Webcast Recap

Picture this: Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke testifies to Congress that the majority of leading economic indicators such as retail sales and housing starts are in serious decline, and that the remaining portion—while not yet in decline—are continuing at an unsustainable pace. "[This] would be the top story on every news show," said Jonathan Lash, president of World Resources Institute (WRI). While this example is an economic fiction, it is a reality for the world's ecosystems—and few are paying attention, he said at a Wilson Center event sponsored by the Environmental Change and Security Program on May 7, 2007. Launching WRI's new publication Restoring Nature's Capital, Lash and fellow speaker Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), discussed the possible reasons for and solutions to ecosystem degradation, and debated why the topic is virtually ignored by policymakers and the media.

Understanding Ecosystem Services

In 2001, then United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for a comprehensive assessment of the health of the world's ecosystems and their ability to provide humans with the services on which we depend. The resulting 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment identifies four types of ecosystem services (the services humans derive from the natural world):

  • Provisioning services such as food and fuel;
  • Regulating services that, for example, control the climate or prevent flooding;
  • Cultural services in the form of recreational, aesthetic, and spiritual value; and
  • Supporting services that, for example, help with soil retention and nutrition.

More than 1,360 natural and social scientists, along with other experts in a variety of fields, contributed to the assessment, which concluded that of the 24 ecosystem services evaluated, 60 percent were degraded in their ability to provide humans with the needed services.

The watershed surrounding the Panama Canal is one example of an ecosystem whose health can greatly impact human activities. Deforestation in the area has resulted in increased flooding and sedimentation of the canal, Lash explained. In turn, ship insurers have raised rates for fear that transport vessels will one day be unable to navigate the canal and be forced to travel the 8,000 miles around Cape Horn.

Prioritizing Environment in Development

In the development and environment communities there is an ongoing debate over the role of environment: Can development be sacrificed for the sake of the environment? Or should the environment even play a role in development? The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA), Lash said, revealed a flaw in this thinking: environment and development are not independent choices. Rather, they are inextricably linked—by choosing one, you must choose the other: "The evidence from the MA [shows that] you can have ecosystems and development [together], or neither." The rural poor, for example, have a close relationship with the ecosystems around them. They often rely on nearby natural resources for food, jobs, and shelter; at the same time, these people are the most vulnerable to the degradation of ecosystems. Helping the rural poor, therefore, necessitates addressing both development and environment.

Raising Ecosystem Awareness

Given the clear relationship between ecosystems and the services they provide humans, both Lash and Steiner questioned what it will take for the general public to realize the importance of ecosystem protection and restoration. "There is, unfortunately, a very expensive learning curve in society that goes from science… [to] translating that science into scenarios that are real to real people," Steiner explained. Beyond this initial hurdle is a larger one—turning science into good policy. Policymakers have "great difficulty understanding state-of-the-art science because that means changing the status quo," he said

Climate change is an example of just how slow this progression—beginning with scientific study and ending in effective policy—can be. Scientists have suggested for many years that climate change is a reality, yet policymakers have taken little action, noted Steiner. However, public perception is shifting, a change which he feels can be attributed to the consistent conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Since its establishment in 1998, the IPCC has said roughly the same thing, with increasing amounts of certainty in each report: humans play a role in causing climate change. As the IPCC has repeated its message, and as more information has become available, society has started taking initial steps to adapt to and mitigate impending climatic changes. "People are feeling more vulnerable because they see certain phenomenon that may have something to do with a vision of the future that is not 1000 years away, but [could be] just 20, 30, or 50 years away," said Steiner, who added that he is optimistic that ecosystems will be soon given the same amount of attention.

Restoring Ecosystems

Drawing on the findings of the MA, Restoring Nature's Capital provides policy options for rehabilitating damaged ecosystems. The report recommends five actions that organizations and governments can take to help maintain the services humans receive from the environment:

  1. Develop and use information about ecosystem services;
  2. Strengthen the rights of local people to use and manage ecosystem services;
  3. Manage ecosystem services across multiple levels and timeframes;
  4. Improve accountability for decisions that affect ecosystem services; and
  5. Align economic and financial incentives with ecosystem stewardship.

If these five steps can be implemented, ecosystems and the services they provide will gain strength. But if not, ecosystems will continue to degrade, stripping people of the natural capital that is critical to their survival. Lash sees hope for the former scenario, noting that the environment is ripe to raise awareness about ecosystems: "Green is hot now. This is the teachable moment. When we talk about nature this time around—now that the public is paying attention—we should get beyond charismatic megafauna and talk about the value of ecosystems to human survival."

Drafted by Karin Bencala.