An Open Letter to US Interior Secretary Jewell on the Preservation of the Wild

In response to the recent call by the Wilderness Society for people to write to US Interior Secretary, Sally Jewell, to preserve America’s wildest spaces, in particular from industrial development such as energy drilling, I have written and sent the open letter below. It is rather rambling, but espouses many of the points I’ve made over the years on this blog of the importance of the non-economic aspects of the ecosystem services of nature such as the cultural and health services as well as the critical life support regulatory functions that these systems provide. This speaks to the importance of preserving wild systems that is beyond economic valuation and about maintaining the wild biotic processes that have maintained the chemical and physical balances of our planets life support systems from local to global scales.

The Letter

Dear Secretary Jewell,

I know I am not from the United States (US), but the US can and does serve as a world leader on many fronts, and the world needs influential and powerful environmental leaders to show how environmental management can and should be done—turning theoretical best practices, informed by quality science, into reality. I am also writing to you from an ecological systems perspective merged into the notion of regulatory ecosystem services, which is not often voiced (more often you hear about the natural capital/economic valuation aspects of ecosystem services), so I hope you will consider this letter.

It is only since around the 1960’s that work in Earth and atmospheric science started to lead to a scientific paradigm shift of the world as a complex and interconnected system (Lovelock gives a good review of this in his initial book on the Gaia Hypothesis, which may sound hoaky, but the title is just a nod to the ancient Greeks in name, but overlies some solid systems science). In this Earth system, we have come to observe that humans are not just subject to large physical drivers (like things like Earth and solar (Milankovich) cycles and volcanism that help to shape climate), but we humans are also, collectively, drivers and shapers of the environment ourselves from local to global scales. Now that there are so many of us roaming the Earth with population growth, and now that we are so efficient and effective in conducting industrial processes upon the land, we need to improve our rules of engagement with Earth systems so that we don’t sabotage the very ground we stem from.

We have come to see how humans, though miniscule individually, can collectively influence large physical processes on Earth like the climate through things like incremental effects on atmospheric and oceanic chemistry, as well as incremental changes to land use. This paradigm shift is starting to make its way into human spheres like the newish field of ecological economics and our notions of how to do conservation (like the work on planetary boundaries by the Stockholm Resilience Center: http://goo.gl/w7MU3p). This is great, but there is urgency to take what we know from science and better risk manage our Earth systems, for, with our growth over the last 100 years in population and industrial capacity, we are affecting Earth’s physical and ecological systems at an unprecedented rate in history.

One of the areas where not only humanity, but all the biological systems of the Earth, urgently need help, is from environmental regulators and policy makers, like you. We need you to be informed and be strong to protect wild ecological systems so they can continue not only being beautiful places that speak to our sense of aesthetics, nourishing and healing retreats that increase our health as research is increasingly showing, but also because living systems beyond humanity form a central part of the critical life support system of the Earth.

Thank you for your work to update many of the outdated practices and policies within the US Interior Department. Most importantly, I appreciate your commitment to conservation and recognition that there are places in America that truly are ‘Too Wild to Drill’. I’m not sure what you mean by “wild” exactly, but I will tell you what I mean by wild taken from a paper I recently wrote (here: https://integrales.files.wordpress.com/2014/12/marialavis-humanneedandrighttonature-2014-12.pdf in the glossary at the end), which is a systems perspective on the root of the word stemming from ‘self-willed’, of an ecological system that is complex, self-directed, self-regulating, and autopoetic.

North American ‘wild’ places are not just pretty, or important for traditional conservation reasons, but they are vital systems that help to form the self-regulating fabric of the natural world.

Wild systems stem from an ancient original source beyond human control, and these systems are critical because they help to form the collective Earth biotic system and collective biotic driver of large emergent complex global systems like atmospheric climate and oceanic chemistry, of which some parts of these systems have maintained homeostasis in the face of the forces of entropy for billions of years. A homeostasis that humans are now threatening. The degredation of wild systems is part of this systemic threat that our activities pose to Earth systems. How local wild spaces collectively act to create and help regulate certain global homeostatic mechanisms (like the regulation of oxygen in the atmosphere that wouldn’t even be there without biotic photosynthesis) is still beyond complete human understanding, but obviously of central importance to the continuing of life on Earth.

Now, more than ever, we need to come together as people and as nations, to help ensure that the physical and chemical life support system functionality roles that are inherent in ecosystems are preserved.

What this means to me and to many systems scientists is that we need to preserve spaces—on our land and in our waterways—where wild systems can flourish so that they can continue performing their ancient role of systemic regulation from the local to global scales. This also means that now, more than ever, we need your leadership to ensure others within the agency also understand the broader role these places play in our lives.

Our public lands are where children learn to explore the outdoors and meet science face to face. These are the places we find solitude from the hurried world around us, places we know we can turn to for recreation, hunting and fishing. Places we can turn to for psychological and spiritual recharging. (Please also see my paper for a review of recent research on the importance to human health of natural systems, from nature next door to the wilds.) Our public lands are something we count on to be accessible for years to come. Public lands are also something that we depend on collectively across the Earth to keep the ecological systems fabric functioning. To afford us and future generations these experiences, I encourage you to push for better land protection designations for places that are Too Wild to Drill and encourage this practice not only in Washington, D.C., but also in the local and state decisions out west.

I work as an environmental consultant, writing environmental assessments and advising not only governments and energy companies on energy policy. I’ve been busy doing this job and not done a lot of political work, but what I have learned in my profession is that the existing regulatory environment is not enough to safeguard wild systems against the kinds of growing population and industrial pressures that constantly press to carry forward old ideas such as ‘exploiting’ natural systems for our benefit. We need people like you to lay the groundwork policy for a “full world”, in the words of Herman Daly, to redraw the boundaries of what we safely can and cannot do so that we do not sabotage our own success.

Haven’t we run to the end of the colonialist, exploitative, way of looking at natural systems? Haven’t we had enough of seeing ‘nature’ as an enemy to be conquered. I think that day has come. We have won. But, as they say, watch what you wish for. Humans have wished for mastery over the Earth, and in pursuing this, we may spell our own demise since, despite the claims of geoengineers, we do not really understand how complex and interconnected Earth systems work from local to global scales, and because of this, we need to preserve them, functionally intact. Would navy officers on a submarine seek to exploit their sub to the point of sabotaging their own life support systems? Or, would they do whatever it takes to ensure that the chemical and physical factors that keep them afloat and alive are protected? We need to look at our wild spaces, not just as pretty landscapes or natural resources to be economically exploited, but as vital biotic systems that chemically and physically regulate our environment, and without which, life as we know it would no longer exist. We need to get smart policies going, informed by the best of what we know in science, and we need to push back on special economic interests that look to continue the cycle of exploitation, which has now run its course. We need to lay down the boundaries and be strong to the forces which seek to continue their tradition of success in exploiting the Earth, because there are systemic limits to the Earth’s biotic capacity to regulate. Just as a human can succumb to incremental stresses and have health impacted, so can the wild systems of the Earth be affected through our incremental systemic pressures. Is this a chance we want to take, to keep pushing the bar? What kind of sailor would want to mess around with their oxygen system? I can’t think of any. We need to help re-frame these issues of the preservation of the wild in systems terms. This is defensible science. It is credible and it also make sense with risk management. It doesn’t mean energy drilling is bad, it just means that there are limits to certain kind of activities that the wild systems can bear, and to protect the functioning of these dwindling spaces, we need to have people like you know when it is time to draw the line and say no means no. Enough is enough. And it’s not just about protecting this or that species. It’s about maintaining and protecting our critical life support systems that wild systems collectively make up across the Earth.

Let’s Not Be Victims of Our Own Success

Humans are an incredible species. We have amazing intelligence and capacity. Whether this capacity is designed by some external supernatural agent or evolved is often debated, but is not the point. The point is that we do indeed have this amazing capacity for intelligence, creativity/innovation, and production, and we are using it, but we are using it now in ways that may not only be self-sabotaging, but sabotaging to the ecological fabric of many other living systems on Earth.

Billions of years ago, there was a similar success story of a new type of organism that dramatically affected the Earth and life on this planet. This was the appearance of photosynthesizing cyanobacteria, the first creatures to capture the energy of the sun and turn it into oxygen. The early Earth atmosphere was like reducing, not oxidizing as it is now. That is because of the success of photosynthesizing creatures that metabolically spewed out oxygen in the process. Well, these creatures were much much smaller than us, but they were so successful that they reproduced like mad, and made so much oxygen that they too (like us) started to change the mass balance chemistry of the Earth’s global atmosphere and oceans. And what geological science tells us is that this led to a series of very dramatic extinctions, as evidenced in the banded iron formations. Oxygen was toxic to life back then (and it still has this toxicity, evidenced in how we need antioxidants within human bodily systems to keep us healthy), and as concentrations of O2 built up, it got to the point where the levels of oxygen got to the tipping point where it led to a mass extinction killing off a large section of the biota on Earth, including the photosynthesizing creatures themselves. If this isn’t the definition of an organism being the victim of its own success, I do not know what is. But some of the photosynthesizers lived on, and the process started again, and then again, with extinction events happening over millions of years, until finally organisms (like us metabolically) could breath in the oxygen. This led to a new metabolic dance between the photosynthetic organisms (that emit oxygen) and heterotrophs (that would breath that oxygen and eat organic matter), which led to an emergent planetary mass balance in oxygen levels which has remained relatively stable to this day around 21%.

The reason I’m telling this quick recap of the evolution of photosynthetic creatures, and how that ties into environmental chemistry, is because to me this story reminds me of humans. Photosynthetic organisms were remarkably successful in harnessing the energy of the sun, but they also became victims of their own success. We humans are supposedly more intelligent than cyanobacteria though, so I hope that we can figure out the systems effects of our collective metabolic (energy and natural resources using) success more quickly and take action to prevent not only us, but other living systems around us, becoming victims of our success.

It’s Not About Fighting ‘Evil’ Energy Developers

Many environmentalists treat energy development like it is an evil thing. There is nothing inherently evil in humans maximizing our use of energy. One of the most ancient stories of humanity is of how Prometheus brought humans that fundamental ancient energy of fire. Fire is a tool that humans have used since times immemorial which has helped us in so many ways to live and flourish on the Earth. The development of the kind of fire that burns fossil fuels is another kind of fire that has helped humans in many ways to thrive on the Earth and do efficient and useful work. Great. Just like there is nothing inherently bad in a new organism coming along that manages to harness the energy of the sun, producing oxygen as a by product, there is nothing inherently wrong with humans harnessing fire. But, and this is a big but, our human energy development (use of the metaphorical fire) is, in a way an extension of human metabolism, and this has chemical and other secondary effects as science is showing us. Not only our use of energy, but our incremental degradation of wild spaces also has chemical and physical effects, because these wild spaces provide regulatory ecosystem services. Without a systemic process to manage the successes of the expansion of human metabolic processes on Earth, then we too may become victims of our own success, taking the whole biotic system along with us for an unintended ride.

I hope this analogy helps to illustrate how important our wild systems are and how important it is to preserve their functioning, not only for aesthetic, health and traditional conservation reasons, but also because of the vital role that wild and healthy functioning ecosystems play all over the planet in making up our biotic life support system on Earth. I hope that you, and other policy makers like you, will cooperate to take up this banner, and safeguard our present and future systems health on Earth so that ‘sustainability’ becomes more than a wishy washy and abused term, but something as concrete as naval officers safeguarding the life support systems of a high tech submarine. In the latter case, the submarine is human made, but in the case of the Earth, we have a planet with a functioning system that still has a numinous wild mystery to it. Let us preserve that wild and free spirit of our ambient biotic systems. And, is this not—this preservation of the wild and free spirit of the land—not, really, the real American dream after all, when you really think about it?

Do We Value Protecting What is Really ‘Wild and Free’ or Not?

Let us not undermine, in chipping away at the wilds of our lands, what it really means to pursue life, liberty and freedom. I contend (as roughly outlined in my linked to paper) that the sacred beating heart of this freedom we all hold so dear IS the wild. The wild out there, which is a mirror to the wild in each of our own self-directed yet interconnected hearts. As Aldo Leopold learned in observing the green fire go out in the eyes of a wolf he he shot many years ago, to kill the wolf is to slowly kill the mountain, and now we are learning that to kill the mountain is to slowly kill ourselves and what is dear to all life. Please, do not let this happen. Please take the precautionary approach. If you take a risk management approach, not only is the probability that the loss of the wilds will lead to ecological systems harm too high, but also the hazard level of the risk of the loss of the wilds on ecological planetary systemic functioning is too great. And when it comes to that ephemeral thing called the human spirit, the risk of the loss of the dream of freedom is also too dear.

We mostly grow up in cities now and as Richard Louv (nature deficit disorder) and other researchers like EO Wilson (biophilia) have shown, we and increasingly our children are divorced from the nature that is all of our original birth place and also the system that keeps us alive. Many of us in environmental science are coming to realize that caring to protect nature stems from knowledge, which stems from experience. Why would you want to protect what you don’t know or understand? But just because many of us have forgotten nature’s importance through estrangement, doesn’t mean we cannot collectively affect is, or negatively harm through our actions the systemic functional importance of wild systems.

Thoreau Was Right When He States that in Wildness is the Preservation of the World

Wildness is not just the “preservation of the world, it is the world.
– Gary Snyder

It’s time to close the longstanding gap in western culture between humans and nature through sound policy and safeguard what is important to preserve in our ecological systems. Whether our expulsion from the paradise garden millennia ago was, again, due to supernatural or random physical/climatic causes, is not the point. The point is that western history has this discontinuity in our collective memory in our connection to nature, to the wilds, and to our dream of the paradise garden. And, regardless of the source of this disconnection between western colonialist culture and nature, we have been, I contend partially as a result of this discontinuity, systematically acting in ways that sabotage our ever returning.

Maybe reconnecting with the wild is what we have wanted, and needed, this whole time. Maybe in the disconnected wilds lies our own lost feral beating heart. It is my dream that our children can find it again, if we do not destroy it first. This is also the dream of many indigenous peoples. It is time we listen to a different kind of rooted wisdom that connects us to place and to the root our our own touted notions of freedom so that we actually walk the talk of what it means to be both responsible and free.

The risk of losing that wild beating heart of the land, which may be one of the foundational elements of makes life worthwhile to begin with, is there on the doorstep. The time for action is now. If not me taking time to implore you to stand up to protect the heart of what it means to be wild and free, who? If not you stepping up to the plate to do what it takes to preserve the still beating heart of our wild lands, who?

Thank you,

Maria Lavis

On the Joys of Nature Next Door, Cultural Ecosystem Services, and the Human Right to Nature

What does natural capital and cultural ecosystem services have to do with biophilia, nature deficit disorder, and the human right to nature? These topics are typically studied in rather separate contexts. My aim in this long read is to begin to connect the dots between these areas to develop a more holistic picture of our growing cultural relationship with nature in the west.

My Nature Next Door

I live in the Pacific Northwest on the Capilano River escarpment in North Vancouver. This area is known in the local tourist circuit through the Capilano Suspension Bridge and local hikes in the Capilano River Park. It’s a place of rugged contrasts. The river lies at the bottom of the steep Capilano Canyon, shown below.  The river itself is sometimes slow, clear, and slowly meandering along, and at other times it becomes a torrent of muddy waters (that once was so aggressive that I called the local authorities just to make sure we weren’t going to all be washed away in the flood!). The only reason why there are beautiful views of this river, like the one below where you only see nature in the shot, is because of laws. Laws that protect riparian areas in this case, and make it so that you cannot build within so many feet of a river. Thank-goodness for the river. Thank-goodness for the fish. Thank-goodness for me and my hungry camera.

CapilanoRiverCanyon_©MariaLavis

Capilano River from Cable Bridge showing people on trail lookout in the distance.

I count myself blessed to be able to live in a place that sits on the border between the built human landscape and the natural world. The birds one can spot from our house along the Capilano Canyon also frame the extremes, often being eagles or hummingbirds. The last few weeks, it has been raining in the lower mainland off and on (as it tends to in a coastal temperate rainforest). Imagine my surprise the other day I looked out from the kitchen window to find an eagle sunning itself in the trees looking down at the river. I don’t have a telephoto lens like the pros, but managed to capture a few shots.  (Click to go to Flickr)

Bald Eagle_2015-02-08_14-49-53_DSC_0680_©MariaLavis

Bald Eagle_2015-02-08_14-46-14_DSC_0662_©MariaLavis

What a joy to be able to drink my morning coffee that day while hanging out with this guy fluffing his feathers and spanning his wings out.  On the other side of our house, not 50 feet away, is one of the main routes into the downtown core (you can hear it along with the river in the video link at the bottom of this post). If I go out the front door and I’m walking on asphalt and heading down the street towards the city. Going out the back door is the opposite. It leads to a verdigris world that is a reminder of what the whole of the North Shore once must have looked like at one time (though the trees would have been way bigger; they razed them down at the beginning of the 20th Century in the Great Cut).

The Contentious Value of Cultural Ecosystem Services

In real estate talk, this kind of place is one with a ‘view’, and the economic value of properties with different natural views could be considered one way to measure how we ‘value’ nature. (You can also get a sense of the value of nature to us in the covers of architectural magazines that usually feature places looking out at pristine wilderness. I’d love to see someone who has done a survey of how much nature appears in these magazines. If anyone knows of one, let me know.) The beauty of nature usually doesn’t have an material price tag though, and falls into the realm of cultural ecosystem services, along with other ‘non-material‘ benefits like educational, spiritual or recreational services that humans derive from nature. Yet, in spite of the obvious importance of all of our collective deeply personal, and interpersonal relationships, values and experiences in and with nature, when it comes to measuring and taking into account natural capital, cultural ecosystem services is one of the areas that is often neglected in the research literature.

This notion of putting human economic values on nature rather than focusing on more traditional intrinsic values (such as biodiversity) is one that is hotly contested and debated within ecological circles these days (more on this in a future post). There are some who say that we need to value nature monetarily to better protect it, and then there are others who say that the monetary valuation of nature is counter productive and demeans the real, functional and intrinsic value of nature.

Personally, I think the answer to this debate is we need BOTH approaches.

Nature is not just one thing. It is not an either/or proposition. It is multidimensional, and, like the proverbial Buddhist diamond, it has many facets for us to see depending on where we are standing. Nature has economic value for things like timber and other natural resources, and it has as long as humans have been trading such things. It is also important to economically value nature when the government looks at options for development, which was when nature was traditionally externalized and neglected from the equation and decision making process. This has led to a systematic loss of nature globally over the last few decades which is starting to alarm many scientists. But, valuing nature can stop or slow this process. I have personally chatted with professors doing work in places like Indonesia who know that their work on valuing forest services helped in preventing logging in some areas because they could communicate that value through economic valuation sheets.

But this kind of valuation, in and of itself, is not enough. This is because, at the same time, nature still has other important values such as:

  • aesthetic value (as much if not more priceless than famous museum art which often strives to emulate nature, but never succeeding),
  • functional value (which is not just priceless, but absolutely necessary to our survival like climatic regulation and healthy soil creation),
  • biodiversity value (as someone with a background in behavioural ecology, I would like to note here that maintaining both nature’s genotypic and phenotypic capacity that has evolved over millions of years is key to maintaining diversity; keeping seed banks and zoos to preserve diversity is a last ditch effort because so much is lost when you take organisms out of their interconnected ecological niche that they often grow and learn to live in), and
  • even less talked about but often even more deeply important things like spiritual value (that thing that takes your breath away when you reach the view point on a hike; that thing that makes the guru sit by him/herself on the mountain; and that thing that makes the guru on the mountain become the guru to begin with).

Some of these values may seem intangible, but we are starting to see real effects of their loss.

On Establishing the Human Right to Nature

How do we get out of our silos?

One of the areas where I think that we could make strides in our ability to conserve nature and live in better harmony along side it is through some strategic collaborations to bridge some of the work being done now by the people working on cultural ecosystem services with the work of those who work in the area of biophiia, nature deficit disorder, and the human need for nature. This could also engage those working in the arts who have long known the value of nature, such as poets, authors, musicians and visual artists. For instance, get the people from the ecosystem services world together such as those at the  Natural Capital Project like Gretchen Daily (who was also integral to getting the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment off the ground), the people at TEEB like Pavan Sukhdev, and the folks from the Ecosystem Services Partnership like Robert Costanza in the same room talking to those on the biophiia and nature deficit end of the spectrum. These latter people would include E.O. Wilson who came up with the biophilia hypothesis, and others like S.R. Kellert and working in that vein. On the side of the children’s need for nature and nature deficit disorder work you have people like Richard Louv and the people at the Children & Nature Network. Get these talking to those cultural mavens like authors who care about nature literacy like Margaret Atwood, and the people at the Robert Bateman Foundation connecting kids with art. Add to this the people doing amazing work in ecopsychology and things like deep ecology such as Davd Abram, Bill Plotkin and Jay Griffiths. And get these talking to the people who know about law like the folks at Ecojustice and those who are the traditional lobbyists for nature, the major NGOs like the WWF, DSF, Nature Conservancy and the Sierra Club.

The above random list, in no particular order, is just the tip of the ice burg of organizations and people. And, of course, there are the First Nations groups who have basically been trying to get the message across on the importance of the value for nature since European colonialists first landed on this continent, such as in the plight of the Nez Perce with Chief Toohoolhoolzote saying “...I belong to the land of which I came. The Earth is my Mother”, and similarly Chief Joseph saying, “The Earth must not be sold”, to the lament of Chief Dan George and more recent protests to safeguard the land against development going on across North America by many tribes. In so many ways Aboriginal groups are leading us in the theory in this space on how to reconnect, and some of us are finally, slowly, getting the message. And last but not least, there are the parent groups, those amazing moms and dads out there who get it and want their kids to grow up with at least as good of a natural legacy as they inherited.

I guess what I’m saying here is that in spite of all the great work that everyone is doing in their respective areas, the loss of nature on every continent is a collective problem, and for that we need a cross-cutting, collaborative platform that brings us all together on this shared issue. In their own ways, the above people and groups are all essentially talking about the same thing here: about preserving the legacy of the deep and meaningful, and absolutely essential, role of nature in our lives (whether we are individually aware of how much we depend on nature or not). Of course, the work that different groups do in their silos is important, but I believe we need some silo bashing on this issue and come together in some way to make this happen. This touches on climate. This touches on biodiversity. This touches on everything we get from nature.

Of course, protecting the natural legacy that preserves us is what responsible governments are supposed to do as part of safeguarding the public good, but this isn’t something I’m about to rely on my elected officials to be proactive about any more.

(So… Ideas on how to do this? I’m all ears.)

Sure, this is about our ‘personal’ experiences with nature. And, this is about the so-called ‘intangible’ services that nature provides. But just because it is subjective or intangible does not make it less important. In so many ways, it makes it more important. Like civil rights which come down to our subjective, intangible experiences in relationship with one another. Well, we also form relationships with nature. We can develop our capacity to have experiences in nature and grow our relationship with nature to the point where when people lose nature they grieve as though they’ve lost a loved one this is just one indication of how nature is part of our humanity, our birthright. It’s a matter of culture. It’s a matter of health. It’s a matter of survival. It’s a matter of making the world worth surviving in. And it should be a matter protected, like riparian zones, like other civil rights, in law.

However, just as nature has been externalized from our balance sheets, it has been externalized from many legal considerations. I’d like to note here that I am not one to jump on the bandwagon and blame big business, government and the oil companies for this situation, nor for the depletion and pollution of nature around the world. I have a healthy appreciation of,  the mythical Promethean forces that first brought ancestral humans the powers that came with harnessing fire. There is something to be said for human ingenuity, industrial productivity, and the level of cooperation necessary to run things like international corporations and markets. But those markets are part of the bigger ecosystem we share with all of life on this planet, and we all need to get the memo that nature is not the infinite thing we thought it was only just a few decades ago.

We have all benefited from the warmth and energy of combustion in some way or another, but we also all benefit from the air we breath and water we drink and so much more that the living systems on this planet provide. We are, ourselves, through our respiration, something like cybernetic combustion machines that are integrated systems with multiform other systems on Earth (for a longer read my recent essay has more on my view on this).

It’s about finding balance

The point I’m getting to here is that we need to collaborate as well as we do on international markets in order to  achieve more balance with our natural heritage and life support system here, or things could verily get tragic. I’m not just inferring the potential effects of climate change. Recent research confirms that humanity has crossed four of nine identified planetary boundaries. There are systems on this Earth that have been relatively constant for millions of years that we are tampering with. As someone who has studied climatology, biogeochemistry, and ecology, and that professionally writes with a strong degree of conservatism, I am willing to admit that the real potential of tipping planetary boundaries seriously freaks me out. But I’m not a doomsayer, or about pointing the finger of blame. Because that finger points at me, too. It points at all of us, but many of us these days in environmental or ecological circles seem to be pointing fingers, and this often leads to a kind of antagonism that I have seen stifle actually making headway on these important issues.

So, no, no pointing fingers. Instead, this is about growing up as communities, as societies and as nations to our collective impact. It’s about flexing our responsibility, that wing that makes us fly along with its twin that we prefer to talk about, freedom.

The more of us there are in a defined space, the more rules we need to live healthily and harmoniously. The Earth is our defined space, and our communities within it, and more of us there are, every year. So, how do we create social, civilizing, rules for ourselves that help us to live with more, not less, balance with natural systems, going forward? As mentioned, I think part of the solution lies in the field of human rights. (I also agree with those who are trying to instill rights for nature, and power to them, but I think we would get farther in trying to build on the already established lexicon of human rights in this space.)

As mentioned in my last blog post, my own view is that humans have an innate need for, and therefore, an inalienable right to access nature. This is due to our collective need for nature’s systems to keep functioning, as well as due to our personal needs for nature. This blog post focuses on the latter. As I delineate in the essay attached to that post, the jury is out, we do need nature. Personally. Physiologically. Emotionally. Cognitively. Physically. Medically. We have these needs for nature in ways that are also becoming less and less intangible and more and more concrete the more we study this topic. There are so many lines of evidence most likely because we are innately hard wired to live in nature to begin with. When we are cut off from that birthright we begin to see the adverse consequences. Deprivation of nature affects all of our senses. It affects our health. It affects our well being. Intrinsically, but also, now, thanks to the multitude of researchers doing work in this area, measurably so.

Whether it be enjoying the tree out a hospital window, nature next door, the park down the street, or that national park you’ve been meaning to visit for years, we all should have the right to access nature and be able to satisfy our human needs. This isn’t just about ‘benefits’. This is about the base levels on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Food. Water. Air. In addition to these there are a multitude of other factors that we glean along nature’s continuum (from nature next door to the tangled wilds) that we are measurably less well without. So, this is not about a right to some fluffy nature benefits. This is about establishing basic human rights based on fundamental human needs.

Let’s stop externalizing nature from human rights

Similar to how nature has been externalized from being incorporated into our economic equations because it was not too very long ago considered infinite and ubiquitous, it has also been externalized from the human rights conversation.

It’s about time we take up that conversation. And soon. We all read the news on how natural landscapes, resources and systems are disappearing. Yet, the majority of us are like the frog sitting in the pot of slowly warming water about this issue. Would people sit back and take it if their rights were abused in the workplace? Would people sit back and take it if they went out and were discriminated against on racial grounds? So why do we sit back and take it as our natural legacy, our ancient birthright, is destroyed all around us?

This is not a new idea. There are people working in this space. There are even precedents, like ‘every man’s right’ to roam and wild harvest in Norway, Allemansrätten in Sweden, the IUCN’s Children’s Right to Nature initiative, and grounds closer to home, like the common law right to access and transit navigable waters, and other shared rights. If we remember the First Nations adage that we do not own the land but belong to it instead, we can maybe make some gains here in how to collectively be better stewards, and live more harmoniously with it by adding another tool to the conservation beltthe human right to nature.

There is much that could be gained from establishing the human right to nature in law. Just like we have laws to protect riparian areas within cities I mentioned at the start of this post, if we established the fundamental human right to nature, then we could establish secondary laws based on those, such as laws to protect natural areas where our kids can go outside and play in healthy landscapes and connect to something besides the internet and social media. One of my favourite examples of this is the Children’s Forest that was recently established here in BC on Cortes Island. Imagine if all greenbelts were extended in this way as a trust legacy for our children to be able to play as their great grandparents once did? (I for one would support fences around those areas and cameras so that they can also place in relative safety from predators, human and otherwise.)

Just like we have laws to protect our water quality, we can add to those laws so that all humans have the right to access nature and certain needs provided by nature, regardless of race or economic background (which is not currently the case in many areas where poor people are the ones who get polluted). Just like we have laws for water, we can establish laws for the air we breath, and we can find legal instruments to ensure that in their education, our children, our future citizens, understand the value of nature to them. Understand how something intangible can be not only tangible, but a part of you. Walt Whitman said it perhaps the best, and his words often haunt me:

There was a child went forth every day,
And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became,
And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of the day,
Or for many years or stretching cycles of years.

The early lilacs became part of this child,
And grass and white and red morning glories, and white and red clover,
And the song of the phoebe-bird…

By working together, those of us who value our right to this natural legacy can go farther to protect it so that we have the legal muscle to help nature provide our food and water and other resources, keep functioning to provide our critical life support services, as providing other ‘intangibles’ like the joy of just hanging out with an eagle for a while.

Bald Eagle_2015-02-08_©MariaLavis

Beyond Biophilia: On the Human Need for and Right to Nature, Wild and Free

I recently wrote the essay linked to below as part of a course I recently took that is part of Harvard’s Sustainability and Environmental Management Program.

The premise of the paper is based on the notion that we have not only externalized nature from consideration in our economic systems, but from consideration regarding human rights. My thesis states that, based on the evidence, humans need nature along its whole continuum, from nature next door to nature wild and free, and that, based on this basic need, there are grounds to add the human right to nature to the lexicon.

The thesis builds on the work of E.O. Wilson’s  biophilia hypothesis and the concept of nature deficit disorder put forward by Richard Louv originally in his book Last Child in the Woods. It also takes a complex systems science approach to the issue, arguing that humans not only need nature at the individual level, but also at the collective global level where nature provides essential regulating and provisioning services for things like climate change and biodiversity.

I will be building out some of the ideas in the essay in this blog soon, as I was limited by the length in what I wanted to say about some of the concepts, such as about how cybernetics can play a role in our understanding of nature, our place in it, and how to find solutions to integrating human systems more harmoniously with those found in nature.

Here is a link to the paper. It’s still a bit rough around the edges and my plan is to develop it further, so any feedback on it would be much appreciated!

Maria Lavis Right to NatureCopyright held by Maria Lavis, December 2014.

Climate Change = Security Risk: Connecting the Dots on the Growing Agenda

The Climate Change Narrative

Some Background

It’s been a while now since I posted this blog post back in 2011 on the security implications of climate change described in the US Department of Defense’s Quadrennial Defense Report (QDR, pdf 2010). My main points back then were to: 1) highlight the discrepancy between the lack of doubt in how the US military portrays this risk compared to many US politicians (the latter swamped in the politics of climate change denial, which has pretty much framed the ongoing climate change debate narrative in the public sphere since then), and 2) note that the security implications of climate change was an important topic and potential public policy driver that wasn’t getting a lot of press at the time.

It looks like that lack of attention is about to change very, very soon.

The links between climate change and politics is a touchy enough subject, let alone the military linkages, so it’s a topic that I usually avoid commenting on. (Other writers, such as Paul Woodward have been covering security and climate change for a while now.) Nevertheless, I’ve been keeping a casual eye out on this topic since that last QDR, that came out on the heels of the 2009  failure of the last UNFCCC Conference of Parties (COP 15) in Copenhagen. For those people who have been working towards trying to get meaningful action on climate change, it has often felt like it has been a losing battle, in spite of the scientific agreement, to sway politicians into action; this has led to feelings of depression and despair by many along the way. There was further disappointment at the recent Warsaw conference last December, and a recent opinion in the UK’s The Guardian that the deniers have won.

An Early Prediction on the Shift in the Narrative

In spite of the above, as the adage goes, it is usually darkest before the dawn, and from the looks of reports I’ve stumbled across in my research in the last few weeks, it looks like we are approaching a new day of renewed impetus for action, albeit a rather troubling one.

I would like to share the information on new developments below  that indicate that the topic of climate change and security risk is being elevated at some high levels. Based on the high ranking nature of the departments reporting on their growing priority to address the security risks of climate change, and the influence of their agendas, I’d also venture the following prediction:

The newly reported priority on climate change as an urgent security risk at high levels of government will emerge as a disruptive narrative in the public arena that will change how we will come to perceive the threat of climate change globally, and the need to act on it.

By the Paris talks in 2015, this narrative has the potential to turn the tide on action on climate change in North America, as a driver of public policy and legislation. It can do this through transitioning the emphasis in public discourse from the rhetoric of doubt and denial over to the new rhetoricthat there is a need to respond to climate change not only a real and significant risk, but as a clear and present danger. 

The thing is, there’s not just rhetoric around the narrative on climate change and security. The science (as will come out in the IPCC report on impacts tomorrow) shows that climate change does present real risks that people in the field have known has been there all along. (i.e. See this report on climate change and conflict in Africa from 2010, and this speech by Christiana Figueres in Spain in 2009 addressing a military intelligence audience on the importance of  addressing climate change.)

So, the knowledge on the security risk is nothing that new really. However, it appears that the priority of this factor is now being significantly escalated in the messaging from up top. Enough so that it looks like the security implications of climate change will begin to emerge as a primary driver on action not just at home, but around the world.

But don’t take my word for it.

The “Climate Change = Security Risk” Narrative

Growing Body of Evidence

Below I’ve outlined some lines of recent evidence for how climate change and security is starting to re-frame the messaging on climate change, primarily in the US. I’m pretty sure this list will be growing very soon.

1. US Department of Defense

  • Then. 2010 – Quadrennial Defense Report: As mentioned above, I blogged about this report previously. There was not a lot of public follow up on the security risks of climate change back then. Instead, political will for climate climate change began to evaporate in the west as the climate change debate narrative took over. It’s my suspicion that the ‘climate change = security risk’ narrative didn’t stop at this point. It just quietly went undercover (see the note below about the early pilot program by HLS on Resilence Star for instance).

2. US Department of Homeland Security

  • Then. 2011. DHS announces a Resilience STAR ‘pilot’, a “voluntary certification program that aims to make homes and buildings more secure and resilient to all hazards.” Note that this program had no mention of “climate” back in 2011, and has quietly been built on behind the scenes of the opposition to any kind of climate action under the guise of ‘weather’ disaster planning into the trademarked program in the next bullet (that also doesn’t mention climate). However, in the Senate testimonies linked further below, the actual ties of the Resilience Star initiative to climate change adaptation becomes apparent. This program has been build in collaboration with insurance companies, who are actuarial risk specialists, who are very aware of the difference between weather and climate. Note for instance how the graph by Munich Re from their report on weather risk below shows 30 years of data. 30 years is the time that is typically as the climatological normal, which makes this work on weather, pretty much about climate change adaptation.
  • Now.  November 2013. DHS announces again that it is launching its new Resilience STAR™ Program to help home owners and businesses prepare for climate change in partnership with the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety (IIBH). The program is to be analogous to the EPA’s popular Energy Star program.
    • The Resilience Star program re-launched a second ‘pilot program’ that closed in January 2014
  • Now. February 12, 2014:  The US Senate Hearing on Extreme Weather Events: The Costs of Not Being Prepared saw two officials from DHS testify along with other witnesses on the need to address risks and mounting costs of extreme weather events in the US. (A related report on Severe Weather in North America, by Munich Re states that, “Nowhere in the world is the rising number of annual catastrophes more evident than in North America.” As shown in the figure below, copied from the Executive Summary, the number of weather catastrophes in North America has more than quadrupled over the last 30 years (the averaging time for climate change trends).)
    • The Honorable David F. Heyman, DHS Assistant Secretary for policy testified testified about the ongoing efforts of DHS and other departments since 2009 on building out resilience and security, including preparing “homes, communities and critical infrastructure” for future extreme weather events and disasters. He also commented on the mounting costs that extreme weather events, exacerbated by climate change in the US, noting that projected losses from the future impacts of climate change are estimated at USD $1.2 trillion by 2050.  Download Testimony (196.1 KB)
    • Caitlin A. Durkovich, Assisstant for Infrastructure Protection testified similarly about the work of about the ongoing efforts of DHS to build resilience and security.  (Note that the language on this resilience work has been historically framed around “weather” rather than “climate”, so it has largely gone along relatively quietly under the radar of the climate change debate the whole time, but now the language of climate change is also being used): Download Testimony (196.1 KB)
Trends in Weather-Related Loss Across Global Continents Over 30 Years. Source (Munich Re)

Trends in Weather-Related Loss Across Global Continents Over 30 Years. The top blue line shows the trend for North America which shows a rise higher than for any of the other continents. Source (Munich Re 2012)

3. US State Department

  • Now. January 2014. The new draft of the Sixth US Climate Change Action Report notes security implications in the very first line of its Executive Summary, “Climate change represents one of the greatest challenges of our time, with profound and wide-ranging implications for development, economic growth,the environment,and international security.”
  • Now. March 7, 2014. The US Department of State blog notes in their We Need to Elevate the Environment in Everything We Do post that Secretary of State, John Kerry issued “instructions to all diplomats around the world on combating climate change.” Kerry explicitly notes a priority of integrating the priority of climate change with the priority of “national security” in guidance point 7 (ha, I did just say priority three times there).

3. Other

  • Then. 2012. The American Security Project (ASP) published, American Security: The Impact of Climate Change. This report outlines implications for homeland security and global security relating to climate change.
  • Now. The Climate, Energy and Security home page of the ASP currently states: “Climate change is a scientific fact; it is real and poses a clear and present danger not only to the United States but to the entire world.”
  • Now. The Center for Climate Change and Security (CCCS, whose review of the 2014 QDR report I linked to previously in this post) has been following the climate change security agenda for some time now. Some of their recent publications are below:
    • January 22, 2014. Briefer, Message to Davos: Climate Change Risk Assessments Need to Go Big which outlines how the World Economic Forum in Davos has climate change as one of its top five priorities, but also how climate change is also linked to three of the other top ten priorities (food, water and extreme weather events). The report emphasized under, “It’s the People, Stupid”, how climate change has been typically lumped under and ‘environmental’ box only; however, it is also fundamentally a social, geopolitical and economic risk.
    • February 26, 2014 Briefer, Climate and Security 101: Why the U.S. National Security Establishment Takes Climate Change Seriously discusses several aspects of climate change and security, including the statement that, Four-star Navy Admiral Samuel J. Locklear III, head of U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), identified climate change as the biggest security threat facing the Asia-Pacific region. In the Asia-Pacific, U.S. Pacific Command is working with China and India to align military capabilities for “when the effects of climate change start to impact these massive populations.”
    • Update! (3/31/3014) The CCCS has informed me that I missed that they also keep a record of US Government Intelligence Statements. Their recent one by the Director of National Intelligence, titled “Statement for the Record, Worldwide Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence,” (January 29, 2014) makes two explicit references to climate. The first is regarding risks to freshwater supplies, particularly in key countries such as North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, but also in several developing nations. The report discusses some of the potential scenarios of what these shortages could lead to. The second reference is with regards to extreme weather events, that the report notes empiracle evidence along (without the help of climate models) suggests that the warming trend is affecting weather leading to more frequent or intense floods, droughts, wildfires, tornadoes, cyclones, coastal high water and heat waves. The outcome of this trend will likely place stress on first responders, NGOs, and militaries called on to provide humanitarian assistance.
  • Now. March 20, 2014. In the United Kingdom, Responding to Climate Change (RTCC), the UNFCCC official observer published an interview with a US Army expert who said of the climate change risk that, “This is like getting embroiled in a war that lasts 100 years. That’s the scariest thing for us. There is no exit strategy that is available for many of the problems.”
  • Now. March 27, 2014. In the United Kingdom, the non-profit Environmental Justice Foundation published The Gathering Storm: Climate Change, Security and Conflict. This 44 p. report “calls for climate change to be recognized as a human rights issue as well as an environmental issue and highlights the need for urgent international action to respond the human and national security challenges that climate change presents.” The report frames the climate change security risk as a human rights issue as well: “The potent significance of the fact that the world’s major military powers and security institutions consistently and increasingly voice their concerns regarding the impacts of climate change jars with the simple fact that there has been a failure to act on the issue. EJF interprets this collective failure as the gravest threat to human and national security: the insecurity wrought by climate change is the defining global human rights issue of the 21st Century.

This EJF image connected to their new report, Gathering Storm, is starting to make appearances on Twitter under #gatheringstorm

 

Connecting the Dots on the New Climate Change Narrative

Connecting the dots on the above evidence outlines a new emphasis on the impacts of climate change to national and global security. This climate change = security risk narrative has emerged in priority agendas of the UN,  and for major US government departments. There are references in the above reports on the emphasis of this agenda in other countries as well. So, it looks like the emerging climate change as security risk platform may have its roots in quieter work that has been ongoing for many years now and is finally ready to emerge as a policy pillar.

Where is this all headed? The climate change security agenda may not unfold as rapidly as my above prediction to be influential on securing a deal at the Paris 2015 talks, as well as in influencing stalling nations to roll out climate change mitigation and adaptatoin action where they have been lagging up to now. What is certain though, is that there is strong talk in high places backing this agenda. And, given that the effects of climate change are predicted to grow in time, the climate change = security risk agenda is one that will not be going away any time soon, and will certainly be one to watch closely over the upcoming year.

7th Ecosystem Services Partnership (ESP) Conference

The Ecosystem Services Partnership (ESP) will be hosting their 7th conference, Local action for the common good, in Costa Rica from September 8-12 2014. The emphasis of this conference will be on the use of the ecosystem services concept at the local level, focusing on Latin America with a special emphasis on Costa Rica.

Costa Rica is an interesting test case, as through using payments for ecosystem services (PES) schemes, the country has allegedly increased its forest cover to over 50%, compared to just over 20% back in the 1980s, though some are more careful in their analysis of the success of the program.

Central to the ESP conference are the workshops and sessions organized by ESP working groups and other organizations. The ESP received more than 50 proposals for these, which I had a peek at, and it looks like it will be a great line up. The list of accepted sessions will be available soon on the conference website. In addition to the ESP working group sessions, the conference will present examples of ecosystem services practices in Community Based Ecosystem Management from several EU funded projects in the region.

The 7th ESP Conference will be held in the Barceló San José Palacio Hotel and Conference Centre, which in San Jose, Costa Rica. Click on image above for more details.

Dates to remember:

  • May 1, 2014: Submission of presentation and poster abstracts (the abstract submission process will start end of March, which is just around the corner)
  • July 1, 2014: ‘Early bird’ registration (15% discount) (Registration will also start end of March so keep your eyes posted on the conference website)

As for me, I’m not sure yet if I will be able to make it myself, but I’m definitely looking into seeing how I can make it happen!

What’s Up with the Discrepancy?

I recently read a Tweet by the World Resources Institute linking to an article by my local newspaper, The Vancouver Sun, titled, “A Humanitarian Emergency on a Global Scale“. This article regarding humans pushing the tipping points of planetary natural systems, including climate change, gave me an idea for an analogy.

This is not the first time I’ve read news of leading scientists making such dire claims. (i.e. 1, 2, 3) This is also not the first time that I shake my head thinking how a large section of our controlling political leaders will deny, or at best, delay actions on these warnings.

To me, as with most of those with any training  related to physical Earth systems, watching the recent political denial of these warnings has felt like stepping into a Looking Glass world of double speak where truth and fiction have been so contorted and inverted that it’s hard to know right from left, let alone good from bad.

Most people don’t spend their time studying climate, which is a complicated phenomenon. Why should they? Just like most people aren’t trained oncologists, who study cancer, another complicated phenomenon. However, for some reason, when our oncologist tells us we have cancer, we sit up and listen. We trust what they, as an expert on the subject tell us, and then we act accordingly. We change our life if need be. Quit work. Eat kale. Whatever it takes.

So, when thousands of climate scientists around the world tell us we have a dire climate change problem, that puts the future of the entire Earth at risk? Well then, in that case, we just go back to business as usual.

So, what’s up with the discrepancy?

To illustrate, here is a little story:

I wasn’t feeling very well a few months ago. I was getting internal pains and fever. I thought it was a temporary thing, a bad case of the flu. But it kept persisting, so I went to the doctor. She said she’d run some tests.

A week later she calls me and tells me the tests indicate I have cancer and they’d like to do some more tests. Those tests end up confirming the original results, and adding that my time on Earth as the functional person I have been may be severely limited.

Shaken up by this, I go to my boss to tell him the news. Imagine my shock when he tells me this:

“Cancer? What do you mean cancer? Well you and some doctors might believe in ‘cancer’, but let me tell you, they are a bunch of quacks who are just trying to take your money, fabricating stories of disease and dire predictions like crazy preachers on pulpits. And you? You’re acting like some kind of hypochondriac, feeding into their ridiculous claims.”

I plead my case. I cough up blood and he says it’s inconclusive and probably psychosomatic. I say I’ll show him the tests; they are based on repeatable concrete evidence by trained experts. He says he doubts whether they really know what they are talking about. After all, I look like I can go back to work to him.

Seeing that none of this is getting through to my boss, I say that there is a chance it could kill me, and I need time to be with my family and friends. He then just laughs at me and tells me that I’ve really gone off the deep end, and that I’d better go back to work… or else.

Ok, so I go and take my boss to court. It makes the news even. Politicians start to make statements because it turns out that other people’s bosses are denying their cancer too. And what does our local political leader say about the situation to the media?

“Cancer doesn’t really exist,” she says. “They can’t really prove it. They certainly don’t know how to cure it after soooo many years of research and expense. What a waste of time and tax payer’s dollars!

And, after all, people are dying of natural causes all the time. How can you say it’s caused by cancer? Maybe it’s something else that’s making people feel bad.

This so-called cancer, it’s also bad for the economy. It’s blown out of proportion, and we’ve decided that until we absolutely know what it is and how to cure it that it’s business as usual. People who think they have cancer should just go back to work.”

Ok ok. So I made that up. I do not have cancer. A crass example, not in the best of taste. Cancer is actually a real and very serious problem that millions around the world face. I have several relatives who have passed away from cancer, and it is a disease that disheartens and destroys lives. Yes, it is certainly real.

As real as the Earth going around the sun. As real as anthropogenic climate change. These are all measurable physical phenomena.

Climate change related causes have already been responsible for global mortality. The prognosis is also that climate change has the potential to affect billions, and our children, and our children’s children.

So what’s up with the discrepancy?

Both cancer and climate change are related to phenomena we don’t completely understand, and both have potentially dire results. One has to do with effects on an individual organism, the other has to do with effects on a planetary system.

Ok, I’ll admit, the scale of the latter may be harder to comprehend, and understand, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore warnings regarding its health any less seriously than to our own.

But we do. We take one way more seriously than we do the other. The difference is that we can literally feel it in our bones. We see our friends and relatives suffer directly from it. And so we tend to listen to the advice of the experts in their field about it.

The other? Well, it’s quite the opposite for the other. Well, maybe unless you live in Africa or the Maldives.

So, imagine for a minute, or a good few seconds, the kind of shock you would feel…

… if your boss and political leaders said something to you like the statements in the above cancer analogy. Well, this is somewhere on the scale that scientists who study climate change and earth systems science feel when years of their hard nosed research with concrete results they present on are categorically questioned, denied, and then followed up with disproportional cuts to research budgets. (Not to mention gag orders on federal scientists.)

But somehow, in North America this treatment of the problem of climate change is passed off as normal.

It’s about time we realized that the problem here isn’t with climate science and its prognosis. It’s with our leaders telling us the problem isn’t really there, then telling us to go back to work.

It’s with us.

Accepting the unacceptable, and just carrying on with business as usual.

Yeah, so forget the kale. Forget the radiation treatment.

If you deny it’s there, then it doesn’t exist.

Right?

Back to Blogging

I’d like to apologize for a stint away from blogging (and tweeting) due to family, studying and work related matters taking up my free time. I have been taking a full suite of carbon accounting classes with the GHG Management Institute towards ISO certification. I’m happy to report that I’ve recently started a full time job in the field of environmental assessment (EA) with a great Canadian firm, Rescan Environmental Services. This has been a very interesting venture so far, in particular for me due to the overlap between EA work and ecosystem services.  I am also still working on some ecosystem services related side projects.

I will be back to blogging for iES very shortly. Since I last wrote there have been many developments and news in the field. I have a lot of catch up to do! I am also really looking forward to connecting with my awesome readers again, and hearing what you are working on. A big thank-you to those people who have supported this blog to date, and thanks for having patience!

-Maria

The Thorny Issue of Stacking

Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES) projects are rather like roses. The blossoms are the desired lovely benefits.  At the same time the cliché stands, and every rose has its thorns. In the case of PES projects, the large obvious thorns include things like unintended perverse incentives that lead to issues like leakage.  Then there are those smaller thorns, the kind that break off in your fingers like slivers, and are often far more annoying to contend with. Thorns like stacking.

Stacking PES

How to deal with stacking is currently a hot issue for policy makers to contend with.  But what is stacking to begin with?

The concept of stacking has arisen basically stems from land owners/managers and project developers saying, “Hey, there are many PES programs sprouting up out there. Can I benefit from more than one of them at once for what I’m doing on this land?” Or, they might also be saying something like, “Well, I’d love to be able to conserve my land instead of logging it, but I make way more felling trees on my land than I would with just a, say, carbon project, so can you throw me a better incentive to make it more worth my while to engage in more sustainable options?”

In the first case, stacking would likely bring a higher net gain to the land owners and project developers than one project alone, and in the second case, stacking actually enables some projects to happen that probably wouldn’t otherwise fly. So, we already have complexity here, and a caveat on debates on stacking is that when people talk about stacking they aren’t always talking about the same thing. Many opponents to stacking do so because of the first reason, and the difference between these two examples, brings up a second niggly thorn. Additionality.

Additionality

Additionality is a concept that is integral to developing carbon mitigation projects, but has not been widely applied in the PES world. Additionality is basically a tenet to ensure that GHG mitigation actually takes place in a commodity system, stemming from provisions in the Kyoto Protocol under the Clean Development Mechanism. The central provision for additionality ensures that if developed countries are going to get out of making costly direct GHG reductions themselves, and buy cheaper offsets , that the money from those offsets better go towards causing GHG reductions that would NOT have otherwise happen. i.e. Those offsets have to be additional, otherwise the money is just being spent on activities, providing extra padding to the pockets of those that would have undergone those activities anyhow. So, under Kyoto, it is very important that offset money should go towards making reduction activities happen that couldn’t happen in the absence of the money (and sometimes technology/expertise) of the offsets and offset project developers. Within the carbon world, this provision for additionality has also filtered down into the developing voluntary carbon offsets as well. If you are purchasing offsets that aren’t additional, you might just be wasting your money.

In the PES world, however, there is no international agreement. No potential global compliance system to regulate the various ecosystem services. And, no mandated additionality. And in many cases of PES, this principle of additionality isn’t really necessary. This is because many PES projects are voluntary and many ecosystem services don’t involve something that can be commodified, so offsetting and additionality are harder to define and so haven’t been part of the lexicon. Here are some examples:

Example 1: Biodiveristy

Say someone develops a one-off ecosystem services biodiversity project to protect and endangered species in a tropical jungle. The jungle is obviously disappearing. The animal is obviously threatened. Money is raised to buy rights to land or land itself as well as manage it buy hiring rangers to stop poaching etc. A large company is recruited to voluntarily help invest in the project because it uses this species as part of its brand logo. The cost is willingly incurred by the company to help support the company’s sustainability initiatives, brand and integrity, not because they have to due to legislation. In this case, the money spent to save the species isn’t being spent to offset killing the species somewhere else. And it is relatively obvious that without the money the species would likely go extinct under the status quo.

Example 2: Water

A large company is using up a lot of water in a local watershed. They have been pressured and lobbied by local citizens and environmental groups for drawing down the water table. In order to protect the regional water, the company then invests in protecting another local watershed so that the water there is not depleted. In this case, although the activity of protecting the watershed is done in part to offset water loss in another area, this isn’t necessarily measured unit for unit, the way a commodity like carbon would be, and in all likelihood, the other watershed was not going to be protected anyhow.

Differences with Carbon and PES Worlds

There are several differences between the carbon world and PES world that affect additionality including:

  1. Carbon is a commodity. PES are plural and often not able to be ‘commodified’. They can’t be traded or offset necessarily one for one.
  2. Carbon is legislated under the CDM and regulated under many rigorous voluntary standards, such as VCS, that mandate additionality for projects. PES doesn’t have this history, and because of the diversity of different kinds of ecosystem services, it is more complicated to figure out how additionality applies.
  3. In the carbon world, many projects could be undertaken for reasons besides GHG mitigation. Updating heating boilers, or manufacturing technology happens all the time, because it helps to raise production efficiency as well as lower costs. These activities also happen to lower GHG emissions. So, in this case it is very important to establish that a project is being undertaken not just for the former reasons. In the PES world, conservation projects are relatively rare under the business as usual scenario, so additionality is not such a priority.
  4. Carbon is one thing, and other GHGs can be compared to carbon through the use of global warming potentials GWP (so, methane = 21 carbons). ES are diverse, complex and confusing.

So, why apply additionality to PES projects? As mentioned at the start of this article, the issue mostly arises when a project is going to be undertaken on a piece of land, where there is another project going on. There is a piece of land, lets say, undergoing an activity of avoided deforestation to sequester carbon and generate carbon credits. The potential arises to also create water and biodiversity projects in the park. Should new PES projects be allowed since the land is already conserved for carbon mitigation? This is the question that policy makers are now dealing with, and the question I shall expand on further in a subsequent article, so stay tuned…

News: UN Issues Warning if Private Sector Doesn’t Invest in REDD

“Forests are the natural treasure chests of the world, providing a host of ecosystem services that – and this needs to be said very clearly and up front – are paramount to ensuring economic progress and human well-being, not only locally but globally. What forests give us is fundamental in the strictest sense of the word: they stabilise the global climate system, regulate water cycles, provide habitat for flora, fauna and people, and host genetic resources of unimaginable potential. Forests and their services remain, however, chronically undervalued by today’s economic and political decision makers, resulting in their rapid destruction. One of the many consequences of current deforestation and forest degradation is their contribution of approximately one fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions.”

UN, REDDy Set Grow

It has been a challenging year for the carbon world, and the related sphere of  applying economic instruments for environmental protection and conservation of other ecosystem services. Variables, such as the economic downturn and the political climate on climate change have downplayed the urgency for dealing with issues like deforestation. What does all this stalling spell out for natural environments?

The UN has put out a recent report, “REDDy Set Grow: Private sector suggestions for international climate change negotiators.” The report clearly states why the forests of the world are important (which I also do in my previous Part I, II, III series on forests), why the private sector needs to get involved in financing saving them, and how they can do it through programs like REDD and REDD+.

The question is, is the involvement of certain actors within the private sector going to be enough to sway the tide of political opinion so that policy makers can put into place the kind of policies needed to take these markets beyond the voluntary scope they operate at now? A recent report by Forest Trends indicated that the last couple of years has shown many firsts for the implementation of economic instruments for forests, including the rise of forest carbon markets, with the EU leading the front for purchasing and many projects in the supply pipeline. However, in spite of the forest carbon sector being poised to take off,  many uncertainties remain as to whether the regulatory drivers that underpin demand will kick into gear in time to take these markets where they need to go. The quote below from State of the Forest Carbon Markets 2011, sums it up:

“Currently, buyers purchase most credits voluntarily, but regulatory drivers hold a critical key to unlock larger climate impacts and market demand. Across the global markets, a number of influential political choices remain to be made, and a host of market drivers remain uncertain. The consensus among dozens of market players interviewed for this report, including leaders of standards organizations and major buyers and project developers, is that the forest carbon market is entering a phase where growth will be fundamentally tied to finding and creating new demand for forest carbon credits

Policymakers are in the midst of developing funding for forest conservation at an unprecedented scale. A number of innovative solutions have evolved to both overcome many of the earlier hurdles facing market-based forest conservation efforts and attract private sector investment, but the scope of these markets is still relatively small in the face of global forest loss and a changing climate. The fate of these markets and projects will in large part rest in the hands of policymakers. 2010 was undoubtedly a critical year in the history of the forest carbon markets, but the most consequential chapters in this story still remain to be written.”

Glossary Update

At long last, I’ve added some new terms to the Glossary!

As it is,  you can reach the  Glossary when I’ve linked a specific term in a blog post to it, or you can also click on the Glossary tab above at any time. The intent of the Glossary is to be a work in progress, updated as the field develops, of common terms used by carbon and ecosystem services professionals.

This update is long overdue, but let me know if you have any suggestions or edits to the new terms I’ve added below:

  • Additionality
  • Co-benefits
  • Fungibility
  • Leakage
  • Stacking
  • Validation
  • Verification