The Case for Correct Logic

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Michael Grunwald of Time Magazine recently published a new, rather self-serving article in the Washington Monthly, filled with distorted logic and mangled facts. His portrayal of Tim Searchinger as a humble lawyer who experienced an epiphany about biofuels is disingenuous at best. While now a visiting scholar at Princeton University, Tim Searchinger was formerly a lobbyist for the Environmental Defense Action Fund and was intimately involved in lobbying key Members of Congress during the drafting of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) today characterized the inclusion of indirect land use as "an eleventh-hour, backroom change to the energy bill." One of Grunwald's more egregious claims is that biofuels have "ratcheted up deforestation rates through a chain reaction that Searchinger and I witnessed on a visit to the Amazon." How precisely does one "witness" a claimed indirect effect, occurring on a global scale, through a visit to the Amazon? This claim is as unsupported as that made by the EPA in its Notice of Proposed Rule:

there is considerable overall certainty as to the existence of the land use changes in general, the fact that GHG emissions will result, and the cause and effect linkage of these emissions impacts to the increased use of feedstock for production of renewable fuels."

The EPA certainly hasn't footnoted this assertion. And the paragraph that follows it maintains that the EPA is confident of the cause and effect connection due to the modeling (See Federal Register, Vol. 74, No. 99, Tuesday, May 26, 2009, Proposed Rules, p.25024). But the causal connection is one of the assumptions of the model; it would create circular logic then to claim that the model was proof of the causal connection. According to Grunwald, Searchinger's previous epiphany was that "in a world with 6.7 billion mouths to feed, when you use an acre of farmland to grow fuel, somewhere an acre of something else is probably going to be converted into new farmland to grow food." And Searchinger's latest epiphany is that as world population increases to 9 billion, "we're going to need the world's farmland to produce as much sustenance as possible on as little ground as possible, so that we can leave the Amazon alone." Therefore, he concludes, we need to consolidate agricultural production and oppose biofuels. The problem with that logic is that the Amazon and other rainforests exist in places where population is growing fastest. If agricultural production is consolidated in the United States or in Brazil, how would those growing populations afford to buy it? This particular "epiphany" courtesy of Karl Marx has stood the test of time pretty well. I guess we can be thankful he was an economist and not a lobbyist. Oversimplification of the relationship between biofuel production and deforestation ill-serves efforts to protect the rainforest. Grunwald's argument that "we're better off burning gasoline on a warming planet than using land as a substitute" would be true if and only if stopping biofuel production could directly prevent deforestation. There are too many direct causes of deforestation -- including land clearing for subsistence farming to feed growing populations who have no other way of feeding themselves -- standing in the way.