To protect ecosystem services, front-load investment in environmental intelligence.

Meteorologists aren’t alone in making forecasts. Ecologists make them too. One such recent forecast suggests that without major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere, terrestrial ecosystems worldwide are at risk of major transformation, with accompanying disruption of ecosystem services and impacts on biodiversity.

Disruption of ecosystem services? Just what are ecosystem services, and how concerned should we be? Some LOTRW readers may be all too familiar with these notions, but here’s a bit of background for the rest of us, lifted from the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, by way of Wikipedia (with some minor edits):

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment report 2005 defines ecosystem services as benefits people obtain from ecosystems and distinguishes four categories of ecosystem services, where the so-called supporting services are regarded as the basis for the services of the other three categories.

Supporting services: These include services such as nutrient recycling, primary production and soil formation. These services make it possible for the ecosystems to provide services such as food supply, flood regulation, and water purification.

Provisioning services: food (including seafood and game), crops, wild foods, and spices;raw materials (including lumber, skins, fuel wood, organic matter, fodder, and fertilizer); genetic resources (including crop improvement genes, and health care);

water; biogenic minerals; medicinal resources (including pharmaceuticals, chemical models, and test and assay organisms); energy (hydropower, biomass fuels); ornamental resources (including fashion, handicraft, jewelry, pets, worship, decoration and souvenirs like furs, feathers, ivory, orchids, butterflies, aquarium fish, shells, etc.).

Regulating services: pollination; carbon sequestration and climate regulation; waste decomposition and detoxification; purification of water and air; pest and disease control.

Cultural services: cultural (including use of nature as motif in books, film, painting, folklore, national symbols, architect, advertising, etc.); spiritual and historical (including use of nature for religious or heritage value or natural); recreational experiences (including ecotourism, outdoor sports, and recreation); science and education (including use of natural systems for school excursions, and scientific discovery); therapeutic (including ecotherapy, social forestry and animal assisted therapy)

All this calls to mind another ecological forecast (maybe more of a nowcast) that appeared in the journal Global Environmental Change four years ago: Changes in the global value of ecosystem services, by Robert Costanza and a handful of co-authors. Here’s a link-to-a-link, offering these highlights and an abstract:

  • Global loss of ecosystem services due to land use change is $US 4.3–20.2 trillion/yr.
  • Ecoservices contribute more than twice as much to human well-being as global GDP.
  • Estimates in monetary units are useful to show the relative magnitude of ecoservices.
  • Valuation of ecosystem services is not the same as commodification or privatization.
  • Ecosystem services are best considered public goods requiring new institutions.

In 1997, the global value of ecosystem services was estimated to average $33 trillion/yr in 1995 $US ($46 trillion/yr in 2007 $US). In this paper, we provide an updated estimate based on updated unit ecosystem service values and land use change estimates between 1997 and 2011. We also address some of the critiques of the 1997 paper. Using the same methods as in the 1997 paper but with updated data, the estimate for the total global ecosystem services in 2011 is $125 trillion/yr (assuming updated unit values and changes to biome areas) and $145 trillion/yr (assuming only unit values changed), both in 2007 $US. From this we estimated the loss of eco-services from 1997 to 2011 due to land use change at $4.3–20.2 trillion/yr, depending on which unit values are used. Global estimates expressed in monetary accounting units, such as this, are useful to highlight the magnitude of eco-services, but have no specific decision-making context. However, the underlying data and models can be applied at multiple scales to assess changes resulting from various scenarios and policies. We emphasize that valuation of eco-services (in whatever units) is not the same as commodification or privatization. Many eco-services are best considered public goods or common pool resources, so conventional markets are often not the best institutional frameworks to manage them. However, these services must be (and are being) valued, and we need new, common asset institutions to better take these values into account.

Mr. Costanza has been thinking about these matters for quite a while; his work is groundbreaking, and unsurprisingly has attracted critics; you can find a few links to some of that here. But to bystanders, the criticism is reminiscent of the line often attributed to Gandhi: “first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.[1]

Assuming the annual losses in the value of ecosystem services to be at the high end suggests they’ll be reduced to something like 50% of their current value in only five or so years; even if annual losses are at the low end, the ecosystem services would fall to something like half their current value in, say, thirty years. Given how long it seems to take seven billion people to reach agreement on the problems they face, even this more optimistic estimate is hardly occasion for cheer.

This brings us back to environmental intelligence and its pivotal role in human affairs. NOAA and its forecast services (especially those provided by the NWS) provide a useful (and heartening example), in two respects. First is the focus on so-called Impact-based Decision Support. Recognition that weather, water, and climate impacts on ecosystems – and humankind’s role in shaping these – matter, and matter rather urgently, is an essential starting point. An interesting aspect of the IDSS framework is that it constrains direct NOAA forecast services largely to public-sector customers, a constraint that matters in the context of the public-private sector collaboration fundamental to IDSS. But providing IDSS to those concerned with the management of ecosystems and ecosystem services greatly expands the customer range to numerous public agencies and NGO’s and in the process calls for some reexamination and perhaps rebalancing of public-private collaboration.

The second, companion idea is the aspirational goal of a Weather-Ready Nation, which is largely about building community-level readiness with respect to weather hazards and extremes. Ecologists are telling us that decadal-time-frame weather and climate impacts on ecosystems are existential, but we don’t respond well to such long-term problems. We work best on situations and challenges that are daily and local.

Weather is one such challenge. Raising awareness about daily weather impacts, and building day-to-day readiness, engenders receptivity to the longer-term problems we face, moves our society in the right direction.

Right direction? Sure enough, but at far too slow a pace. Protection and maintenance of ecosystem services will demand attention from all of us – all seven billion. But environmental intelligence is difference between effective action and wasted effort. We can’t work fast enough to build our store of understanding about how the Earth and its ecosystems function as a whole and in part; and our ability to predict how it’s trending locally and globally, in the short-term and over decades. Such investment is the essential foundation for placing wise bets.

Global investments in environmental intelligence infrastructure should be front-end loaded.


[1]To bystanders, the wide error bars Mr. Costanza provides to his statements and estimates inspire a measure of trust; and his work certainly fits within the category of useful “views” lauded by Darwin in his quote appearing on the LOTRW masthead.

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