Noah’s Ark in a Warming World: Climate Change, Biodiversity Loss, and Public Adaptation Costs in the United States

Frances C. Moore, Arianna Stokes, Marc N. Conte, and Xiaoli Dong (2022). “Noah’s Ark in a Warming World: Climate Change, Biodiversity Loss, and Public Adaptation Costs in the United States.” Journal of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists 9(5), 981-1015. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1086/716662 [open access]

Abstract: Climate change poses a growing threat to biodiversity, but the welfare consequences of these changes are not well understood. Here we analyze data on the US Endangered Species Act and project increases in species listing and spending due to climate change. We show that higher endangerment is strongly associated with the probability of listing but also find a large bias toward vertebrate species for both listing and spending. Unmitigated warming would cause the listing of an additional 690 species and committed spending of $21 billion by 2100. Several thousand more species would be critically imperiled by climate change but remain unlisted. Finally, we compare ESA spending with estimates of willingness to pay for conservation of 36 listed species. Aggregate WTP is larger than ESA spending for the vast majority of species even using conservative assumptions and typically one to two orders of magnitude larger than direct ESA spending using less restrictive assumptions. Dataverse data: https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/2FDEFO

Protecting 30% of Earth’s surface for nature means thinking about connections near and far

Red knots stop to feed along the Delaware shore as they migrate from the high Arctic to South America. Gregory Breese, USFWS/Flickr

by Veronica Frans, Michigan State University and Jianguo “Jack” Liu, Michigan State University

A biodiversity crisis is reducing the variety of life on Earth. Under pressure from land and water pollution, development, overhunting, poaching, climate change and species invasions, approximately 1 million plant and animal species are at risk of extinction.

One ambitious proposal for stemming these losses is the international initiative known as 30×30: conserving and protecting at least 30% of Earth’s surface, on land and at sea, by 2030.

Currently, 112 countries support this initiative, including the United States. More nations may announce their support at the international biodiversity conference that opens Dec. 7, 2022, in Montreal.

Scientists say that protecting 30% of Earth’s surface will help species and ecosystems recover from the stresses that are depleting them. It also will conserve valuable services that nature provides to humans, such as buffering coasts from storms and filtering drinking water. Protecting forests and grasslands can help slow climate change by promoting carbon storage in soil and plants.

As researchers in ecology, conservation and global sustainability, we study biodiversity around the world, from giant pandas deep in the forests of China to sea lions along the shorelines of New Zealand. Saving a wide variety of living things requires striking a balance between the needs of nature and people, and a global, holistic perspective. We believe a metacoupling approach, which looks at human-nature interactions within and across different areas, can help achieve the 30×30 goal.

What is a protected area?

Since 30×30 focuses on protecting space for wild nature, many people assume it means setting swaths of land or ocean aside and keeping people out of them. But that’s not always true.

As of mid-2021, 16.64% of the world’s land and 7.74% of its oceans were in protected areas. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature, a partnership of governments and civil society groups that tracks the health of the natural world, classifies protected areas in six categories:

  • Strict nature reserve or wilderness area
  • National park
  • Natural monument or feature
  • Habitat or species management area
  • Protected landscape or seascape
  • Protected area with sustainable use of natural resources

Many countries’ 30×30 conservation pledges are likely to include areas such as forests and grasslands that are open for recreation, logging, livestock grazing and other uses.

Cows graze on a lush field surrounded by evergreen trees
Cattle grazing at Kaiser Meadows in California’s Sierra National Forest. Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Few intact ecosystems remain

Scientists agree that protected areas need to include a large variety of species, ecosystems and habitats that the 30×30 initiative aims to conserve. There are many ways to choose and prioritize new areas for protection. Criteria can include the species, habitats and ecosystems that an area contains; its connections to other protected areas; how large and intact an area is; and the benefits it provides to people who live in, near and far from it.

Some scientists contend that the top priorities should be places that are still ecologically intact and virtually untouched by humans. But only about 3% of the Earth’s land and oceans are still in this state. And even wilderness areas can’t escape the effects of climate change caused by human activities elsewhere.

Over 58% of our planet’s land and 41% of its oceans are already under moderate to intense human pressure. This means that most newly protected areas will effectively be works in progress, with restoration projects to help species recover, improve habitat quality and make ecosystems healthier.

Ryan Davis, Pennsylvania forest program manager with the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, explains options for stabilizing stream banks that have become badly eroded.

Another 40% of land and 10% of oceans have experienced relatively low impacts from human activities. Terrestrial ecosystems with the lowest human footprints include tundra, boreal forests and deserts. At the other extreme, tropical, subtropical and temperate forests are at the highest risk.

In the oceans, areas with the lowest human pressures are near the poles or in polar regions. Coral ecosystems, which are home to 25% of all marine life, are under the most pressure.

It isn’t always possible to protect large areas. Some scientists argue that small areas can still successfully protect species, but others disagree. In our view, what ultimately matters is how multiple protected areas are connected and how close they are to each other.

Connections can develop naturally, like the flyways that migrating birds use to travel between continents. Or they can be structures built by humans, such as wildlife bridges over highways. Connecting protected areas is important because it promotes genetic diversity and makes it possible for species to move in response to climate change and other threats.

A bridge planted with grasses over a four-lane highway
Wildlife crossings, like this vegetated bridge over a highway in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany, can connect protected land and help wildlife move across large areas. Sven-Erik Arndt/Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The metacoupling approach

Given all these factors, selecting protected areas can get complicated. Based on our research, we think that a holistic approach can make 30×30 feasible and effective. It has three parts.

First, protected areas should meet both conservation needs and human needs. Second, in creating newly protected areas, researchers and managers should consider how they will interact with adjacent areas. Third, researchers and officials should assess how newly protected areas will interact with areas far away – including in other countries.

This approach is guided by the metacoupling framework, which is an integrated way to study and manage human-nature interactions within and between different places. It recognizes that human and natural systems in a given place can be affected for better or worse by people, policies and markets both nearby and far away.

At Wolong Nature Reserve in southwestern China, one of us, Jack Liu, has worked with Chinese collaborators to understand and manage human-nature interactions in ways that support the recovery of a global wildlife icon – giant pandas. Wolong, which is now part of China’s Giant Panda National Park, was one of the first and largest panda reserves in China, and also houses numerous other rare animals and plants. It is also home to almost 6,000 people.

Two people converse in a small market.
Ecologist Jianguo ‘Jack’ Liu, left, speaks with a resident in Wolong, China, about pressures on panda habitat. Michigan State University, CC BY-ND

Forest is an important part of panda habitat, but over time the human population in Wolong grew and needed more resources, such as wood for cooking and heating or to make goods for visiting tourists. In a 2001 study, our team showed that panda habitat in Wolong declined faster after the reserve was established in 1975 than it had before that time. Increasing demand for wood was degrading and fragmenting the forest and negatively affected panda population numbers.

To reverse this trend, our team worked with the Chinese government to provide more financial support to the local community in the early 2000s. This increased household incomes and reduced the need to harvest wood.

Taking a broad geographic view of the pandas’ situation helped to produce a positive outcome. Recognizing that panda habitat was being affected not just by human-nature interactions inside Wolong but also by interactions between Wolong and adjacent and distant places showed that conservation subsidies from the faraway central government in Beijing could improve protection for Wolong forests.

In 2016 the International Union for Conservation of Nature downlisted and reclassified giant pandas from endangered to vulnerable. Today there are an estimated 1,800 giant pandas in the wild, thanks partly to government subsidies that helped strike a balance between humans’ needs and those of pandas.

All protected areas are influenced by human actions both nearby and far away. We believe that creating and managing protected areas using a holistic metacoupling approach will make it easier to achieve the 30×30 goal and make sound decisions that sustain nature and human well-being around the world.

Veronica Frans, PhD Student in Fisheries & Wildlife and Ecology, Evolutionary Biology & Behavior, Michigan State University and Jianguo “Jack” Liu, Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability, Michigan State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Nature Benchmark

The Nature Benchmark assesses close to 400 companies across 8 industries, with the aspiration to increase to another 600 companies in the course of 2023. The benchmark provides publicly available, evidence-based insights into where the world’s most influential companies stand on their contributions to a nature-positive future.

The benchmark tracks and measures how companies are reducing their negative impacts on nature, and contributing to the protection and restoration of ecosystems, aligned with the goals of the Global Biodiversity Framework.

To save nature, focus on populations, not species

Read the full story from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Human-released greenhouse gasses are causing the world to warm, and with that warming comes increasing stress for many of the planet’s plants and animals. That stress is so great that many scientists believe we are currently in the midst of the ‘sixth extinction,’ when entire species are disappearing up to 10,000 times faster than before the industrial era. However, scientists have been uncertain which ecosystems, and which species, are most at risk.

New research shows that the focus on species-level risk obscures a wide variability in temperature tolerance, even within the same species, and that this variability is greater for marine species than terrestrial ones. The findings have immediate implications for management and conservation practices and offer a window of hope in the effort to adapt to a rapidly warming world.

Should we protect nature for its own sake? For its economic value? Because it makes us happy? Yes

Marabou storks perch on a tree at sunrise in Serengeti National Park, Tanzania. Sergio Pitamitz /VWPics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

by Bradley J. Cardinale, Penn State

Extinction is part of life on Earth. Through much of our planet’s history, species have been forming, evolving and eventually disappearing. Today, however, human activities have dramatically sped up the process. The Earth is losing animals, birds, reptiles and other living things so fast that some scientists believe the planet is entering the sixth mass extinction in its history.

On Dec. 7, 2022, the United Nations will convene governments from around the world in Montreal for a 10-day conference that aims to establish new goals for protecting Earth’s ecosystems and their biodiversity – the variety of life at all levels, from genes to ecosystems. There’s broad agreement that there is a biodiversity crisis, but there are many different views about why protecting it is important.

Some people, cultures and nations believe biodiversity is worth conserving because ecosystems provide many services that support human prosperity, health and well-being. Others assert that all living things have a right to exist, regardless of their usefulness to humans. Today, there’s also growing understanding that nature enriches our lives by providing opportunities for us to connect with each other and the places we care about.

As a conservation biologist, I’ve been part of the effort to value biodiversity for years. Here’s how thinking in this field has evolved, and why I’ve come to believe that there are many equally valid reasons for protecting nature.

Biodiversity describes the amount of genetic diversity within species and the range of species that make up ecosystems.

Defending every species

Conservation biology is a scientific field with a mission: protecting and restoring biodiversity around the world. It came of age in the 1980s, as humans’ impact on the Earth was becoming alarmingly clear.

In a 1985 essay, Michael Soulé, one of the field’s founders, described what he saw as the core principles of conservation biology. Soulé argued that biological diversity is inherently good and should be conserved because it has intrinsic value. He also proposed that conservation biologists should act to save biodiversity even if sound science isn’t available to inform decisions.

To critics, Soulé’s principles sounded more like environmental activism than science. What’s more, not everyone agreed then or now that biodiversity is inherently good.

After all, wild animals can destroy crops and endanger human lives. Contact with nature can lead to disease. And some conservation initiatives have displaced people from their land or prevented development that might otherwise improve people’s lives.

Valuing nature’s services

Soulé’s essay spurred many researchers to push for a more science-driven approach to conservation. They sought to directly quantify the value of ecosystems and the roles species played in them. Some scholars focused on calculating the value of ecosystems to humans.

They reached a preliminary conclusion that the total economic value of the world’s ecosystems was worth an average US$33 trillion per year in 1997 dollars. At the time, this was nearly twice the global value of the entire world’s financial markets.

This estimate included services such as predators controlling pests that would otherwise ruin crops; pollinators helping to produce fruits and vegetables; wetlands, mangroves and other natural systems buffering coasts against storms and flooding; oceans providing fish for food; and forests providing lumber and other building materials.

Researchers have refined their estimates of what these benefits are worth, but their central conclusion remains the same: Nature has shockingly high economic value that existing financial markets don’t account for.

Many experts say that conventional economic thinking fails to recognize the cost of damaging nature – but calculating values for biodiversity could change that.

A second group began to quantify the nonmonetary value of nature for human health, happiness and well-being. Studies typically had people take part in outdoor activities, such as strolling through a green space, hiking in the woods or canoeing on a lake. Later, they measured the subjects’ physical or emotional health.

This research found that spending time in nature tended to reduce blood pressure, lower hormones related to stress and anxiety, decrease the probability of depression and improve cognitive function and certain immune functions. People exposed to nature fared better than others who took part in similar activities in nonnatural settings, such as walking through a city.

Losing species weakens ecosystems

A third line of research asked a different question: When ecosystems lose species, can they still function and provide services? This work was driven mainly by experiments where researchers directly manipulated the diversity of different types of organisms in settings ranging from laboratory cultures to greenhouses, plots in fields, forests and coastal areas.

By 2010, scientists had published more than 600 experiments, manipulating over 500 groups of organisms in freshwater, marine and land ecosystems. In a 2012 review of these experiments, colleagues and I found unequivocal evidence that when ecosystems lose biodiversity, they become less efficient, less productive and less stable. And they are less able to deliver many of the services that underlie human well-being.

For example, we found strong evidence that loss of genetic diversity reduced crop yields, and loss of tree diversity reduced the amount of wood that forests produced. We also found evidence that oceans with fewer fish species produced less-reliable catches, and that ecosystems with lower plant diversity were more prone to invasive pests and diseases.

Two photos of lawns, one with one type of grass, the other with multiple grasses and clover.
A standard lawn, at left, is a monoculture that supports very little life. A more mixed, diverse version, at right, offers food for pollinators. woodleywonderworks/Flickr, CC BY

We also showed that it was possible to develop robust mathematical models that could predict reasonably well how biodiversity loss would affect certain types of valuable services from ecosystems.

Many motives for protecting nature

For years, I believed that this work had established the value of ecosystems and quantified how biodiversity provided ecosystem services. But I’ve come to realize that other arguments for protecting nature are just as valid, and often more convincing for many people.

I have worked with many people who donate money or land to support conservation. But I’ve never heard anyone say they were doing it because of the economic value of biodiversity or its role in sustaining ecosystem services.

Instead, they’ve shared stories about how they grew up fishing with their father, held family gatherings at a cabin or canoed with someone who was important to them. They wanted to pass on those experiences to their children and grandchildren to preserve familial relationships. Researchers increasingly recognize that such relational values – connections to communities and to specific places – are one of the most common reasons why people choose to conserve nature.

I also know many people who hold deep religious beliefs and are rarely swayed by scientific arguments for conservation. But when Pope Francis published his 2015 encyclical Laudato si’: On Care for Our Common Home and said God’s followers had a moral responsibility to care for his creation, my religious relatives, friends and colleagues suddenly wanted to know about biodiversity loss and what they might do about it.

Surveys show that 85% of the world’s population identifies with a major religion. Leaders of every major religion have published declarations similar to Pope Francis’ encyclical, calling on their followers to be better stewards of Earth. Undoubtedly, a large portion of humanity assigns moral value to nature.

Research clearly shows that nature provides humanity with enormous value. But some people simply believe that other species have a right to exist, or that their religion tells them to be good stewards of Earth. As I see it, embracing these diverse perspectives is the best way to get global buy-in for conserving Earth’s ecosystems and living creatures for the good of all.

Bradley J. Cardinale, Department Head, Ecosystem Science and Management, Penn State

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

See nature like (and with) a biologist in new online courses

Read the full story from Rice University.

Online learners can follow Rice University biologist and author Scott Solomon into the wild through an engaging new series of courses focused on ecology, evolution and biodiversity.

How teamwork — in nature and the lab — can teach us about climate change

Read the full story from Michigan State University.

With $12.5 million from NSF, MSU and UC Merced will help improve climate models and conservation efforts by studying symbiosis in insects, sea anemones and squid

A surprising win-win: Intensive vanilla farming and biodiversity conservation

Read the full story at Anthropocene Magazine.

Vanilla farms help boost the number of species found on land previously cleared for agriculture in Madagascar, scientists find.

New database to support conservation

Read the full story from Newcastle University.

Scientists have created a new tool to fill the large gaps in our understanding of where and how human activities threaten wild species around the world.

Gone for thousands of years, wild bison return to the UK

Read the full story at e360.

Wild bison, absent from the United Kingdom for thousands of years, are being reintroduced to a forest near Canterbury, England to help restore the woods to their natural state.

The Wilder Blean project, a partnership of Wildwood Trust and Kent Wildlife Trust, is returning bison to the West Blean and Thornden Woods, a forest dominated by just a few species, namely pines from commercial tree plantations dating back to the 1970s. The bison will knock down trees and trample over shrubs, creating space for new plants to take hold. A greater diversity of flora will attract new insects, birds, and reptiles, and will also help the woods store more carbon, conservationists say.