not the first time that’s happened.

Jonah (11m 11s):
So HIV started from a disease that jumped from forest animals to people along with a lot of other diseases. And the more people clear forests, the more they become exposed or their livestock become exposed to animals and forest and pathogens or viruses that can make that jump. So that’s another reason to keep forests standing.

Natalie (11m 39s):
I think that that touches on a concept called biodiversity, right? And, and so biodiversity meaning that there are so many different kinds of species. It’s like when you have, if you have a lawn and your lawn is just Bermuda grass, that’s really kind of a monoculture – there’s one kind of thing growing there. And then biodiversity would be if you had a natural lawn in different seeds had come in and taken root over time, and you have really a ton of different kinds of things there. Well, so if a disease came through that really loved to eat your grass, it would probably wipe out your lawn very quickly, but any one disease that landed on, let’s say your natural straw grass that happened to be dropped by some bird a couple of years ago, it might not move on to the other flowers and trees and things that you had in that same space.

Natalie (12m 22s):
And that’s a really good idea or a good example of how biodiversity sort of keeps things at bay. It keeps them from becoming sort of wildfires in that way, in that communicable way. And so when you talk about how biodiversity is destroyed, of course, as forests are logged and just cleared and burned or any number of things happened to them, how long does it take for biodiversity to recover?

Jonah (12m 44s):
You know, and in some places, nature starts to come back very quickly, but it may not reach what it was before for decades or even centuries. And you make really good points about the importance of biodiversity or just the diversity, the breadth of the millions of other plants and animals that we share this planet with. But there there’s more of them in some places than others. So the closer you get to the equator, the more different types of plants and animals you have. There’s two places that stand out, even within the tropics for having the most number of species, and those are in the ocean, the coral reefs, and on land, the tropical forest.

Jonah (13m 26s):
Within a single square kilometer of tropical forest, somewhere like Ecuador, you could have thousands of different tree species – more than in many countries in the northern latitudes. I’d mentioned before how, when viruses jumped to people from animals, it’s a big health problem. It can also be a big health solution. People who’ve lived in the forest for a long time know about the medicinal properties of many of the plants or animals, and many of our most important medicines have come originally from, from tropical forest species, cancer treatments, malaria preventing drugs at birth controls.

Jonah (14m 7s):
Some of the most widely used have all come from plants that were first in the rain forest. We lose those forests at our own peril

Natalie (14m 17s):
..Going to just… repeat that…

Jonah (14m 20s):
We lose those forests at our own peril.

Natalie (14m 24s):
All right, moving on. A lot of these are nations that we don’t think of as developed nations. A lot of them are developing. There’s a lot of turmoil. There’s a lot of economic incentive. There’s a lot of reasons people might individually feel like if I want to get ahead in life, if I want to send my kids to college, I’m going to cut that forest down and I’m going to raise cattle on that land. And I’m going to have the money to make my life better. Right? What’s the right framework for fully understanding that there’s this economic hand, that’s pushing people towards deforestation and what’s the right way to come at it from countries like the US where despite our own recent economic flexes, we’re still broadly a developed first world nation, and we don’t have the same economic pushes to just to deforest and things like this.

Natalie (15m 12s):
How can we discuss it without sounding almost colonial or condescending, or like, while they just, they didn’t get the value, so they made a poor choice?

Jonah (15m 22s):
Yeah, that’s a really important question. And I do want to point out that the US did have much more forest than we had now, but in the past century or two, we cleared our forest and it’s only very recent three decades or so that we’ve started regrowing the forest more than we’ve cut it down. And Europe did that even before, before we did what people are doing in the tropics is not different than what we did here. It’s just happening now in real time.

Jonah (15m 53s):
And it’s really important that when people in the U S or in Europe ask people in Brazil or Indonesia to protect forests that they’re doing so in a respectful way. And I mean that in a very specific way, which is respect that one, the people of those countries have the right to do with their land, just as we’ve done with our land. And that if we want to ask them to protect forests, that we’d be willing to put money behind that request. So it’s not telling them “Don’t cut forests, cutting forests is bad.”

Jonah (16m 27s):
Rather it’s saying we value all of the good things that those forests provide and we’re willing to pay for them.

Natalie (16m 35s):
The thing that immediately comes to mind is there are a number of places in America where people feel like the economy has certainly forgotten them. And that’s, those are discussions that are very nuanced and are really frankly, a whole other episode. But I think to those people to hear that perhaps some of their tax dollars were going towards asking someone in a nation very far away to preserve something there for the sake of climate change, which they may or may not even accept is happening.

Natalie (17m 5s):
That seems probably like, kind of like a highway robbery. If I look at it through that lens and what should folks who have that reaction or that perspective, what should they know, or how should they be reframing this to see more clearly? Like, what should we say to those folks?

Jonah (17m 24s):
I would start by pointing out that climate change is a global problem. It does affect everybody. It even affects people who don’t believe in it. And it affects us certainly here in the United States and California, where, where we live through more wildfires through shrinking coastlines, droughts, all these things that affect us. And so to fix this global problem, we need a global solution and there are benefits to stopping climate change everywhere.

Jonah (17m 57s):
So if you have fewer coal plants running here in the U S then you have fewer air pollution deaths down wind of those coal plants. So that’s a big benefit, but there are benefits in other countries too, if you have more forest, so you have less climate change, but you also have cleaner water, you have more plants and animals, you have cleaner air and so forth.

Natalie (18m 21s):
The crux of it would be that a country along the tropics is not very far away from say, Nebraska, not from a climate perspective. Those are really their neighbors.

Jonah (18m 30s):
We’re we are certainly connected. Yeah.

Natalie (18m 33s):
Yeah. I think this also touches on some issues of globalization. I think the idea of our responsibility, again, to people who are far away and why we need to be worried about that. And I know we can see this in our oceans for instance, right? So there are pieces of litter and garbage that have entered the oceans in places I will never probably set foot in my life. When I walk on the beach nearest me, I might, after a couple of years come across that same piece of litter.

Natalie (19m 5s):
The climate and the bigger forces at play in our world, connect me to these far away places and to these otherwise strangers. Right? So the kind of idea that we need to act on this global scale, especially in a time when nationalistic fervor is being used so effectively to turn out the vote for certain candidates and to really draw lines for who belongs, where and why in an economic sense, is there something that you guys look at and you’re like, again, it’s okay, it’s better to think on a global scale than on a tribal or a national or a local scale?

Jonah (19m 43s):
Sure. So the, I’d say the classic example within economics is trade. So if you trade only within your neighborhood, you’re going to be less well off than if you can trade within your state or within your whole country or within the whole world. So the more you’re able to buy that chocolate again from Ghana, the happier you are. Then if you could only get flavors that grow in your neighborhood, which if you live in a certain country, there’s no chocolate.

Natalie (-):
I have NO chocolate!

Jonah (20m 20s):
That’s right. And of course there are, you know, there’s winners and losers from trade, or, or from making trade to open with no rules, no doubt. But overall, you, you can make people happier by trading, which is why so much of it has always happened with the environment. It’s something similar with environmental problems. The world can solve climate change much more effectively and cheaply, if we’re all working together, then if we’re each independent.

Natalie (20m 49s):
When it comes to the environment and climate change, I know everybody talks about like trees, trees, trees, what does a tree do? I mean, it’s not out there with elbow grease and rubber gloves, actually, you know -it’s not up there holding up an air purifier, catching the dirty air as it goes by! Like, what is a tree doing that’s actually helping the air and helping the planet?

Jonah (21m 8s):
You know, I think you’re joking, but you are actually right. I mean, trees are wonderful air purifiers. They do take toxins out of the air and lock them away. But when it comes to climate, what they’re doing is they’re taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and locking it away. Trees, photosynthesize, as they grow, they turn carbon dioxide from the air plus sunlight into carbon. That’s stored in their trunks and their roots and their branches.

Jonah (21m 39s):
And the more the trees grow, the more carbon dioxide they take out of the atmosphere. So the more trees you have and can keep alive the less carbon dioxide you have in the, in the sky.

Natalie (21m 53s):
And it sounds like trees in tropical latitudes are, are they better, would you would say, at doing this than trees and other areas?

Jonah (22m 2s):
They are. And there’s a few reasons for that. One is just that forests in the tropics grow to be larger generally than forests and other regions. They grow taller and they have more carbon they’re Hector per hectare, than, than in other places. Another thing that’s great about forests in the tropics, as we touched on this earlier, but they have many, many more plants and animals, different species that live there than at high latitudes. So if you’re interested in biodiversity, the tropical forests and the tropical coral reefs are really the world’s treasure houses.

Natalie (22m 38s):
And so when we talk about the doubled-down problem of losing trees and how this is really not a good thing, it’s you mentioned it earlier, but I want to make sure I have the right understanding. So not only is it because the tree was using that carbon to grow, but I’ve taken all the carbon that it held just in its body as a tree, so to speak, and I’ve stopped that process, right? Like I’ve released back that all back out by using it most often by burning it. But the things that it was going to continue, the carbon, it was going to continue to capture from the air and take out of, you know, of the warming cycle.

Natalie (23m 13s):
Is that the right way to say it, that it’s future ability to help safeguard against climate change by pulling carbon from the air is now also taken out?

Jonah (23m 22s):
Yeah, you’re you’re you’re right. You’re burning the candle at both ends, as it were burning the trees. So you’re putting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And because those trees are no longer there, you’re taking less carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. It even gets a little bit worse than that. When you think that most of the time what’s replacing those forests is cattle pastures or agriculture. That’s emitting carbon dioxide as well.

Natalie (23m 52s):
That’s what I euphemistically call a bad, bad.

Jonah (23m 55s):
That sounds like a bad, bad. Yes. That’s probably, that’s probably what I should have said to the five-year-old. The deforestation is a bad bag.

Natalie (24m 5s):
I mean, obviously before 2020 became the year that broke everyone’s expectations – everywhere – Brazil’s fires and Australia’s fires, like what do fires like this mean for your work? What do they mean for climate change?

Jonah (24m 22s):
Yeah, I want to point out there’s a big difference between the fires in Brazil and the fires in Australia or California, which is that in one type of forest, in the Australian or California forests, many of them are meant to burn. They’ve evolved for millions of years before people were even around to have fire. The trees are adapted to fire or in some cases even need fire. So fire is, it’s a natural part of what’s supposed to happen in those places, not all the forests, but many of them in contrast in Brazil and Indonesia, and in the tropics, fire is not a part of natural rainforest ecosystem.

Jonah (25m 3s):
They may go hundreds or thousands of years without burning naturally, and so the fires are extremely disruptive. They killed trees. They don’t grow back. They’re a big issue because most of the places in Brazil are where forests are burned. What’s happening is deliberate. It’s not a runaway forest fire that’s caused by lightning or a spray cigarette or something. It’s a deliberate use of the fire to get rid of the trees, to intentionally put in a cattle pasture or a soy field.

Jonah (25m 36s):
As we mentioned, that that has a big impact on the climate because the carbon that was in the forests is now in the atmosphere.

Natalie (25m 45s):
You mentioned satellite images and things earlier. So satellite imagery and technology, how has that shifted your work in the last few years?

Jonah (25m 53s):
So satellite imagery has been revolutionary. In 2013 for the very first time, there was a map published in the academic journal “Science” that showed everywhere in the world where forests had been cleared every year – at the size of a baseball diamond. And there had been absolutely nothing like it beforehand. We sort of went from the stone age to the computer age overnight. And you know, this was a big team effort.

Jonah (26m 24s):
Basically this was coming from a satellite that the us had launched the satellite program since the seventies called Landsat. And then an act of Congress said that all the information that had had would be made free to the public instead of charging as previously. And then, you know, the big data people at Google and elsewhere processed the data and a professor at Maryland named Matt Hanson, drew it all together, figured out what was deforestation or not and published this scientific article.

Jonah (26m 58s):
We can watch as forests are being lost everywhere in the world. And we can see them growing back too, although they’re not growing back as much as they’re being burned and cut down and cleared. This is really revolutionary for a number of reasons. One of them is just direct law enforcement. As I’d mentioned, Brazil had had for a long time laws about how much forest you could clear on a private property, but they didn’t enforce them in part because they, they hadn’t really been able to.

Natalie (27m 27s):
The other things satellite imagery has allowed Jonah and his colleagues to do is to compile data that really conclusively shows what the core drivers of deforestation are. It turns out, there’s a handful:

Jonah (27m 38s):
Through a meta analysis through looking at hundreds and hundreds of published studies. My colleague, Kalifi Ferretti-Gallon, and I have come up with six things that generally make deforestation faster, slower. Two things that generally accelerate deforestation are agriculture, as we’ve talked about, and roads. So if you put roads into a forest region, that’s going to follow with people coming in along those roads and clearing forest. And then the four things that consistently slow down deforestation are protected areas, so national parks or forest reserves, payments directly paying people to keep for a standing on their land, enforcing forest laws, and empowering indigenous peoples.

Jonah (28m 27s):
You know, we saw with Brazil, almost all of their policies touched all of these six factors and satellites help to do that.

Natalie (28m 34s):
Another key point Jonah made was that contrary to what you might intuit, it’s actually not the poorest people who are responsible for the most deforestation.

Jonah (28m 43s):
Yeah, that was one of the most interesting things that, that Kalifi and I found in our study, was that more often than not, it was the richer places within a country or within a region where more deforestation was happening. That’s not to say that there aren’t poor people who are clearing for us. There certainly are, but more often than not as people or households, villages, or States get richer, they clear forest more. Part of the reason for that is that it’s expensive to clear forests.

Jonah (29m 14s):
So you have to have machinery. You have to hire people. If you’re, if you’re poor, you don’t have that ability.

Natalie (29m 22s):
So when people talk about, and I know we touched on this earlier in terms of like, how can develop nations speak to the economic incentives that are driving this behavior? I mean, when we talk about bigger, broader things that people may not think are related to the environment, like the economic relationship that we have with another nation, it sounds to me like there’s actually a very, very quick relationship. It may not be A to B, it might be A to B to C, but when we talk about things like tariffs and import/exports and different goods that are, and are not allowed to move through countries, and when we think about deals that we structure that are mutually beneficial versus ones that maybe, leave the other guy hanging in a little bit …

Natalie (30m 5s):
It sounds like all of this kind of creates a broader economic world that somebody living in might be like, well, if that door is closed to me, but I can clear this land and make this money this way, that’s the door that’s left open to me, right? Is that a fair kind of connection to make, to say that like bigger global, international trade issues actually help inform the climate so to speak that encourages this behavior?

Jonah (30m 33s):
Absolutely. I mean, if you’re an individual person, you know, you or I, or, or, you know, a farmer in Ghana or Brazil, you know, our individual ability to, to set global trade rules is essentially zero.

Natalie (-):
Zilch.

Jonah (30m 49s):
Yeah. Nothing, but we just respond to that. And basically the way we feel the impacts of those is through through prices, what does it cost us in the store to buy chocolate or to buy beef, or if you’re growing those things, how much money can you get by growing beef or by growing chocolate, through our national governments, those institutions have power to set the, the rules of international trade or to set, you know, to set taxes, tariffs on that trade and, and change the prices on that.

Jonah (31m 22s):
You can change what you can pay for. So, as I mentioned right now, you know, if you want beef, you can go out and buy a hamburger. But if you want a tropical forests, there’s not really any way you can go to the, to the market and, and just buy more. But through national policies, there could be

Natalie (31m 42s):
In his book, “Why Forests? Why Now?,” Jonah and his colleague laid out a case. They said that if you took the emissions from deforestation around the world every year and lumped it together like a country, it would be even larger than the European Union. So naturally, I asked him to elaborate on that some.

Jonah (31m 59s):
Yeah, they’d be, they’d be the third largest country in terms of emissions. If tropical forests were their own country behind China, behind the United States. But as you said, ahead of the European Union. And the reason is, I think, most folks aren’t aware of just how much carbon there is in a tropical forest. Look out your window at a tree. Just think of how much that tree weighs.

Natalie (32m 29s):
Oh my gosh.

Jonah (32m 30s):
Half of that tree, half of that tree is carbon. Almost exactly 50% of the weight of that tree is carbon. And then now multiply that tree. you know, think of a forest, think of just one square mile, how many trees there are there and how many pounds of carbon there are in that, that tree.

Natalie (32m 51s):
Many is my guess.

Jonah (32m 51s):
Many. Yes. Yeah. That’s that’s about as good as scientific term as I could give too – “many” pounds of carbon. And then, you know, if you were to burn one square mile of forest in the tropics and all of that carbon goes up to the atmosphere, the amount of carbon dioxide from that is extraordinary. You would have to drive your typical American car in your driveway to the sun and back twice, that much carbon dioxide. Yeah.

Jonah (33m 21s):
And it’s not just one square mile, it’s an area of tropical forest about the size of Maine. It gets burned down every year. So when you multiply all those trees, you know, a main size area of trees, you’re, you’re talking about big country’s worth of carbon emissions.

Natalie (33m 12s):
By now, I was sort of starting to scratch my head wondering exactly where deforestation ranked up against say, oh, I don’t know, fossil fuels, being burned.

Jonah (33m 51s):
Yeah. I mean, it’s big. Tropical deforestation is the second biggest cause of climate change. So the first one by far by far is burning fossil fuels. That’s about two thirds of, of the climate problem. So it’s the biggest, but it’s not the only thing contributing to climate change. The second, around 10% of the problem, comes from burning tropical forest.

Natalie (34m 15s):
Another note from your book, was that an analysis of, was it 2002 to 2009 data, was revealing tha forests cleared to produce only four commodities and an only eight countries made up a third of all emissions from tropical deforestation. And that really made me wonder, like, which commodities was it being cleared for and which countries, and, you know, the solution to this, it really is just paying to keep the forest there?

Jonah (34m 42s):
Yeah. So in terms of the commodities, the big ones are cattle, soy, palm oil, wood and paper products. And in terms of the countries, the biggest two for the last two decades have been Brazil and Indonesia. The third one is the democratic Republic of Congo. And some of the other big ones are, you know, Malaysia, Peru, Bolivia, Columbia, and there’s others going down the list.

Jonah (35m 13s):
But a lot of tropical deforestation, most of it is going to be going toward beef and soy. And in South America going toward palm oil and timber in Southeast Asia, Pacific commodities in specific places that are, you know, the focus of the problem,

Natalie (35m 33s):
The industrial associations, the trade groups that deal with these commodities,I mean, what do they have to say about the fact that their activities in these nations are responsible for such an outsized burden on the rest of the globe?

Jonah (35m 48s):
So in 2010, a lot of the big traders and buyers of these commodities made a pledge to cut their deforestation in half by 2020. And to end it by 2030. And that was 10 years ago, here we are in 2020, not a, not a single one of the hundreds of companies that took this pledge can show that they’ve met that target. You know, they said the right things for sure, but we haven’t seen that translate into real reductions in deforestation yet – deforestation is still going up.

Jonah (36m 25s):
And you asked the question a little bit earlier about, is it only about paying countries to keep forest standing? I mean, I do think that that has to be a really big part of the solution for part of the reasons we talked about. It’s about respect, but it’s not the only part of the solution. here are groups now that are also focused on cleaning up these supply chains, getting deforestation out of the supply chains, you know, holding companies accountable for, growing their produce, their crops – not in forests.

Jonah (36m 59s):
And that’s a big part of it as well.

Natalie (37m 3s):
What can I do when people are bad actors in this way? That actually makes a difference from the point of view of me who has other responsibilities and a job and I have to keep the lights on in my own life, you know, what can I do? That’s within my reach that would actively help?

Jonah (37m 19s):
Yeah. So I guess for first, first the question is about what can I do about companies, and then second, what can I do positively in my own life? In terms of companies, we as individuals hold only a little bit of sway to the extent that we choose who to buy from, or not as, as consumers, but, you know, companies are regulated by our government.

Jonah (37m 50s):
And so, we can ask our government to be enforcing policies, to get companies to take deforestation out of their supply chain. And in some sense, it’d be better for the companies as well. It’d be a level playing field. If there was one rule, they all had to follow to grow their, their beef and soy, not in forest areas. And it’d be better for them than if right now, you know, some of the good actors are voluntarily saying, “we’re not going to grow a beef in these places,”

Jonah (38m 22s):
but they’re undercut by their competitors who do. In Brazil it was actually the entire industry association that said, “we’re not going to buy beef, buy soy from deforested places.” I think when it comes to holding companies accountable, we kind of do that as citizens in a democracy through our government and its policies. You asked what are things that everyday people can do in their life to protect forests, to solve climate change? You know, there’s one thing that really stands out to me and that’s eating less beef.

Jonah (39m 5s):
It’s not even fully becoming vegetarian, but cows the way they’re grown have a really outsized impact on the climate, including through clearing forest in South America to check, to make way for pastures,

Natalie (39m 24s):
There’s a rancher somewhere listening to that Aaron Copeland song “Rodeo” who’s not very pleased to hear this right now, but go on.

Jonah (39m 33s):
Yeah, but there’s other other ranchers who are going to be growing their beef, not at the expense of forest. And so they’re going to be better off. You’re talking about individual actions. There is a limit to individual actions. What I’d like to see overall is is that the cost of climate change gets included through a carbon price. That’s included in the price we pay, whether it’s for beef or for oil or all these things.

Jonah (40m 5s):
And then the ranchers who can grow there be not at the expense of forest would be an advantage because they could, they could sell more cheaply. They could keep more of the profit and the ones that are growing their beef at the expense of forest, that price would be included in there in what they sell. So, so they would have a disadvantage in the market.

Natalie (40m 27s):
Do you think that part of what would be needed is better transparency in labeling? Because I know that like right now, if I go to try to find beef that was grown in a way that didn’t come at the expense of a forest, there would not be anything on the label that would tell me that, you know, I wouldn’t know where it was from. I might not even know which country the beef was from. It might be buried in some sort of cryptic barcode or something. Is one step towards helping solve this also the ability to empower consumers by having better labeling laws and enforcing those?

Jonah (40m 59s):
I think it wouldn’t hurt. It wouldn’t hurt to make it help consumers vote with their dollars as you’re saying, but it also puts the burden for knowing quite a bit onto the consumer. I mean, why should you have to know everything about where your food is coming from and the effects that it’s having? It’d be much simpler to just have the cost of the damage to the climate be reflected in the price. And then you would just know that if a product is harming people through climate damage, it would be more expensive.

Natalie (41m 36s):
I think about things that I’ve heard lobbyists come back with throughout the years, it’s always that, you know, like, “well, if we make our product more expensive, people who are sort of socioeconomically disadvantaged are gonna lose out and how can you make this policy that discriminates against them?” And I also know though that when you take the full picture look at what we were talking about happening here, that people who are socioeconomically disadvantaged are already the ones bearing the higher cost of climate change right now. Is that a strong enough argument, you think, to companies who would want to retort that like, “Oh, well, we can’t raise our prices. We can’t possibly take on this cost and this responsibility. That’s not our fault. We’re not in the business of keeping forest we’re in the business of getting beef to your plate.” – for instance. What do you say to that?

Jonah (42m 28s):
It is really important. I mean, who bears the costs and who gets the benefit of policies for climate, including prices on carbon. And what I point to is that if you put a tax on carbon emissions, as you say, that falls on some people harder than others, it falls on poor people, generally harder because they’re the ones spending more of their money on buying carbon intensive things. But the other half of the story is: having raised all that money, how do you spend it? You can spend it in a way that is pro-poor, that makes people living in the poor communities better off. So here in California, there has been for several years a very active cap and trade program that makes carbon pollution, climate pollution, expensive; a little more expensive than it would be because companies have to buy permits in order to pollute, which they didn’t have to before and they don’t have to elsewhere. And that in addition to helping California bring down its climate emissions, it also raises money for California. And California by law has to spend at least a quarter of those proceeds within communities that are designated as being poor or disadvantaged. And so that makes sure that the money gets recycled to those places.

Natalie (44m 1s):
This has been such a really enriching talk for me. And I’m so grateful to you for taking the time and being willing to do this. Is there anything else that you would really like to touch on today?

Jonah (44m 15s):
Well, this has been a lot of fun. Thank you for having me. To sum it all up, I would say we need to have a lot more climate action than we’re seeing currently, in this country and in the world. And that means having less burning of fossil fuels and it also means having less burning of rainforests. The respectful way to do that, as we’ve talked, about is to back up our wish for more forests with the ability to pay for it.

Natalie (44m 44s):
All right. Thank you. Thank you so much. For more about Jonah’s work, follow him on Twitter: @Jonah Bush where you can also find his book, “Why Forests? Why Now?” This is only our first episode, but let us know what you think or what you’d like to see featured. Write us@infoatmagiclinks.com. Also, I’m pretty sure each podcast needs some credits or something, so here are mine: Major thanks to Sarah Anderson, Dylan Labelle, Chloe Castiglioni, Michael Sadorf, Haesil Shin, Brian Nickerson, of course Jonah Bush — and you, for listening. I’m Natalie and I’m out. Til next time, gang. End Credits/Music

Natalie (10s):
Welcome to the inaugural episode of responsible impact. This show is a production of MagicLinks, and in each episode, we’ll do a deep dive across all manner of things environmental and e-commerce In environmental terms, we know it’s not feasible to reach exactly zero impact, and so we’re striving to be as responsible about our impact as we can. In this episode, I spoke with Jonah Busch. He’s made his life’s work out of climate change and the value of forests. And if what he’s proposing is implemented, the way we buy goods could become part of the way we fight climate change. To kick things off though, here’s his quick introduction to ice cream as economics.

Jonah (50s):
Economics is the study of choices that people make when they can’t have everything. So let’s say you go to the ice cream store and you’re deciding, should I have a chocolate or a vanilla ice cream? And probably in the moment, you’re just making that decision based on which one will taste better. But there are farmers in Ghana and Madagascar who are anxiously awaiting your decision, because if you buy a chocolate ice cream, that means you’re going to spend money that goes to an ice cream company, that goes to a farmer in Ghana for the chocolate.

Jonah (1m 23s):
And if you buy the vanilla ice cream, that money goes to the farmer in Madagascar who grew the vanilla. Decisions like these – millions of them – get made all over the world, every day on what to buy or what to do with your land or many other decisions. And these millions of individual choices get made through markets. And that’s what economists study. So basically long story short, I study chocolate,

Natalie (1m 47s):
Not only is Jonah an economist, he’s an environmental economist, and that has some pretty specific things that go along with it.

Jonah (1m 54s):
So an environmental economist studies the choices people make that interact with the environment, and these come in two big categories. We take resources out of the environment. You know, we mine gold or we log forests and we put pollution into the environment. The trash that we make goes into landfills or the plastic into the oceans or the carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And we have a name for pollution. We call it externalities, meaning something that is harming.

Jonah (2m 26s):
Usually it’s harming someone else, who’s not involved in the decision to buy something.

Natalie (2m 36s):
I’m going to jump in to give a quick breakdown. So when he says externalities, the reason they think of them as external is because they’re not the immediate transaction that’s happening. So when I buy ice cream, for instance, I might think that the deal is just between me and the ice cream vendor. In reality, there are fossil fuels that were burned. There’s packaging, there’s materials that might end up as pollution or as waste. There are all sorts of things that are external to that immediate deal, but are still part of the equation. And in this case, he’s talking about externalities that contribute to climate change or are just outright pollution.

Jonah (3m 9s):
So when you’re buying that chocolate ice cream, again, you’re helping that farmer in Ghana, but you’re also affecting other people. You’re affecting everybody who breathes air and two likes to have a cool, not warmed planet. And the reason for that is the chocolate might get cleared from, might get grown on, land that was cleared from forest. And so if you have chocolate farms instead of forest, you have less carbon on the ground.

Jonah (3m 40s):
You have more carbon in the atmosphere where it’s causing global warming for us. It turns out economists have a term for this rebalancing of the scales. Economists have an idea for how to correct that problem. Our jargony word is called “internalizing the externality.”

Natalie (3m 57s):
In case you need to hear that one more time, it’s internalizing the externality, which is a mouthful,

Jonah (4m 4s):
When you’re buying that ice cream, again, you’re sending a signal to the farmer in Ghana that you value the chocolate that they’re growing, but we would like to have a way that you can also tell the same farmer that you value the trees that are there – because you probably value the chocolate AND you value the trees. But right now you’re only sending a signal that you value the chocolate through the money that you spend.

Natalie (4m 27s):
So in a nutshell, what Jonah and his colleagues are trying to do is make the forest worth as much to the people who have the land by being a forest, as it could be by being something else. Because the contribution that the forest makes to the rest of the world in terms of keeping our climate stable is as valuable to us as almost anything else they could put there, if not more so. So this brings up a couple of questions for me, and I’d like to kind of segue into them for a second if that’s okay. So one is, I want to make sure that I have the right understanding. A policy is the rule.

Natalie (4m 58s):
So like if I’m playing monopoly and somebody changes the rules, they’ve changed the policies. And that’s, so it’s basically just another way of saying we would have to change the rules around this so that we can encourage the kind of gameplay we want to see. Is that a fair way to think of policies?

Jonah (5m 11s):
Certainly. Yeah. So yeah. Let me maybe be specific about some of the sorts of policies that are out there that have been very helpful in addressing the issue of tropical deforestation. Look at Brazil. Brazil had the highest rates of deforestation of any country in the world for several decades leading up to 2004. And because of that, they were also one of the largest contributors to climate change.

Jonah (5m 42s):
And then in 2004, they had a government that changed their policy towards the rainforest, from encouraging, clearing it, to encouraging, preserving it. They put in a bunch of protected areas, national parks, essentially saying on these public lands, it’s no longer permissible to cut down forests and clear it. They also recognized the territorial claims of a lot of the indigenous people that were living in the Amazon rainforest.

Jonah (6m 13s):
And we’re doing so with, with minimal destruction of the forest on private lands, there were laws for a long time that only allowed a certain amount of clearing, but not a larger amount. And those laws hadn’t been followed. But then with the help of satellite monitoring and environmental police, they started enforcing those forest laws. And one last example of it that was included, the soy and the beef industries of Brazil, who were the big contributors to clearing the forest, voluntarily decided if you are a farmer and you clear forest to grow soy and beef, you can no longer sell those products through our association.

Jonah (6m 55s):
And all of these policies put together worked, and the rate of deforestation fell by 80% from its high. And in 2004 to a, to a low in 2012, that was, that was a great success story over that nearly a decade. Brazil went from being an environmental villain to being an environmental hero.

Natalie (7m 16s):
If like me, you wanted to bust out the champagne and celebrate, hang tight because –

Jonah (7m 21s):
Since 2012, those policies are being undone and the successes being reversed by successive administrations in Brazil, and then much more quickly unwound by the current administration in Brazil. And is that, is that is wrapped up with a disrespect or a denial of science, for sure. You know, in the Brazilian government, the same sort of denial of climate change that we’ve seen, particularly in the, in the US is spreading there as well.

Jonah (7m 52s):
Oh boy. So when I think about cycles, there’s a carbon cycle that scientists know about. Carbon in the land is there in, in trees. Trees, store carbon in their trunks and their roots branches and so forth. There’s also carbon of course, stored in fossil fuels the oil and gas that accumulate mostly from trees and other living things that died a long time ago.

Jonah (8m 23s):
And, and the cycle is that when we burn those things or when the trees die, naturally the carbon goes up, it combines with oxygen and goes into the atmosphere and forms carbon dioxide, the right amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a good thing. It’s what keeps earth at a nice warm habitable temperature. But with too much carbon dioxide, you trap the heat that comes in more heat comes in and goes out. And so the earth gets hotter and hotter beyond the point that humans have adapted to.

Jonah (8m 55s):
And our agriculture has adapted and the other species here have adapted to. So it’s a problem when there’s balance the natural ecosystems, the ocean, the land, the forest would be taking out as much carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as is going up. But right now we’re out of balance. We’re sending way more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than the trees and oceans are taking out of the atmosphere. We’re doing that by burning fossil fuels.

Jonah (9m 26s):
We’re doing that by burning forests, especially in the tropics, but that’s a correctable problem. And the way economists think we can correct that problem essentially is to make it more expensive to, to burn carbon and to make it profitable, or to to have payments for taking carbon out of the atmosphere, by having more forest,

Natalie (9m 53s):
What are some things that you’re like, man, if people could only see this and this, they would understand why I’ve made this my life’s work, why this is important? What are those things? Or if you had to tell a five-year-old, you know, this is why my work is important. What would you say?

Jonah (10m 9s):
Jonah: I think for a five-year-old maybe I’d just say forests are, are important and we should have more of them. But you know, as kids get older, I might start to add to that, you know, why are forests important? Because they’re home to lots of plants and animals, certainly, but they also help people in lots of different ways. So forests keep our air clean. They keep our water clean so that we’re healthier forests keep our climate cool so that our planet stays a nice place to live.

Jonah (10m 40s):
That’s the climate aspect. I mean, now of course, with COVID, there’s another really important reason to keep forests intact, prevent diseases from jumping, from forest animals to people, you know, I’m recording this from home today. You’re home, everybody who’s listening is probably at home. And, and the reason is we have this global disease outbreak that started from an organism that, that used to live in animals in the forest. And this is not the first time that’s happened.

Jonah (11m 11s):
So HIV started from a disease that jumped from forest animals to people along with a lot of other diseases. And the more people clear forests, the more they become exposed or their livestock become exposed to animals and forest and pathogens or viruses that can make that jump. So that’s another reason to keep forests standing.

Natalie (11m 39s):
I think that that touches on a concept called biodiversity, right? And, and so biodiversity meaning that there are so many different kinds of species. It’s like when you have, if you have a lawn and your lawn is just Bermuda grass, that’s really kind of a monoculture – there’s one kind of thing growing there. And then biodiversity would be if you had a natural lawn in different seeds had come in and taken root over time, and you have really a ton of different kinds of things there. Well, so if a disease came through that really loved to eat your grass, it would probably wipe out your lawn very quickly, but any one disease that landed on, let’s say your natural straw grass that happened to be dropped by some bird a couple of years ago, it might not move on to the other flowers and trees and things that you had in that same space.

Natalie (12m 22s):
And that’s a really good idea or a good example of how biodiversity sort of keeps things at bay. It keeps them from becoming sort of wildfires in that way, in that communicable way. And so when you talk about how biodiversity is destroyed, of course, as forests are logged and just cleared and burned or any number of things happened to them, how long does it take for biodiversity to recover?

Jonah (12m 44s):
You know, and in some places, nature starts to come back very quickly, but it may not reach what it was before for decades or even centuries. And you make really good points about the importance of biodiversity or just the diversity, the breadth of the millions of other plants and animals that we share this planet with. But there there’s more of them in some places than others. So the closer you get to the equator, the more different types of plants and animals you have. There’s two places that stand out, even within the tropics for having the most number of species, and those are in the ocean, the coral reefs, and on land, the tropical forest.

Jonah (13m 26s):
Within a single square kilometer of tropical forest, somewhere like Ecuador, you could have thousands of different tree species – more than in many countries in the northern latitudes. I’d mentioned before how, when viruses jumped to people from animals, it’s a big health problem. It can also be a big health solution. People who’ve lived in the forest for a long time know about the medicinal properties of many of the plants or animals, and many of our most important medicines have come originally from, from tropical forest species, cancer treatments, malaria preventing drugs at birth controls.

Jonah (14m 7s):
Some of the most widely used have all come from plants that were first in the rain forest. We lose those forests at our own peril

Natalie (14m 17s):
..Going to just… repeat that…

Jonah (14m 20s):
We lose those forests at our own peril.

Natalie (14m 24s):
All right, moving on. A lot of these are nations that we don’t think of as developed nations. A lot of them are developing. There’s a lot of turmoil. There’s a lot of economic incentive. There’s a lot of reasons people might individually feel like if I want to get ahead in life, if I want to send my kids to college, I’m going to cut that forest down and I’m going to raise cattle on that land. And I’m going to have the money to make my life better. Right? What’s the right framework for fully understanding that there’s this economic hand, that’s pushing people towards deforestation and what’s the right way to come at it from countries like the US where despite our own recent economic flexes, we’re still broadly a developed first world nation, and we don’t have the same economic pushes to just to deforest and things like this.

Natalie (15m 12s):
How can we discuss it without sounding almost colonial or condescending, or like, while they just, they didn’t get the value, so they made a poor choice?

Jonah (15m 22s):
Yeah, that’s a really important question. And I do want to point out that the US did have much more forest than we had now, but in the past century or two, we cleared our forest and it’s only very recent three decades or so that we’ve started regrowing the forest more than we’ve cut it down. And Europe did that even before, before we did what people are doing in the tropics is not different than what we did here. It’s just happening now in real time.

Jonah (15m 53s):
And it’s really important that when people in the U S or in Europe ask people in Brazil or Indonesia to protect forests that they’re doing so in a respectful way. And I mean that in a very specific way, which is respect that one, the people of those countries have the right to do with their land, just as we’ve done with our land. And that if we want to ask them to protect forests, that we’d be willing to put money behind that request. So it’s not telling them “Don’t cut forests, cutting forests is bad.”

Jonah (16m 27s):
Rather it’s saying we value all of the good things that those forests provide and we’re willing to pay for them.

Natalie (16m 35s):
The thing that immediately comes to mind is there are a number of places in America where people feel like the economy has certainly forgotten them. And that’s, those are discussions that are very nuanced and are really frankly, a whole other episode. But I think to those people to hear that perhaps some of their tax dollars were going towards asking someone in a nation very far away to preserve something there for the sake of climate change, which they may or may not even accept is happening.

Natalie (17m 5s):
That seems probably like, kind of like a highway robbery. If I look at it through that lens and what should folks who have that reaction or that perspective, what should they know, or how should they be reframing this to see more clearly? Like, what should we say to those folks?

Jonah (17m 24s):
I would start by pointing out that climate change is a global problem. It does affect everybody. It even affects people who don’t believe in it. And it affects us certainly here in the United States and California, where, where we live through more wildfires through shrinking coastlines, droughts, all these things that affect us. And so to fix this global problem, we need a global solution and there are benefits to stopping climate change everywhere.

Jonah (17m 57s):
So if you have fewer coal plants running here in the US then you have fewer air pollution deaths downwind of those coal plants. So that’s a big benefit, but there are benefits in other countries too, if you have more forest, so you have less climate change, but you also have cleaner water, you have more plants and animals, you have cleaner air and so forth.

Natalie (18m 21s):
The crux of it would be that a country along the tropics is not very far away from say, Nebraska, not from a climate perspective. Those are really their neighbors.

Jonah (18m 30s):
We’re we are certainly connected. Yeah.

Natalie (18m 33s):
Yeah. I think this also touches on some issues of globalization. I think the idea of our responsibility, again, to people who are far away and why we need to be worried about that. And I know we can see this in our oceans for instance, right? So there are pieces of litter and garbage that have entered the oceans in places I will never probably set foot in my life. When I walk on the beach nearest me, I might, after a couple of years come across that same piece of litter.

Natalie (19m 5s):
The climate and the bigger forces at play in our world, connect me to these faraway places and to these otherwise strangers. Right? So the kind of idea that we need to act on this global scale, especially in a time when nationalistic fervor is being used so effectively to turn out the vote for certain candidates and to really draw lines for who belongs, where and why in an economic sense, is there something that you guys look at and you’re like, again, it’s okay, it’s better to think on a global scale than on a tribal or a national or a local scale?

Jonah (19m 43s):
Sure. So, I’d say the classic example within economics is trade. So if you trade only within your neighborhood, you’re going to be less well off than if you can trade within your state or within your whole country or within the whole world. So the more you’re able to buy that chocolate again from Ghana, the happier you are. Then if you could only get flavors that grow in your neighborhood, which if you live in a certain country, there’s no chocolate.

Natalie (-):
I have NO chocolate!

Jonah (20m 20s):
That’s right. And of course there are, you know, there are winners and losers from trade, or, or from making trade to open with no rules, no doubt. But overall, you, you can make people happier by trading, which is why so much of it has always happened with the environment. It’s something similar with environmental problems. The world can solve climate change much more effectively and cheaply, if we’re all working together, then if we’re each independent.

Natalie (20m 49s):
When it comes to the environment and climate change, I know everybody talks about like trees, trees, trees, what does a tree do? I mean, it’s not out there with elbow grease and rubber gloves, actually, you know -it’s not up there holding up an air purifier, catching the dirty air as it goes by! Like, what is a tree doing that’s actually helping the air and helping the planet?

Jonah (21m 8s):
You know, I think you’re joking, but you are actually right. I mean, trees are wonderful air purifiers. They do take toxins out of the air and lock them away. But when it comes to climate, what they’re doing is they’re taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and locking it away. Trees, photosynthesize, as they grow, they turn carbon dioxide from the air plus sunlight into carbon. That’s stored in their trunks and their roots and their branches.

Jonah (21m 39s):
And the more the trees grow, the more carbon dioxide they take out of the atmosphere. So the more trees you have and can keep alive the less carbon dioxide you have in the, in the sky.

Natalie (21m 53s):
And it sounds like trees in tropical latitudes are, are they better, would you would say, at doing this than trees and other areas?

Jonah (22m 2s):
They are. And there’s a few reasons for that. One is just that forests in the tropics grow to be larger generally than forests and other regions. They grow taller and they have more carbon they’re hectare per hectare than, than in other places. Another thing that’s great about forests in the tropics, as we touched on this earlier, but they have many, many more plants and animals, different species that live there than at high latitudes. So if you’re interested in biodiversity, the tropical forests and the tropical coral reefs are really the world’s treasure houses.

Natalie (22m 38s):
And so when we talk about the doubled-down problem of losing trees and how this is really not a good thing, it’s you mentioned it earlier, but I want to make sure I have the right understanding. So not only is it because the tree was using that carbon to grow, but I’ve taken all the carbon that it held just in its body as a tree, so to speak, and I’ve stopped that process, right? Like I’ve released back that all back out by using it most often by burning it. But the things that it was going to continue, the carbon, it was going to continue to capture from the air and take out of, you know, of the warming cycle.

Natalie (23m 13s):
Is that the right way to say it, that it’s future ability to help safeguard against climate change by pulling carbon from the air is now also taken out?

Jonah (23m 22s):
Yeah, you’re right. You’re burning the candle at both ends, as it were, burning the trees. So you’re putting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And because those trees are no longer there, you’re taking less carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. It even gets a little bit worse than that. When you think that most of the time what’s replacing those forests is cattle pastures or agriculture. That’s emitting carbon dioxide as well.

Natalie (23m 52s):
That’s what I euphemistically call a bad, bad.

Jonah (23m 55s):
That sounds like a bad, bad. Yes. That’s probably, that’s probably what I should have said to the five-year-old. The deforestation is a bad bag.

Natalie (24m 5s):
I mean, obviously before 2020 became the year that broke everyone’s expectations – everywhere – Brazil’s fires and Australia’s fires, what do fires like this mean for your work? What do they mean for climate change?

Jonah (24m 22s):
Yeah, I want to point out there’s a big difference between the fires in Brazil and the fires in Australia or California, which is that in one type of forest, in the Australian or California forests, many of them are meant to burn. They’ve evolved for millions of years before people were even around to have fire. The trees are adapted to fire or in some cases even need fire. So fire is, it’s a natural part of what’s supposed to happen in those places, not all the forests, but many of them in contrast in Brazil and Indonesia, and in the tropics, fire is not a part of natural rainforest ecosystem.

Jonah (25m 3s):
They may go hundreds or thousands of years without burning naturally, and so the fires are extremely disruptive. They killed trees. They don’t grow back. They’re a big issue because most of the places in Brazil are where forests are burned. What’s happening is deliberate. It’s not a runaway forest fire that’s caused by lightning or a spray cigarette or something. It’s a deliberate use of the fire to get rid of the trees, to intentionally put in a cattle pasture or a soy field.

Jonah (25m 36s):
As we mentioned, that that has a big impact on the climate because the carbon that was in the forests is now in the atmosphere.

Natalie (25m 45s):
You mentioned satellite images and things earlier. So satellite imagery and technology, how has that shifted your work in the last few years?

Jonah (25m 53s):
So satellite imagery has been revolutionary. In 2013 for the very first time, there was a map published in the academic journal “Science” that showed everywhere in the world where forests had been cleared every year – at the size of a baseball diamond. And there had been absolutely nothing like it beforehand. We sort of went from the stone age to the computer age overnight. And you know, this was a big team effort.

Jonah (26m 24s):
Basically this was coming from a satellite that the US had launched, a satellite program since the seventies called Landsat. And then an act of Congress said that all the information that had had would be made free to the public instead of charging as previously. And then, you know, the big data people at Google and elsewhere processed the data and a professor at Maryland named Matt Hanson, drew it all together, figured out what was deforestation or not and published this scientific article.

Jonah (26m 58s):
We can watch as forests are being lost everywhere in the world. And we can see them growing back too, although they’re not growing back as much as they’re being burned and cut down and cleared. This is really revolutionary for a number of reasons. One of them is just direct law enforcement. As I’d mentioned, Brazil had had for a long time laws about how much forest you could clear on a private property, but they didn’t enforce them in part because they hadn’t really been able to.

Natalie (27m 27s):
The other things satellite imagery has allowed Jonah and his colleagues to do is to compile data that really conclusively shows what the core drivers of deforestation are. It turns out, there’s a handful:

Jonah (27m 38s):
Through a meta-analysis through looking at hundreds and hundreds of published studies. My colleague, Kalifi Ferretti-Gallon, and I have come up with six things that generally make deforestation faster, slower. Two things that generally accelerate deforestation are agriculture, as we’ve talked about, and roads. So if you put roads into a forest region, that’s going to follow with people coming in along those roads and clearing forest. And then the four things that consistently slow down deforestation are protected areas, so national parks or forest reserves, payments directly paying people to keep for a standing on their land, enforcing forest laws, and empowering indigenous peoples.

Jonah (28m 27s):
You know, we saw with Brazil, almost all of their policies touched all of these six factors and satellites help to do that.

Natalie (28m 34s):
Another key point Jonah made was that contrary to what you might intuit, it’s actually not the poorest people who are responsible for the most deforestation.

Jonah (28m 43s):
Yeah, that was one of the most interesting things that, that Kalifi and I found in our study, was that more often than not, it was the richer places within a country or within a region where more deforestation was happening. That’s not to say that there aren’t poor people who are clearing for us. There certainly are, but more often than not as people or households, villages, or States get richer, they clear forest more. Part of the reason for that is that it’s expensive to clear forests.

Jonah (29m 14s):
So you have to have machinery. You have to hire people. If you’re, if you’re poor, you don’t have that ability.

Natalie (29m 22s):
So when people talk about, and I know we touched on this earlier in terms of like, how can develop nations speak to the economic incentives that are driving this behavior? I mean, when we talk about bigger, broader things that people may not think are related to the environment, like the economic relationship that we have with another nation, it sounds to me like there’s actually a very, very quick relationship. It may not be A to B, it might be A to B to C, but when we talk about things like tariffs and import/exports and different goods that are, and are not allowed to move through countries, and when we think about deals that we structure that are mutually beneficial versus ones that maybe, leave the other guy hanging in a little bit …

Natalie (30m 5s):
It sounds like all of this kind of creates a broader economic world that somebody living in might be like, well, if that door is closed to me, but I can clear this land and make this money this way, that’s the door that’s left open to me, right? Is that a fair kind of connection to make, to say that like bigger global, international trade issues actually help inform the climate, so to speak, that encourages this behavior?

Jonah (30m 33s):
Absolutely. I mean, if you’re an individual person, you know, you or I, or a farmer in Ghana or Brazil, our individual ability to, to set global trade rules is essentially zero.

Natalie (-):
Zilch.

Jonah (30m 49s):
Yeah. Nothing, but we just respond to that. And basically the way we feel the impacts of those is through prices, what does it cost us in the store to buy chocolate or to buy beef, or if you’re growing those things, how much money can you get by growing beef or by growing chocolate, through our national governments, those institutions have power to set the rules of international trade or to set, you know, to set taxes, tariffs on that trade and, and change the prices on that.

Jonah (31m 22s):
You can change what you can pay for. So, as I mentioned right now, you know, if you want beef, you can go out and buy a hamburger. But if you want more tropical forests, there’s not really any way you can go to the market and, and just buy more. But through national policies, there could be

Natalie (31m 42s):
In his book, “Why Forests? Why Now?,” Jonah and his colleague laid out a case. They said that if you took the emissions from deforestation around the world every year and lumped it together like a country, it would be even larger than the European Union. So naturally, I asked him to elaborate on that some.

Jonah (31m 59s):
Yeah, they’d be, they’d be the third-largest country in terms of emissions. If tropical forests were their own country behind China, behind the United States. But as you said, ahead of the European Union. And the reason is, I think, most folks aren’t aware of just how much carbon there is in a tropical forest. Look out your window at a tree. Just think of how much that tree weighs.

Natalie (32m 29s):
Oh my gosh.

Jonah (32m 30s):
Half of that tree, half of that tree is carbon. Almost exactly 50% of the weight of that tree is carbon. And then now multiply that tree. you know, think of a forest, think of just one square mile, how many trees there are there and how many pounds of carbon there are in that, that tree.

Natalie (32m 51s):
Many is my guess.

Jonah (32m 51s):
Many. Yes. Yeah. That’s about as good a scientific term as I could give too – “many” pounds of carbon. And then, if you were to burn one square mile of forest in the tropics and all of that carbon goes up to the atmosphere, the amount of carbon dioxide from that is extraordinary. You would have to drive your typical American car in your driveway to the sun and back twice, that much carbon dioxide. Yeah.

Jonah (33m 21s):
And it’s not just one square mile, it’s an area of tropical forest about the size of Maine. It gets burned down every year. So when you multiply all those trees, you know, a main size area of trees, you’re, you’re talking about big country’s worth of carbon emissions.

Natalie (33m 12s):
By now, I was sort of starting to scratch my head wondering exactly where deforestation ranked up against say, oh, I don’t know, fossil fuels, being burned.

Jonah (33m 51s):
Yeah. I mean, it’s big. Tropical deforestation is the second biggest cause of climate change. So the first one by far is burning fossil fuels. That’s about two-thirds of, of the climate problem. So it’s the biggest, but it’s not the only thing contributing to climate change. The second, around 10% of the problem, comes from burning tropical forest.

Natalie (34m 15s):
Another note from your book, was that an analysis of, was it 2002 to 2009 data, was revealing that forests cleared to produce only four commodities and only eight countries made up a third of all emissions from tropical deforestation. And that really made me wonder, which commodities was it being cleared for and which countries, and the solution to this – it really is just paying to keep the forest there?

Jonah (34m 42s):
Yeah. So in terms of the commodities, the big ones are cattle, soy, palm oil, wood, and paper products. And in terms of the countries, the biggest two for the last two decades have been Brazil and Indonesia. The third one is the Democratic Republic of Congo. And some of the other big ones are, you know, Malaysia, Peru, Bolivia, Columbia, and there are others going down the list.

Jonah (35m 13s):
But a lot of tropical deforestation, most of it is going to be going toward beef and soy. And in South America going toward palm oil and timber in Southeast Asia, Pacific commodities in specific places that are, you know, the focus of the problem,

Natalie (35m 33s):
The industrial associations, the trade groups that deal with these commodities,I mean, what do they have to say about the fact that their activities in these nations are responsible for such an outsized burden on the rest of the globe?

Jonah (35m 48s):
So in 2010, a lot of the big traders and buyers of these commodities made a pledge to cut their deforestation in half by 2020. And to end it by 2030. And that was 10 years ago, here we are in 2020, not a, not a single one of the hundreds of companies that took this pledge can show that they’ve met that target. You know, they said the right things for sure, but we haven’t seen that translate into real reductions in deforestation yet – deforestation is still going up.

Jonah (36m 25s):
And you asked the question a little bit earlier about, is it only about paying countries to keep forest standing? I mean, I do think that that has to be a really big part of the solution for part of the reasons we talked about. It’s about respect, but it’s not the only part of the solution. here are groups now that are also focused on cleaning up these supply chains, getting deforestation out of the supply chains, you know, holding companies accountable for, growing their produce, their crops – not in forests.

Jonah (36m 59s):
And that’s a big part of it as well.

Natalie (37m 3s):
What can I do when people are bad actors in this way? That actually makes a difference from the point of view of me who has other responsibilities and a job and I have to keep the lights on in my own life, you know, what can I do? That’s within my reach that would actively help?

Jonah (37m 19s):
Yeah. So I guess, first, the question is about what can I do about companies, and then second, what can I do positively in my own life? In terms of companies, we as individuals hold only a little bit of sway to the extent that we choose who to buy from, or not as, as consumers, but, you know, companies are regulated by our government.

Jonah (37m 50s):
And so, we can ask our government to be enforcing policies, to get companies to take deforestation out of their supply chain. And in some sense, it’d be better for the companies as well. It’d be a level playing field. If there was one rule, they all had to follow to grow their, their beef and soy, not in forest areas. And it’d be better for them than if right now, you know, some of the good actors are voluntarily saying, “we’re not going to grow beef in these places,”

Jonah (38m 22s):
but they’re undercut by their competitors who do. In Brazil it was actually the entire industry association that said, “we’re not going to buy beef, buy soy from deforested places.” I think when it comes to holding companies accountable, we kind of do that as citizens in a democracy through our government and its policies. You asked what are things that everyday people can do in their life to protect forests, to solve climate change? You know, there’s one thing that really stands out to me and that’s eating less beef.

Jonah (39m 5s):
It’s not even fully becoming vegetarian, but cows the way they’re grown have a really outsized impact on the climate, including through clearing forest in South America to check, to make way for pastures,

Natalie (39m 24s):
There’s a rancher somewhere listening to that Aaron Copeland song “Rodeo” who’s not very pleased to hear this right now, but go on.

Jonah (39m 33s):
Yeah, but there’s other ranchers who are going to be growing their beef, not at the expense of forest. And so they’re going to be better off. You’re talking about individual actions. There is a limit to individual actions. What I’d like to see overall is is that the cost of climate change gets included through a carbon price. That’s included in the price we pay, whether it’s for beef or for oil or all these things.

Jonah (40m 5s):
And then the ranchers who can grow there be not at the expense of forest would be an advantage because they could, they could sell more cheaply. They could keep more of the profit and the ones that are growing their beef at the expense of forest, that price would be included in there in what they sell. So, so they would have a disadvantage in the market.

Natalie (40m 27s):
Do you think that part of what would be needed is better transparency in labeling? Because I know that right now, if I go to try to find beef that was grown in a way that didn’t come at the expense of a forest, there would not be anything on the label that would tell me that, you know, I wouldn’t know where it was from. I might not even know which country the beef was from. It might be buried in some sort of cryptic barcode or something. Is one step towards helping solve this also the ability to empower consumers by having better labeling laws and enforcing those?

Jonah (40m 59s):
I think it wouldn’t hurt. It wouldn’t hurt to make it help consumers vote with their dollars as you’re saying, but it also puts the burden for knowing quite a bit onto the consumer. I mean, why should you have to know everything about where your food is coming from and the effects that it’s having? It’d be much simpler to just have the cost of the damage to the climate be reflected in the price. And then you would just know that if a product is harming people through climate damage, it would be more expensive.

Natalie (41m 36s):
I think about things that I’ve heard lobbyists come back with throughout the years, it’s always that, you know, like, “well, if we make our product more expensive, people who are sort of socioeconomically disadvantaged are gonna lose out and how can you make this policy that discriminates against them?” And I also know though that when you take the full picture look at what we were talking about happening here, that people who are socioeconomically disadvantaged are already the ones bearing the higher cost of climate change right now. Is that a strong enough argument, you think, to companies who would want to retort that like, “Oh, well, we can’t raise our prices. We can’t possibly take on this cost and this responsibility. That’s not our fault. We’re not in the business of keeping forest we’re in the business of getting beef to your plate.” – for instance. What do you say to that?

Jonah (42m 28s):
It is really important. I mean, who bears the costs and who gets the benefit of policies for climate, including prices on carbon. And what I point to is that if you put a tax on carbon emissions, as you say, that falls on some people harder than others, it falls on poor people, generally harder because they’re the ones spending more of their money on buying carbon-intensive things. But the other half of the story is: having raised all that money, how do you spend it? You can spend it in a way that is pro-poor, that makes people living in poor communities better off. So here in California, there has been for several years a very active cap and trade program that makes carbon pollution, climate pollution, expensive; a little more expensive than it would be because companies have to buy permits in order to pollute, which they didn’t have to before and they don’t have to elsewhere. And that in addition to helping California bring down its climate emissions, it also raises money for California. And California by law has to spend at least a quarter of those proceeds within communities that are designated as being poor or disadvantaged. And so that makes sure that the money gets recycled to those places.

Natalie (44m 1s):
This has been such a really enriching talk for me. And I’m so grateful to you for taking the time and being willing to do this. Is there anything else that you would really like to touch on today?

Jonah (44m 15s):
Well, this has been a lot of fun. Thank you for having me. To sum it all up, I would say we need to have a lot more climate action than we’re seeing currently, in this country and in the world. And that means having less burning of fossil fuels and it also means having less burning of rainforests. The respectful way to do that, as we’ve talked, about is to back up our wish for more forests with the ability to pay for it.

Natalie (44m 44s):
All right. Thank you. Thank you so much. For more about Jonah’s work, follow him on Twitter: @Jonah Bush where you can also find his book, “Why Forests? Why Now?” This is only our first episode, but let us know what you think or what you’d like to see featured. Write us@infoatmagiclinks.com. Also, I’m pretty sure each podcast needs some credits or something, so here are mine: Major thanks to Sarah Anderson, Dylan Labelle, Chloe Castiglioni, Michael Sadorf, Haesil Shin, Brian Nickerson, of course, Jonah Bush — and you, for listening. I’m Natalie and I’m out. ‘Til next time, gang.

End Credits/Music

 

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