To protect natural resources, put a price tag on them, say scientists

As climate change shifts natural resources around the globe, wealth will follow. 

XL Catlin Seaview Survey/AP/Photo illustration
The photo at left, taken in December 2014, shows coral in American Samoa. The photo at right shows the same coral in in February 2014.

Scientists expect that climate change will dramatically impact the environment and dislocate many species – such as plants, trees and fish – which will have to move from their current habitats to new ones in order to adapt. And where those species go, so goes the their economic value.

This is already happening with fish, reports Rutgers University marine biologist Malin Pinsky, some of which are moving toward the cooler poles as global temperatures rise, a trend that might benefit commercial fishermen near the poles, but harm the ones in non-polar regions who currently depend on the resource for their livelihoods.

So the big question looming over fishing communities, policymakers and conservationists, is how is this wealth being redistributed?

“Just moving stuff around the globe via climate change, that will change the amount of wealth the globe has as a whole,” Eli Fenichel, an environmental economist at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, tells The Christian Science Monitor.

Dr. Fenichel says that to figure out where wealth is moving and to plan accordingly, it’s time for better accounting. This means treating natural resources, such as fish, like any other capital asset, be it land or stocks.

“Just measuring physical quantities is not enough to understand how climate change can impact wellbeing and wealth in society,” says Dr. Fenichel, the lead author on Wednesday’s paper on the topic in the journal Nature Climate Change.

“We need ways of thinking about measuring sustainability … so policymakers can use this information to help negotiate reasonable climate change management agreements,” he says.

Economists have been calling for an updated measure of wealth around the globe for at least a century. It should include the value of natural resources, they say, the skills of the labor force, health, education, and bridges, for example. Countries now measure wealth by tracking their gross domestic product, which is basically the national income.

In the last couple of decades economists have started to figure out how to include measures of “natural capital” and “human capital” into the accounting.

“The problem has been ‘how do you go out and measure that?’” says Fenichel.

There wasn’t enough data, until now.

“With new technologies and the Internet, the arguments that we don’t have the data or that it’s too hard to wrangle is just going away,” Fenichel says.

In the case of fish, for example, economists can use fish stock assessment data, with behavioral measure of fisherman who respond to fishing quotas based on that assessment, and their resulting profits to help calculate the value of that resource to a community. The idea is to empower the community to manage the natural resource better so it can maintain its value over the long term.

A good analogy is a house: give it to someone who takes care of it, and it will hold its value for years. Give it to someone who trashes it, and the house will decline in value.

The biggest winners in nature’s redistribution of wealth will be communities that make smart investments, say the authors of Wednesday’s study.

“If wealthier communities and countries are more likely to have strong resource management, then these wealthy groups are more likely to benefit, thus exacerbating inequality,” says Fenichel.

But of course, the opposite could also be true.

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