John Muir, who (among other things) was instrumental in the nascent U.S. National Park movement, has been quoted as saying, "Nothing dollarable is safe." With due respect, perhaps Mr. Muir had it wrong. Perhaps the inverse is true: Only the dollarable is safe.
From an economic perspective, the problem of regulating human-perturbed climate change is clear. Economic actors do not internalize the negative external costs of their private transactions, i.e., the cost of climate change is not considered when pricing goods and services. Why? Without effort, the economic actor can allow the public commons to bear the cost. In other words, the cost of pollution is subsidized by individuals, corporations, and governments outside of the immediate transaction concerning the economic actor / polluter, and there is no rational need for the polluting actor to consider such costs.
Recent research shows that the owners and keepers of forested land are bearing these costs. Werner Kurz, of the Canadian Forest Service, recently gave a talk during which he stated that carbon emissions have increased 40% since pre-industrial levels. In addition, global forests have been absorbing or offsetting around 27% of annual fossil fuel emissions. Unfortunately, the increase in atmospheric carbon creates conditions harmful for forests, meaning that we are losing forests to climate change. This creates a negative feedback cycle: when trees die, they release stored carbon, accelerating climate change, which kills more trees, which release more carbon, etc.
In addition, this Scientific American article claims that U.S. forests offset 11% of the nation's industrial greenhouse gas emissions -- the equivalent of removing half (or 135 million!) of the nation's vehicles from the road each year. The USDA and the National Association of State Foresters estimate that the nation's forests store 41.1 billion metric tons of carbon. Being good economic actors themselves, why should forestland owners be expected to provide this service free of cost to the world's greenhouse-gas emitters?
Recent attempts to address this issue (e.g., the cap-and-trade legislation of 2010) have failed. In the United States, the Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX) operated as a voluntary market, wherein members agreed to lower their emissions and to trade carbon financial instruments. However, following Congressional failure to make any progress on regulating carbon emissions, the CCX closed its cap-and-trade exchange last year.
The truth of the matter is that everyone who owns a tree is subsidizing the activities of those whose business emits greenhouse gases. Whether that subsidy is limited to the tree's inherent ability to "scrub" the air of carbon through the process of photosynthesis or whether the subsidy extends to the loss of forest habitat due to climate change, forestland owners bear the cost of carbon emissions.
Forestland owners deserve to be compensated for this service, and the only way to ensure that compensation is through federal legislation and regulation.
I know that cap-and-trade legislation, carbon emissions, and climate change are opinion-generating topics ... so, what's yours? Leave a comment and let me know!