[[posterous-content:pid___0]]Last Monday, a group of 12 scientists from diverse backgrounds published an open letter denouncing the pro-development organisation World Growth and ITS Global, a consulting group with ties to numerous timber companies.
The letter, titled “An Open Letter about Scientific Credibility and the Conservation of Tropical Forests” is directed towards the head of World Growth and ITS, Alan Oxley. “Ambassador” Oxley, as he likes to be known, is a notorious climate denier promoter of deforestation in the name of poverty alleviation. He is also a staunch defender of the palm oil industry in Indonesia and Malaysia and has published many opinion pieces in Forbes, the Jakarta Post, and most prolifically, on the World Growth web site. A former Australian ambassador to the delegation for the General Agreement on Tarrifs and Trade (GATT, now known as the WTO), Oxley’s title has proven to have a longer shelf life than GATT itself. Maybe it’s the palm oil?
The signatories include the Population Bomb author Paul Ehrlich and Nobel laureate Omar Masera. A number of bullet points identify why scientists disagree with Oxley: he says that deforestation is caused by small-scale farmers, scientists say it’s industrialised agriculture; he lobbies on behalf of big timber and palm oil companies; that forests are not diminishing at an alarming rate, scientists say they are.
The past week has served as a back-and-forth sparring match between Oxley and the scientists, amounting to little more than a he-said she-said ping pong ball.
Maybe it’s because there’s one thing missing from the scientists’ letter: The freakin’ science! While the claims of the open letter are most likely true, and meticulously footnoted, there is a strange lack of figures, studies and, well, proof. The closest indication of evidence comes in bullets no. 5 and 7: “recent research has demonstrated that much of the oil palm expansion in Indonesia between 1990 and 2005 came at the expense of native forests” and
“A recent technical report by ITS concluded that ‘There is no evidence of substantial deforestation’ in Papua New Guinea, a conclusion strongly at variance with quantitative, remote-sensing studies of forest conversion published in the refereed scientific literature. Reports from WGI and ITS routinely claim that newly established oil palm plantations sequester carbon more rapidly than do old-growth rainforests. This claim, while technically correct, is a distraction from the reality that mature oil palm plantations store much less carbon than do old-growth rainforests (plantations store just 40-80 tons of biomass aboveground, half of which is carbon, compared to 200,400 tons of aboveground biomass in old-growth rainforests).”
Which leads me to ask: what is the point of having a scientist-penned letter if it simply reads like the very rhetoric it is seeking to disqualify? Maybe the authors felt their message would be heard louder if they dumbed it down a bit, making the assumption that the audience is unable to understand carbon squestration, or energy equations, or kilojoules per hectare. I feel these scientists took the opportunity to do the right thing, but did not use their full potential. Kind of like the pretty girl who doesn’t work hard enough in her photo shoot on America’s Next Top Model.
The letter was picked up by a few fringe environmental publications, including the Greenpeace UK blog, Mongabay and REDD Monitor, as well as the Jakarta Globe and the New York Times’ Dot Earth blog. The Mongabay article is particularly thorough regarding Oxley’s background and his reaction to past and current accusations.
Photo: Indonesian palm oil plantation by a_rabin on Flickr Creative Commons site.