Global Warming and the Minefield of Unintended Consequences

Dubner and Levitt recently wrote a column discussing the unintended consequences of legislation intended to help the neediest segments of society.

Few movements for change have met with as many unintended consequences as the efforts, both in the public and private sector, to combat global warming. Take biofuels (another topic Dubner has addressed here and here). Hailed as the darling of the alternative fuel market, this new energy source, led by the most popular form, ethanol, was declared the solution to burning fossil fuels in 2006. It has since been embraced by companies from luxury car makers to airlines. To meet the growing demand for ethanol, U.S. farmers and agribusiness firms invested millions in growing corn (a move that has already come back to bite them financially). Biofuels have become such a staple of international plans to combat climate change, reports the Times, that governments are even legislating and subsidizing their use:

The EU has mandated that countries use 5.75 percent biofuel for transport by the end of 2008. In the United States, a proposed energy package would require that 15 percent of all transport fuels be made from biofuel by 2022. To reach these goals, biofuels production is heavily subsidized at many levels on both continents.

Fantastic! A worldwide movement to cut emissions and halt what a growing number of scientists call a massive global crisis. Except it all hit a roadblock last week, when two newly-released studies reported that the net environmental effect of using biofuels may be even more harmful than burning the gasoline they were created to replace.

The first study, led by Princeton University environment and economics researcher Timothy Searchinger, found that replacing fossil fuels with corn-based ethanol could actually double greenhouse gas emissions for the next thirty years. As Scientific American writer David Biello explains it:

“Prior analyses made an accounting error,” says [Searchinger]. … “There is a huge imbalance between the carbon lost by plowing up a hectare [2.47 acres] of forest or grassland from the benefit you get from biofuels.”

Growing plants store carbon in their roots, shoots and leaves. As a result, the world’s plants and the soil in which they grow contain nearly three times as much carbon as the entire atmosphere. …

By turning crops such as corn, sugarcane and palm oil into biofuels – whether ethanol, biodiesel, or something else – proponents hope to reap the benefits of the carbon soaked up as the plants grow to offset the carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted when the resulting fuel is burned. But whether biofuels emit more or less CO2 than gasoline depends on what the land they were grown on was previously used for…

The second study, led by Joseph Fargione, a scientist at the Nature Conservancy, found that by switching to biofuels, we could essentially be worsening climate change for the next 93 years, in that “[t]he clearance of grassland releases 93 times the amount of greenhouse gas that would be saved by the fuel made annually on that land,” according to the Times. Not to mention the fact that, by switching to growing corn, U.S. farmers have turned away from growing other crops, such as soy. As a result, Fargione told the Times, “‘Brazilian farmers are planting more of the world’s soybeans – and they’re deforesting the Amazon to do it.'”

So in a matter of days, biofuels go from a celebrated fossil fuels alternative to a rainforest-killing disaster, with scientists already calling for government reform on biofuel policies. If anything, this provides a window into how little we actually know about this issue, and the wide lengths left to go in reaching a viable solution.


mgroves has used the phrase "begging the question" correctly. I believe that is an Internet first.


Corn is horrible for the topsoil. I really wish they could find another crop that could be grown here and produce ethanol...anything but corn.


Has anyone done any kind of study claiming that conserving fuel actually costs us money? I base this on two facts - 1- we will come up with another fuel just about the time we run out of oil and 2-you get less for your buck with each passing year. SO say the price of gas does not go up (!)- a gallon of gas in today's dollars is $3, in 5 years, that $3 will only buy 2/3 of a gallon.....we know we're gonna run out anyway, so let's use it up in today's dollars and get on to the next fuel source.....


I take exception to the comment "a growing number of scientists call a massive global crisis" actually it seems to me that that the recent growth in opinion goes the other way. Say if you will that "a majority of scientist" or "a large number of scientists" or "a large group of true believers" call a massive global crisis, but I really don't think the number of scientists with this belief system has grown significantly.


All of this is begging the question that there is a global crisis in the first place. It's *all* nonsense if anthropological global warming doesn't exist (or its effect is trivially small).


It's like when the guys approach me on the street with a picture of a polar bear and ask if I want to contribute to saving them by stopping global warming. As noted elsewhere in the NYT, we shoot somewhere over 40 polar bears a year just around Hudson's Bay. That number far exceeds those which would be saved in any year in that area by slowing global warming.

Remember the Corps of Engineeers? For decades they straightened out rivers, even lining areas with concrete to improve flow. Oops.

Or as Fitzgerald closed The Great Gatsby with, "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."


Unfortunately, much of the world's sugar is grown on former rain forest lands in places like Brazil.

Cutting down rain forests releases more carbon dioxide than any other type of deforestation. Additionally, the soils of the rain forest are often quite poor for farming, so excess fertilizers must be used to get a good yield.


This is a big argument for a free-market solution. Slap a giant tax on all carbon emissions (including gasoline), rebate 100% of the revenue on a per-capita basis, and let good-old-fashioned innovation and economic processes sort it out. Then we don't have to worry about the details of ethanol policy and how it relates to agriculture or the rest of the economy.


It's a pretty sad state of affairs. What's also interesting to look at as far as the cash-cropping agriculture we see everywhere today is that in order to keep production high enough, more and more fertilizer (read: nitrogen) needs to be used to keep the soil at a high nutrient level. To get this we need to expend large amounts of energy, i.e. fossil fuels, to pull stable nitrogen out of the air and convert it to ammonia (if the fertilizer will be sprayed) and further to urea, which is a solid granule to be spread. In the process of converting the ammonia to urea, hydrogen gas is given off as a by-product. Harness that hydrogen on a large scale (and there is a LOT of nitrogen fertilizer being made around the world) and then we'll have some much cleaner energy - it makes all that oil used to make the fertilizer a little more worth it.


This is exactly what happens when a politically motivated solution is picked out instead of letting market competition work.

And Lafsky curves ... mmmmmm... .

the Gooch

...although we might achieve some miniscule level of retardation through our greenhouse gas reduction efforts.

Quote of the Day!!


Biofuels can indeed be carbon-neutral - if the agricultural machinery that tills, tends and harvests them runs on biofuel; if the processing plant runs off the by-products; and if the fuel is transported by biofuelled vehicles.

Sounds a long shot, but this exactly what happens in Brazil. With sugar cane, which is - mostly - cultivated sustainably in suitable soils with sufficient rainfall. There are, of course, plenty of places where it isn't, but we'll gloss over that.

Brazil's standard gasoline blend is 15-20% ethanol; most cars can run on any blend, and many run on 100% ethanol if its cheaper locally. They've been doing this for decades and no, Brazil isn't a rich country that can subsidise commercial farmers. So they don't: it's a business, and a profitable one.

I bet that there are Americans who would be furious to hear that theres a 30-Cent per gallon tariff against Brazilian cane ethanol. Ethanol is competitive with gasoline - as a pure fuel or as a gasoline additive - at current prices. Cheaper, even, given the USA's refining capacity shortage.

However, it's been made clear to the Brazilians that their agricultural products aren't welcome in America, and that tariffs wil be set as high as they need to be to shut them out of the world's largest market for transportation fuel.

So there you have it: an indirect tax on your gasoline - your government decreed that you'll pay more than you have to, and that sounds like a tax to me; economic warfare against a geopolitical ally and a major trading partner; and ecological damage due to growing an unsuitable crop on poor soil when there's an alternative crop well-suited to the country they're growing it in.

The biofuel-subsidies-for-votes programme has other unintended effects, too: it increases America's dependence on the Gulf states' industrial base. You see, corn needs fertiliser to grow any worthwhile yield in the Midwest, and the USA is no longer self-sufficient in Nitrogen fertilisers. It's imported from Dubai and Kuwait, where all that natural gas is being used - inefficiently - as fuel for the synthesis of ammonia. With lots more greenhouse gas emissions (C02 and methane, which is worse) than the old hydroelectric Haber-process plants that used to do the job.

I bet the scientists missed that one out of their calculations.



The number of scientist who believe that man is causing the warming is shrinking on a daily basis. And more and more reports are coming out against the dooms-dayers. For instance, recent research of observed data has shown that the number of hurricanes in a warmer climate decrease in numbers and severity. And now th opportunist say that all of the recent cold snaps in China and elsewhere are the result of global warming. How weird is that, warmer means colder!!!!! Is it any wonder the argument of the greeneis holds less and less water every day. That don't even listen to themselves speak.


Will, I completely agree, and this is where both Democrats and Republicans get it wrong. Democrats work too hard to have government find the solution; Republicans work too hard to keep government from imposing a new cost into a market.

According to the consenus of the best science of today, man is causing global warming by emitting carbon dioxide. Since carbon emissions are currently "free" and borne in non-economic ways, the only realistic way to "charge" for carbon is either a cap and trade or a tax (they're essentially the same if priced correctly). If you make the new cost revenue neutral (by reducing income taxes), the government incents work and discourages carbon emitting. Boom! "Green collar" jobs. When you combine that with people avoiding carbon taxes by driving less, living closer to work and living in smaller homes, you've also addressed issues ranging from land use to traffic to an increasingly constrained electric grid.

The key, of course, is that EVERYTHING must be subject to the carbon tax (or cap). Electric usage, plowing under farmland to build a subdivision, pumping a gallon of gas; all of these things must be part of the carbon budget. If the cost is set correctly, the market will find the most effective way to decrease the cost (so long as the government doesn't re-get involved and cave to special interests seeking exemptions and subsidies). Based on the ideas above, in the near-term, we'll likely see increased focused on energy efficiency, redevelopment vs. sprawl, conservation of existing open space and nuclear power; all carbon friendly practices that can be implemented with current technology. Over the long-term, continued research and expansion of renewable power in wind, solar, wave and geothermal become more important, as do clean coal projects, fuel cells and other farther off technologies. While the market solutions will be complex and varied, the role of government mandates is relatively straightforward: internalize a cost to the market, and let the market work.


There are a lot of "unintended consequences of legislation." Low flow toilets are one such unintended consequence. Legislation was passed to save water by reducing the allowed flow of water in residential toilets. That is why you get a powerful flush from a public toilet versus a puny flush at home. The unintended consequence is that you often have to flush more than once (multiple flushes resulting in more water used), and toilets get clogged more often, resulting in unnecessary plumbing bills.


The article makes a nice point, but why is this an "unintended consequence"? An unintended consequence would be the skyrocketing price of cooking oil in poor countries. The two studies suggest that scientists were simply wrong about biofuels -- they won't reduce carbon emissions.


Efforts to "combat" global warming will accomplish nothing *but* unintended consequences. What else could you possibly expect when trying to control a system we don't (and possibly never will) completely understand, to "fix" a problem we aren't sure is there?


"A good intuitive economist approaches a practical problem by asking 'What is the relevant scarcity hindering a better outcome?' If we haven't posed this query, and assembled at least the beginnings of an answer, we may founder. For instance, we might make the mistake of throwing more money at a problem, when money is not what is needed. By identifying the relevant scarcity, we learn where to direct the incentives."

Lyn LeJeune

I am not a scientists; I am an observer of what happened to the Louisiana coast because of global warming and extreme neglect and the unintended consequences when both exist together. Here is is:

In the summers of my youth, my father woke my entire family up at exactly 4 a.m. every Saturday morning. We packed our lunch, usually pop rouge (red pop) and baloney sandwiches, piled into our old black Buick and headed to the bayous about 20 miles south of Abbeville, La. We loaded up the boat my father had built with his own hands and sped southward down the Vermilion River, into Vermilion Bay, and then hooked east to Cote Blanche Bay. There we fished for drum and red snapper and seined for shrimp.
The water was cool in the morning and only the surface warmed by lunchtime; if you plunged your hand in the water or dove in from the front of the boat, as we usually did, the water was frigid and clean and clear. Even now, when I close my eyes, I see the movement of baby shrimp, crab, sand sharks, the simple trilling of life. On the distant shore, flights of egrets and gulls and pelicans took wing, descending in search of the silver fish that nourished them, banking and circling the newly installed oil rigs. I will always remember this pure celebration of life. No child could have asked for finer days.
When my children were young, we traveled from New England to south Louisiana so that my father could take us all to Cote Blanche Bay for a day of fishing. He was hesitant, but, as many mothers do, I wanted my children to experience those same days of joy that I had. Mothers are often naïve in their children's interests. The water was dirty and fouled. Glycerin slicks and sludge and garbage floated around the boat as we released the winch and my son walked with the boat into the water, only to make a quick retreat at what he imagined was an alligator nudging his leg. It was a rusted Shell oil can.
The land along the bayou was dotted with abandoned rigs; solitary black pumps emitted noise and the aroma of crooked civilization. Where once there had existed the loud cry of the nutria, the honk of the alligator, the call of the peregrine falcon, now there was the monotonous swish of lift pumps left to draw off oil and gas from the heart of the marshlands. What I remember most from that day is the look on my daughter's face; it was as though I had told her a fairy tale that took place in a landscape much like purgatory.
The following day, we drove from Abbeville towards New Orleans, crossing over the once pristine and life-filled Atchafalaya Basin, which had already become known as "Cancer Alley." I felt that we had reached Dante's seventh circle of hell.
That the levees surrounding New Orleans broke, that the bayou communities were swept away by Katrina and Rita, should have surprised no one. Stentorian alarms had been sounded for years. During the past few weeks, we've heard from every politician and bureaucrat on every level of government stating that one of the causes was the erosion of the wetlands and by doggit (one really said that) something must be done. Those who have expressed surprise or play-acted their own personal incredulity are either bad liars or have long ago turned their backs on their responsibilities, giving over to the corrupting force of money and position. Even a child can see what they have refused to see and hear, what we as a people have refused to see and hear.
Is it too late to save the coast of Louisiana? I can't answer that. But I will say this; that if we, the public, the voters, the citizens, do not hold those in power, those who hold the purse strings, those who call the shots accountable, not only will we lose the coastline of the Gulf of Mexico, we will lose the very life that sustains our species and this country, the wetlands.
It is not that we do not know what should be done; it is that we have lost our will to succeed at greater purposes. I fear that Katrina and Rita will become not an impetus to change but an excuse: Times are bad all over, money is tight, there are fewer and fewer jobs, war takes the resources. The federal deficit is so deep it should be called the crimson tide. Poor and not so poor and even rich countries used to come begging to us, now we go begging and borrowing from what was once considered the "Third World" - China and South Korea and South America. When the politicians and grossly rich private sector starts thinking that the people - you know us - may not vote for them next election cycle or not buy their products, they start bandying about and using that word: you know, the one we teach out children - responsibility. Only they've become a little more sophisticated and all we hear now is about accountability.
Yes, someone must be held accountable for what long ago happened and is still happening to the coast of Louisiana. And someone must be made accountable for making it better. Americans know who must be held accountable, whose feet should be held to the fire until they are on fire. We don't need a civics lesson at this late date. If we do not act, speak up, write, vote, participate, then it will be our feet, and the feet of our children, that will be on fire. And there may come a day when there will be nothing left to douse the flames.
Lyn LeJeune
The Beatitudes Network- Rebuilding the Public Libraries of New Orleans, The Beatitudes, The New Orleans Chronicles, and more at



I have to echo what Lyn Lejeune said above. It may not be a scientifically valid study, but I grew up on the Chattahoochee river in Georgia, that used to be a large river with alligators, snakes, fish, turtles, and other creatures by the millions. Now, it is barely a stream, polluted, and unsafe to eat from or swim in, and few of the animals left. You don't have to be a left wing environmental radical to see that there is something severely wrong when we treat our environment like this. Yes, growth is a wonderful thing, but it has to be done smartly. Ever read Jared Diamond's books? He's no enviromental nut, but he convincingly shows how cultures that fail to take care of their enviornment always collapse.