Unintended Consequences

We’ve all felt the sting of unintended consequences, likely in our personal lives if nowhere else. Perhaps in choosing something that’s demonstrably right for ourselves, we’ve disappointed someone else. Perhaps in seeking a single over-arching goal, we’ve sacrificed other important even if less visible ones. Perhaps by being too conservative, too risk-averse, we’ve lost the chance for creative disruption, reorganization, and deeper growth.

Unintended consequences can happen with policy decisions as well. A striking example of unintended consequences arose after Western nations initiated plans to reduce carbon emissions by using vegetable oil in fuels.

“Most of the plantations around us were new, their rise a direct consequence of policy decisions made half a world away. In the mid-2000s, Western nations, led by the United States, began drafting environmental laws that encouraged the use of vegetable oil in fuels — an ambitious move to reduce carbon dioxide and curb global warming. But these laws were drawn up based on an incomplete accounting of the true environmental costs. Despite warnings that the policies could have the opposite of their intended effect, they were implemented anyway, producing what now appears to be a calamity with global consequences.

The tropical rain forests of Indonesia, and in particular the peatland regions of Borneo, have large amounts of carbon trapped within their trees and soil. Slashing and burning the existing forests to make way for oil-palm cultivation had a perverse effect: It released more carbon. A lot more carbon. NASA researchers say the accelerated destruction of Borneo’s forests contributed to the largest single-year global increase in carbon emissions in two millenniums, an explosion that transformed Indonesia into the world’s fourth-largest source of such emissions. Instead of creating a clever technocratic fix to reduce American’s carbon footprint, lawmakers had lit the fuse on a powerful carbon bomb that, as the forests were cleared and burned, produced more carbon than the entire continent of Europe. The unprecedented palm-oil boom, meanwhile, has enriched and emboldened many of the region’s largest corporations, which have begun using their newfound power and wealth to suppress critics, abuse workers and acquire more land to produce oil.


The unfolding disaster in Indonesia suggests that rigorous science and a much more sophisticated level of thinking need to undergird policy on global climate change.

What we have now, under the administration of shoot-from-the-hip Trump, is nothing resembling that.

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