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World Might Yet Be Saved

If we hurry, global warming, overpopulation can be curbed, says report.

Traci Hukill 2 Feb

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The authors of the world's most overlooked environmental study held a press briefing in Washington to discuss what life on the planet will be like in 2050. Their upbeat conclusion: fundamental changes, in practice and policy, can protect us from the worst consequences of overpopulation and climate change.

Good news -- if anybody pays attention.

While it may not be a verifiable fact that the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) is the world's most underappreciated eco-study, it's definitely the most unevenly appreciated one. When the huge report first emerged last spring after four years, $24 million and the efforts of more than 1,300 scientists in 95 countries, it made headlines elsewhere. In December, it was awarded a Zayed Prize, something like an environmentalist Nobel. Here in North America, though, the media barely registered its existence.

What a dirty shame. The U.N.-backed Millennium Assessment is the most thorough survey of global ecosystems ever undertaken. It's also the first report of its kind to link ecosystem health to human well-being, and in so doing, strikes the rich, rich vein of human self-interest. Showing people what's in it for them is a great way to get something done.

Earth's 'service' sector

At the press conference, Walt Reid, who directed the study and now teaches at Stanford University in California, restated the report's radical conclusions and issued a stern warning.

The report's basic premise is that healthy ecosystems provide humans with a range of "services" -- things like food, clean water, clean air, buffers from natural disasters and even spiritual renewal. To the extent that these "ecosystem services" are degraded, so is the quality of human life.

And without serious behavior modification, we're headed for a bad run, Reid said. "We've badly mismanaged our ecosystems," he said. "As long as we regard ecosystem services as free and limitless, we will continue to use them in a way that does not make sense." Reid enumerated the main findings of the study he directed, which concluded that 60 percent of the planet's ecosystem services are being run down or used up faster than they can replenish themselves.

Poor people suffer most from such environmental degradation because their reliance on ecosystems is immediate. When a forest is wiped out, the people who relied on its animals and plants die. The Millennium Assessment amasses vast amounts of data demonstrating human suffering as a result of environmental destruction. And it predicts more pain to come as earth's swelling population pushes more ecosystems to their thresholds and toward extinctions and other "abrupt and irreversible" changes.

How to reverse trends

Last week's briefing focused on what governments can do to reverse these trends. Reid, along with Stephen Carpenter, zoology professor at the University of Wisconsin, and Prabhu Pingali, an economist at the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, presented four scenarios for the year 2050 that represent distinct paths into the future. They are all disturbing.

All start out assuming a couple of basic facts in the next 45 years: a significantly higher population (up from 6 billion to 8.1 to 9.6 billion) with attendant demands for more food and water, and fallout from climate change, like severe storms and dwindling water supplies.

The scientists were careful to say these are not whimsical predictions but carefully thoughtout theoretical possibilities. And one of the dismaying facts to emerge is that even the best scenarios have a downside.

Good news, if…

But the presenters last week were resolutely optimistic. "It's a good news message," Carpenter said. "We can make a very positive difference in ecosystem services by 2050. The caveat is that fundamental changes would have to be undertaken."

The primary shift would be a change in attitude about ecosystem services. The value of much of nature's work is analogous to the "invisible work" of housewives, who may not function directly within the market but play a critical supporting role that keeps it running. "Governments must consider the full range of ecosystem services benefits, not just those that pass through the markets like fish and timber," Reid said.

Therefore, the value of mangrove forests in protecting Pacific islands (or cypress forests protecting Gulf Coast cities) from storm damage needs to be factored into economic decisions about whether to cut them down to make way for another shrimp farm or suburb. A wetlands' value to society as a water filtration facility needs to be weighed against the value of filling it and selling it to a developer for a one-time benefit to a single owner.

This is where subsidies come into play. Reid, Carpenter and Pingali emphasized the possibilities of using them in creative ways, as in the TechnoGarden scenario.

In economist-speak, Pingali summed up the conference on a hopeful note:

"I'd like to emphasize one fundamental lesson," he said. "Economic policy can contribute to sustainable ecosystem services over the long run."

Traci Hukill is a freelance journalist based in Monterey, Calif. This article is distributed by Alternet.  [Tyee]

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