The Value of Nature–to the Dollar?

The debates raging over how to deal with climate change often swirl around costs. Some warn that doing anything to stop our planet from warming will cost us dearly in jobs and revenue. Others warn that the cost of letting Earth get warmer is far more steep. It could flood cities, worsen droughts, and make it harder to grow food in many places.

Left out of these debates is the effect that climate change will have on nature–and the services that we depend on nature for. We take those services for granted, but if we damage the ecosystems that provide them, we’ll miss them. In my new “Matter” column for the New York Times, I take a look at how some scientists are trying to put a price tag on the global services of ecosystems, including protection against floods and erosion. If they’re right, the value is colossal–about twice the world’s gross product. Check it out.

2 thoughts on “The Value of Nature–to the Dollar?

  1. Maybe I’m being obtuse… but if the claim that ‘damage we’ve inflicted on the natural world has wiped out $23 trillion a year in ecosystem services’ is true, shouldn’t that imply we’ve actually spent that much in compensating for the ‘lost services’? Or does the team say we actually *have* spent that much? It seems unlikely, but if we have not, then surely the estimate must have been too high?

    [CZ: The scientists calculated the value of ecosystem services delivered per acre. Then they looked at how many acres of each type of ecosystem we’ve destroyed–thereby losing the value of their services. For example, many islands enjoyed protection against storm damage and soil erosion from coral reefs that is now lost, because the reefs have shrunk. If they tried to replace those services with sea walls or trucks of soil, etc., they would have to pay huge amounts of money.]

  2. Thank you for replying, Carl! (I only saw that you had replied now; the comment subscription thingy doesn’t provide notification of inline responses.)

    I’m still not totally sold, since it seems a bit question-begging (if we don’t consider it actually worth replacing those lost services, then arguably they didn’t really provide us with that value in the first place). This is purely a criticism of this *as an exercise in economics*, btw – I’m simply aware of how perfectly spherical economists reason, having butted heads with quite a few in my time, so I’m unconvinced that this is likely to be persuasive for the people who most need persuading.

    That having been said, the principle of establishing dollar values in this way could be really useful in more constrained circumstances. Identifying the cost of compensating for the collapse of the bee population, for example, would make a very powerful political case for action. Ditto for other contexts where someone will actually have to pay out to replace/compensate for the loss of a ‘natural service.’

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