Speakers: Ted Nordhaus (Breakthrough Institute), Sanjayan (The Nature Conservancy), Michael Shellenberger (Breakthrough Institute), Gernot Wagner (Environmental Defense Fund), and Hazel Wong (The Nature Conservancy)
Moderator: David Owen (The New Yorker)Presented by Hot Topics in Green Science and Sustainability and The Nature Conservancy
Reported by Kelly Lombardo | Posted April 11, 2012
Over the last 5 years, there has been a substantial decline in the percentage of Americans who consider themselves environmentalists, and the environment consistently ranks as one of Americans' lowest priorities. Paradoxically, the depletion of global natural resources continues to accelerate as a result of the world's expanding population in conjunction with efforts to elevate the global standard of living. International environmental conservation movements have been restricted to diplomatic discussions, while the interests and activities of localized movements, such as those in China and India, remain in their own backyards. This conundrum motivated Creating the Next Conservation Movement, or Do We Even Need One? on Thursday, February 23, 2012. The discussion was the second part of a four-part series focused on the relationship between conservation and our increasingly urban existence, presented by Hot Topics in Green Science and Sustainability and The Nature Conservancy. Click here to view the eBriefing of part one of the series, Energy for the Next 20 Years: Protecting the Environment and Meeting Our Demands.
David Owen, staff writer for The New Yorker, moderated the discussion and introduced the idea of conservation as an issue from the past that requires revisiting. Owen intentionally kept the discussion topic broad and allowed the members of the panel to frame the direction of the conversation. Initially, each panelist gave a brief presentation encapsulating his or her specific interest within the overarching topic of conservation, which was followed by an open discussion among the panel.
Sanjayan, lead scientist for The Nature Conservancy, began by presenting contrasting images of the Earth: one illustrating the natural world as depicted several hundred years ago and one representing the current state of the planet firmly under the influence of man. He emphasized how pervasive our influence has been on the Earth, altering land areas through industrial and agricultural development, as well as the oceans through shipping and fishing. While these changes have allowed our modern way of life, they have also permanently altered the natural world. Regardless of our actions, Sanjayan believes there is little chance of the Earth returning to its pure, pre-anthropocene state. Consequently, to build a successful conservation movement, Sanjayan explained that we must first clarify our expectations and collective vision for the Earth's future. We can subsequently develop and implement a clear strategy to reach the desired goal, harnessing our future aspirations for the planet while preserving our current quality of life.
This image illustrates the dramatic and widespread direct modification of the Earth's ecosystems by humans, through agricultural and technological development. Land areas shaded in red and ocean regions shaded in orange highlight the most heavily affected regions. (Image courtesy of Sanjayan)
Ted Nordhaus, co-founder and chairman of Breakthrough Institute, emphasized the importance of technology in achieving our environmental objectives. Climate scientists project that by 2050, an 80% reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions, such as carbon dioxide emissions, is required to prevent environmental destruction induced by global warming. Nordhaus explained that the amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere is sensitive to several behavioral variables, including global population and wealth. The global population is anticipated to expand from 7 billion to 9 billion by 2050, causing an estimated 43% increase in carbon dioxide emissions. Concomitantly, global wealth is also expected to rise. If, on average, the global population becomes $6,000 wealthier per capita, carbon dioxide emissions will rise 67%. The combined impact of growth in global population and in wealth will lead to an exponential increase in greenhouse gases, thwarting attempts to reduce emissions by 80%. Given this outlook, Nordhaus feels that altering our personal behaviors would not be enough to counterbalance the escalating pollution, and radical technological advancements in green technology are the only viable solution.
Nordhaus elucidated the role of the United States government in developing and realizing clean, sustainable technologies. Though the U.S. government is one of the largest energy-consuming and carbon-producing entities in the world, their carbon footprint—the amount of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere as a result of the government’s activities—is insignificant compared to their contribution to innovation, according to Nordhaus. The government makes large investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies, with the goal of reducing their future operating costs through innovation. As a direct and very demanding user of green technologies, the government is crucial to advancing carbon-neutral energy production methods, Nordhaus explained.
Michael Shellenberger, co-founder and president of Breakthrough Institute, elaborated on the importance of technology in meeting our environmental objectives. Within this century, the majority of the global population will have achieved a relatively affluent standard of living, incorporating electricity, sewage systems, and public heath systems into their daily lives. Though a humanitarian achievement, the elevation of developing nations from poverty places further burden on our natural resources and accelerates the emission of polluting greenhouse gases. Shellenberger argued that a reduction in the global population’s carbon footprint would not be enough to offset the impact of this rapid development on the environment. Recent techniques, such as raising the price of fossil fuels to discourage use of polluting energy production methods, have had limited success. Shellenberger agreed with Nordhaus's assessment of the crucial role of green technology in alleviating this environmental crisis. Currently, private sector companies are developing renewable technologies, such as next-generation wind turbines, solar panels, and hydroelectric dams. However, independent businesses are unable to assume the risks that accompany the rapid and efficient advancement of green technology, with great strides only achievable through direct government assistance, according to Shellenberger.
Gernot Wagner, economist at the Environmental Defense Fund, echoed Nordhaus's and Shellenberger's conclusion that behavioral change alone will not meaningfully contribute to environmental conservation. While Wagner agrees that technological advancements are important, he feels that such progress will only be realized with the support of government policies. To elucidate this idea, Wagner explained that there are externalities, costs and benefits not transparent in prices, associated with our personal actions. For example, during a cross-country flight, the amount of carbon dioxide emitted from an airplane may cause an estimated $20 in damage, referred to as the “social cost of carbon.” This cost is a monetary estimate of damage to society, caused by floods, droughts, famine, mass migrations, civil instability, and war induced by anthropogenic climate change. To compensate for this negative externality, individuals should pay for the damage they cause. In this example, Wagner suggested that the cost of the original ticket for the flight should increase by twenty dollars as compensation. Wagner explained that to achieve this type of evenhanded economic redistribution would require the implementation of government policy.
Wagner also described positive externalities, those that contribute to technological progress, associated with personal actions. Through their inventions, entrepreneurs provide the building blocks for further technological innovation while their failures prevent others from proceeding down unfruitful paths on which they would waste time and resources. While Wagner noted that pecuniary support for innovation is important, he remarked that government policy is crucial in obtaining financial incentives for these projects. Wagner explained that countries with the most successful technological innovations in the green economy are also the ones that embrace government policies enforcing firm control on the cost of fossil fuels.
While much of the previous discussion focused on direct methods to limit further degradation of the environment, Hazel Wong, internal consultant to the Nature Conservancy, returned the conversation to the direct development of a conservation movement. Wong explained that a major stumbling block for conservation movements has been the inability of the environmental community to communicate with the general population effectively. Approximately 36% of Americans consider themselves environmentally friendly, yet the vast majority does not make financial contributions to environmental causes. To gain support of the general population, the environmental community needs to speak to the personal values of the American people, which can vary considerably. While 40% of Americans feel it is important to protect nature for nature's sake, the remaining 60% would like to understand the benefits gained from their personal sacrifices. Wong believes that to build a successful conservation movement, the environmental community must understand the values important to these Americans, such as clean water, hunting, fishing, or hiking, and must inspire interest in preserving the environment based on these values.
Wong described conservation as a bipartisan issue in America, with those in favor of protecting the land, water, and wildlife represented in all political parties. However, while a large, diverse group of people support conservation, this support is not reflected in government decisions. Wong explained that uniting these supporters is a challenge the environmentalist community must overcome if they wish to achieve their goals.
Media available from panel discussion featuring:
Ted Nordhaus (Breakthrough Institute)
Sanjayan (The Nature Conservancy)
Michael Shellenberger (Breakthrough Institute)
Gernot Wagner (Environmental Defense Fund)
Hazel Wong (The Nature Conservancy)
Moderator: David Owen (The New Yorker)
Use the tab above to find multimedia from this event.