Saving forests saves lives

Wanna read a new scientific paper about deforestation? Two brand new ones came out on Thursday.

Read this one first, from Science, if only because it’s only going to be freely available online for two weeks. It’s a fascinating study which shows that if you pay Ugandan forest owners just to keep their forests in existence, that significantly decreases deforestation. And the cost is small: about $20 per hectare per year. A hectare of forest absorbs more than that in carbon each year.

No, per the NYT headline, this is not “a cheap fix for climate change”: we’re going to have to do a lot more than mitigate the pace of deforestation if we want to have a chance at meeting that goal. But it is a reminder that incentives matter, and that at the margin, small sums can tilt the balance in surprisingly meaningful ways.

What’s more, preventing deforestation has substantial benefits which have nothing at all to do with climate change. Indeed, the second paper shows that preventing deforestation saves lives in a very simple and direct manner.

Specifically, there’s a very nasty and untreatable disease called Hantavirus Cardiopulmonary Syndrome (HCPS), which is fatal in more than half of all cases, and which is transmitted by rodents. Those rodents, in turn, tend to get eaten by the diverse range of fauna found in forests, but are particularly happy being able to munch away on vast fields of sugarcane. The result is that if you cut down forest and replace it with sugarcane, you inevitably increase the local rodent population, which in turn directly increases the number of people who are going to die from HCPS.

The point is that there are lots of reasons to preserve the kind of biodiversity that can only be found in forests, and while slowing the rate of climate change is certainly one of them, it’s probably unhelpful to always push it front and center as the main one. The fact is that saving forests saves lives, both directly and indirectly. So let’s do it for that simple and near-term reason, and let’s pay for any necessary incentives through public-health resources rather than climate-related funding. Then the long-term benefits for the planet will be welcome gravy on top.

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