Friday, July 19, 2013

Uttarakhand: A prelude to climate catastrophes?

Each year, when the thaw sets in the Himalyan Valley of Uttarakhand, piligrims flock to the holy temples in the region, such as Kedarnath. This year was no different. Except, the holy shrine of Kedarnath, which is over thousand years old, turned into a grave site with bodies piled up around its structure. The cause: unprecedented flash floods that have devastated the region. Hundreds have died and nearly 6,000 people are missing. An online search engine of “Uttarakhand” will provide several news reports and op-eds on the scale of the devastation. The big question is what caused the floods? It is unclear. The Government of India has set up a committee to do a post-mortem. In the meantime, let us assume that global warming may be one reason, since scientists have predicted these kinds of sudden weather changes as a consequence of climate change. What this catastrophe then illustrates is the vulnerability of people living in nations such as India (and no doubt elsewhere, too).

Since the floods occurred suddenly, there was no room to warn or evacuate before the floods and the ensuing landslides occurred. People were stranded in dangerous terrains in a region that is already difficult to access. As roads and houses collapsed into the water, hundreds were drowned and thousands stranded. The Indian Army’s rescue operations were greatly impeded by unexpected rainfall. Neither prevention nor effective rescue was possible.

For locals in the region, this human tragedy is marked by huge economic loss, as well. Tourism (and hydroelectricity) is a major source of income. The floods hit the region during peak tourist season, causing significant loss of income. The only hope is that the reconstruction process will create jobs, but the human cost at which this may occur makes it a small consolation.

The floods also illustrate the difficulty facing countries such as India in adapting to climate change to avert catastrophic consequences. Thousands of people have to be re-located and buildings re-built. In a region where seasonal tourism or hydro electric power are key sources of income, the cost of such measures may outweigh the risks, at least in the short term. If re-location within the region is not possible, then the question is whether people can be absorbed into other regions. Such a move could also trigger economic concerns, such as finding employment for those re-located.

Any inadequate adaptation action, especially when combined with unsatisfactory rescue operations could chill travel, if such events increase, and result in people staying put. This will doubly affect the local population, who will lose their source of income even as they become increasingly vulnerable to climate change consequences. At that point, no legal intervention can possibly ensure that those affected receive proportionate remedies.

Uttarakhand should serve as a wake up call. To ensure that justice, even considered in the loosest sense, is denied to people such as those affected in Uttarkhand, a proper action plan on climate change is urgently needed. Finger pointing will not resurrect the dead.


July 19, 2013 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, July 18, 2013

"A Terrifying, Fascinating Timelapse of 30 Years of Human Impact on Earth"

You can use the tool/view the images here. Here is what the tool is:

"Since the 1970s, NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey have been amassing satellite images of every inch of our planet as part of the Landsat program. Over time, the images reveal a record of change: of cities expanding, lakes and forests disappearing, new islands emerging from the sea off the coast of rising Middle East metropolises like Dubai."

There is a tool at this site that allows you to "zoom in to any spot on the planet – your hometown, the Amazon, your favorite Chinese mega-city – and watch the same three-decade timelapse unroll. Good luck getting anything done for the rest of the day."

Indeed, compare the images below of my hometown of Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1984 and 2012. 

Baton Rouge Combined

I have previously blogged/halfway joked about humans behaving as a virus. But spending a little time on this site makes that perspective a little less funny.

- Blake Hudson

July 18, 2013 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, July 15, 2013

The Moral Case for "Wealth Destroying" Limitations on Property Rights - From Slavery to Leopold

Last Thursday, at the Economics Institute for Law Professors (which I earlier discussed here), Terry Anderson of the Property and Environment Research Center gave a fantastic presentation on "free market environmentalism." Anderson admitted that this was somewhat of an unfortunate phrase as it signals an open-ended, silver bullet market-driven approach to environmental protection. But the basic premise of this type of environmentalism is that markets harnessing property rights can provide protections for the environment above and beyond what government would be able to accomplish through regulation. And indeed, Anderson highlighted numerous compelling examples where regulatory intervention led to environmentally destructive unintended consequences, whereas environmental gains would have been achieved if markets had been allowed to work freely.

But another point of Anderson's talk, at least in my interpretation, is that under many (if not most) circumstances, rather than "destroying wealth" of property owners through regulation that prohibits them from using their environmental resources (through, say, creating pollution or engaging in potentially unsustainable extractive activities), we should just pay them not to pollute or not to unsustainably extract. And, of course, there are many examples of successful policies based on paying landowners to preserve positive externalities.

During the talk, however, an interesting point was raised. A professor made the point that she was having a hard time reconciling the view of property rights whereby markets can efficiently resolve all conflicts with the history of slavery in the U.S. In other words, pure markets likely would have perpetuated slavery since in the absence of "wealth destroying" regulations on slave-owner property rights we would have had to rely on the federal government or others opposed to slavery to make it more profitable for slave-owners to sell slaves (who would then be freed by the purchaser) than to retain slaves. First, of course, the pure economics of this potential "transaction" (which Anderson admitted was a cold and calculating way to engage in this discussion, and he handled the whole difficult conversation with great sensitivity) would weigh heavily in favor of perpetuating slavery because the abolitionists would have had an incredibly difficult time raising the capital required to free all of the slaves. Second, and far more importantly, the pure economic, market analysis says nothing of the injustice or the lack of morality of slavery. Slave abolition, or "wealth destroying" regulation (or the fact that we went to war over the issue), on the other hand, made a definitive normative statement about the morality of slavery. Abolition said that we as a society - as a collective - believe slavery is wrong and notwithstanding very real (but ultimately artificially created) property interests and technical "wealth destruction" aimed at slave owners we will no longer accept the practice.

By way of example, and looking again through the cold and calculating lens of property rights (though unjust), consider the technical values citizens in 1863 gave to slaves in my home county in Alabama, as depicted in the following image:

Clarke County Slavery

Compare the estimated value of land, at roughly $1.9 million, with the estimated value of slaves, at roughly $3.5 million. Thus, when looked at through a pure property perspective, Anderson described that regulatory abolition of slavery technically destroyed a great amount of wealth for some property owners, the slave owners, and redistributed it to other, new "property" owners, the slaves (where the property in question was freedom from slavery). Of course, Anderson highlighted that the moral case against slavery justified for American citizens the destruction of wealth for some and its redistribution to others. The moral case demanded this approach, whereas a pure economic, market-driven approach may have supported another approach in the form of purchasing slaves and freeing them.

The difficulty this posed to me in assessing Anderson's presentation is that it is difficult to see how the logic of environmental regulation is different. Let me be clear, human rights and slavery should be a far higher priority than clean air or water - because without basic human dignity and civil rights the environment we live in cannot be protected or at least cannot be protected through credible government action (how can a government protect the environment without first protecting the rights of its citizens?). Nonetheless, why should we under all circumstances pay others not to pollute or unsustainably extract? Is there a moral case that in some circumstances landowners should be prevented from doing so, and should not be paid as a result? While I am actually quite in favor of environmental markets, promotion of ecosystem service markets, and the internalization of environmental externalities that have long been excluded from the market (and am also a rural forestland property owner), I also believe that there are some circumstances where regulatory limits are the most effective means, and the normative, morally correct approach, to balancing private rights with the public interest. I have discussed this in a historical, descriptive context here. Take, for example, an urban growth boundary aimed at preventing urban sprawl, even though a landowner on the outside of the boundary now maintains property worth $1,000 an acre while a property owner just inside the boundary maintains property worth $10,000 an acre. Perhaps some short-term economic wealth is destroyed for the property owner outside the boundary, but long-term wealth is gained by society at large and future generations (in the form of access to natural capital like forests, wetlands, open space, and biodiversity and also in the form of reduced air and water pollution and a variety of other environmental harms).

This was largely the point of Leopold's "land ethic," that the rights and ethics that have been extended to minorities, women, laboring children and others over time should eventually be extended to the land and environment - that there is a moral case for environmental protection. In this view, regulation may very well "destroy wealth" of property owners who might otherwise pollute or unsustainably extract and redistribute it not only to the current public to enjoy but also to future generations who later have access to those resources and an unpolluted environment. But it is also a moral mandate, rather than something that can or should always be left to market transactions compensating polluters and unsustainable extractors from undertaking those activities (of course, one of Anderson's very compelling points is that politicians creating regulations often sacrifice the environmental wealth of future generations in order to make short-term economic and other gains. In other words, governments may, and often do, wield regulatory tools irresponsibly with regards to the environment - and this is where the market can come in and do far better).

Ultimately, once we admit that there is one moral case for regulatory limits on property rights (such as in the case of slavery), then there must be other cases that warrant deeper analysis than we have historically undertaken. We may argue over the morals that drive those choices, of course, as people have many different perspectives on moral justifications for limiting the rights of others (including property owners). But when I consider my children and the climate-changed, highly populated, increasingly paved, and resource stressed world they will live in, it is difficult for me not to view environmental conservation as a moral imperative. An imperative upon which "liberals," who stereotypically prefer regulation, and "libertarians" and "conservatives," who stereotypically prefer markets, can agree. And perhaps this is the hope - that regulation and markets can work together to make a better world and a better future.

- Blake Hudson

July 15, 2013 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)