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Ecosystem Services and Natural Capital.

These are my predictions for the hot sustainability topics of 2014.

The first, Ecosystem Services, helps you account for all the ways that the natural world benefits people. (A tree gives shade, timber, fuel, etc.)

The second, Natural Capital, puts a value on those things. (How much is that tree worth to you? What’s the one-time value of it as timber, fuel and materials? What’s the ongoing value to you while it stands for how it holds carbon, cleans the air, stores water, gives shade, offers habitat?)

And, keep an eye out for how conversations with these terms increasingly focus on two things:

1. A narrower focus on our choices impact humans, specifically. (And less about the bigger picture of protecting the environment and non-human species as well.)

2. How our choices about using natural resources have a measurable monetary cost.

Here are two new articles bearing these twinned themes out.

The first an op-ed is from former NJ governor and former EPA head Christine Todd Whitman.

Via NJSpotlight.com:

Assessing the Long-Term Costs of Ignoring the Environment

Pundits and politicians tend to present economic development and environmental regulation as opponents in a zero-sum game. Such a view is shortsighted and foolish; we need to take a longer-term view of the affects that our actions toward our surroundings have on our health and our safety –- two resources that once lost cannot simply be repurchased.

Thankfully, we now have research and measurement tools we did not have at our disposal decades ago, and it behooves us to utilize those tools to view environmental protection through the lens of our future and our children’s future. In our benevolent mission to grow the economy, we should not be in too great a rush to ignore environmental testing and results. The price we pay at the end is much greater than we can afford, both in terms of dollars and human lives. [emphases added]

Note how Whitman focuses on humans’ well-being and the costs of our actions.

The second is an excellent long read by philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs.

Via OZY.com:

Ian Khama and Placing a Value on Nature

Assigning a real economic value to nature is thus a vital piece of building a sustainable global economy. But the real leadership on the issue is not coming from the G-20, the nonprofit world or anywhere you might expect. It’s coming from Africa.

And valuing natural capital is not just about accounting for costs; it’s also about using the price mechanism to set an acceptable level of natural degradation and to prevent an intolerable level—the point at which the price should become essentially unaffordable or priceless, because we have reached a level of pollution or degradation that we are unwilling to cross as a society. As those wearing face masks in Beijing can attest, you don’t realize just how priceless clean air, water and food are until you lose them.

Whitman and Jobs agree on the value of being able to value nature more rigorously. But what I love about Jobs’ article is that she explicitly goes further. I believe that Whitman is good intentioned, but her words make me think she hasn’t come very far at all from a status quo, incremental changes mindset.

I see this in her words that some things, once lost, “cannot simply be repurchased.”

Once lost, human health and safety can’t be repurchased at all.

Because they never should have been sold to begin with.

Jobs hits the mark that Whitman misses: once we know the true cost of some actions, the right action might be not to do them at all.

Here are the things that caught my eye in 2014.

Some are noteworthy but unnoticed. Others soaked up a lot of well-deserved attention and ink.

All contributed to the growing tide of awareness that climate change action is urgently needed now.

Feb 28
Shell Bets on solar as dominant energy source by 2100, in little-noticed report

Carbon Brief

Mar 19
Pope Francis assumes the Papacy and chooses the patron saint of the environment
as his name
Pope Francis carpools, downsizes, blesses, kisses, lives modestly, and reminds the world to care for the world’s poorest people. In his homily, Francis described the church’s mission as “respecting each of God’s creatures and respecting the environment in which we live.”
The Guardian

April 10
Ceres’ Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy (BICEP) launches the Climate Declaration
Climate Counts

April 18
Carbon Tracker releases its Unburnable Carbon report
New York Times

April 18
Bill McKibben’s 350.org’s fossil fuel divestment group releases “Do the Math”
Good

May 10
Climate hits 400ppm of CO2 for first time in 3 million years
Treehugger

June 25
President Obama announces his Climate Plan
The White House

Aug 19
IPPC report predicts near certainty on human-caused climate change
New York Times

Oct 10
LA Times announces it won’t public climate denier letters
Grist

Oct 24
Acknowleging reality and poking the bear, investors ask oil, coal and power companies for climate risk information
Forbes
Ceres

Nov 7
Super Typhoon Haiyan makes landfall in the Phillippines
Wikipedia

Nov 11
Yeb Sano pleads for climate action at the UN meeting in Warsaw
Youtube

Nov 21
Civil society and environmental groups walk out of UN Climate meeting talks to protest inaction
The Guardian

Dec 6
Signaling a foregone conclusion, 29 companies reveal they are already factoring a carbon price into their finances
Carbon Disclosure Project

Dec 16
Demonstrating momentum for pro-science climate action, Reddit science forum bans climate deniers

Grist

Yes. Please.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy and U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Ernest Moniz will testify before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Energy and Power tomorrow at 10:00 a.m. EDT at a hearing to discuss President Obama’s climate change policies.

Why does this matter?

Because:

a) This discussion has been a long time coming. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives hasn’t wanted to talk about it.

b) High-ranking Congresspeople who are on record as denying Climate Change will likely, once again, deny that human-caused Climate Change is a problem for our country and the world. That is good, overall. Sunlight disinfects.

So why now?

c) President Obama is set to announce a new EPA Carbon Pollution Standard on Friday. Without Congress’ help. This ruling will limit greenhouse gas emissions from newly built power plants.

Out of sight is not out of reach.

The NJ Supreme Court ruled today that the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has the right to inspect private property covered by the state’s Wetlands Protection Act when they have grounds to suspect a violation has occurred.

With conditions.

Via Enviropoliticsblog.blogspot.com:

NJ’s top court rules on DEP access to private property

and NJSpotlight.com’s Tom Johnson:

State’s Top Court Curbs How Far DEP Can Go With Wetland Inspections

This settles years of litigation that had bounced up to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court declined to hear the case and bounced it back to NJ’s top court.

The homeowners are required to pay the levied fine. As well, they must repair the wetlands they illegally filled in on their property. Going forward, DEP officials will need to notify property owners before inspections.

In our post-Sandy world, this is an important decision about how NJ citizens need to balance the rights of property owners versus the rights of everyone else.

 

“Less bad is not good enough.”

The world is running out of time.

We need to do better. Much better. And a whole lot faster.

And we need to do it together, because the problems we face as a global community are interconnected and inextricably interdependent.

It feels impossible. But it’s not.

Here’s an inspiring framework for how to do it.

Seven Policy Switches for Global Security
NATO Advanced Research Workshop. Split, Croatia 17th-19th June 2009. Published Sept 2010. Publisher’s link for institutional readers.  Link to full paper for public discussion.
Author: James Greyson

This paper offers a selection of seven simple ‘policy switches’ (or ‘leverage points’ in complex systems).

Each policy switch offers an expanded vision of people’s role on Earth and a whole-system change to implement it.

Together the switches define a practical strategy for global security, for a serious attempt at revival of co-operation, ecosystems and prosperity.

This framework is not new. Just to me.

And it’s possible.

Here’s proof. Several sharp people on Twitter noticed how Sugata Mitra’s February 2013 TED Talk & TED prize-winning idea for a School in the Cloud fits Policy Switch 2 very nicely:

Switch 2: Learning led by curiosity, not routines.

Watch it:

Feb 2013 Sugata Mitra TED Build a School in the Cloud

If we build it, they will learn.

Inspiring.

Dismiss nonconforming facts as irrelevant to your position.

That’s not what Mr. Nocera meant to say in his latest New York Times column, but that’s what I got out of it.

Mr. Nocera holds that we should let the Keystone XL pipeline go through because it won’t make a greasy drop of difference in the Big Picture.

I disagree with Mr. Nocera. For me, and many others, it’s a line in the (tar) sands.

This position is eloquently stated by this New York Times commentor, responding to Mr. Nocera’s Feb. 10 column on the same topic.

You can always argue that a line drawn in the sand is at an arbitrary place, and could be moved back a bit. But a line has to be drawn, and saying no to this pipeline seems a good place. Shifting to cleaner energy will not be painless, and it won’t happen until we either stop using dirty fuels voluntarily or they run out. If we continually find excuses for waiting until they run out, we will leave our descendants a very nasty planet.

I believe it’s in the best interests of our country’s future prosperity and health to say no to the Keystone XL pipeline. For lots of reasons, all well and ably described by Bill McKibben, 350.org and the tens of thousands of people who marched in D.C. this past Sunday.

So rather than rehashing, I’ll put in my $.02 as a communications person.

Mr. Nocera loses credibility in my eyes with two little words: Well, maybe.

The column starts off well enough with the promise of a conversation with climate scientist Dr. James Hansen. When Dr. Hansen finally shows up in the eighth paragraph,  Mr. Nocera dismisses the evidence Dr. Hansen brings to the table nonchalantly. Just so.

Via NYTimes.com:

How Not to Fix Climate Change

He said that such a tax could reduce emissions by 30 percent within 10 years. Well, maybe.

That’s like saying, “Stop smoking and you’ll reduce your cancer risks. Well, maybe.”

With that small, dismissive, statement, Mr. Nocera shows his hand.

It says to me that he’s not really open to accounting for all the costs involved, including the true costs of negative environmental impacts.

This commentor, jb smith from Brooklyn, NY put it perfectly:

Mr. Nocera completely overlooks the other environmental impacts of extracting oil from tar sands. Aside from the fact that processing tar sands produces 12 to 14% more carbon emissions than standard oil production, the effects of water pollution and large scale strip mining necessary to process this source are horrendous.

I am sorry Mr. Nocera, you need to be honest on the true environmental costs if you are going to pontificate on this subject. I am sorry, but solving the problem needs a full accounting of the true costs to the long term viability of our planet, and not some anecdotal analysis that glosses over these problems.

That’s the bigger picture. No maybe about it.

It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.

Right?

Take our planet’s climate crisis. Terrifying.

As in:

“Unless We Take Action On Climate Change, Future Generations Will Be Roasted, Toasted, Fried And Grilled”

(This from a banker, no less.)

On the bright side, the coming on of wind and solar energy, of smart grids and resilient planning, is exciting.

So how we talk about climate change, energy policy, and everything else in the sustainability conversation, really matters.

As a communications person, this is my job:

Help people understand. So they take action.

Surprisingly (or not, if you’ve been there), the first hurdle is getting everyone on the team working together. Muddled messaging wreaks major havoc.

A new article talks about this very issue.

Adam James at American Progress wrote a thoughtful piece about resolving differences of opinion and approach in the new energy community.

Via theenergycollective.com:

Energy Innovation vs. Deployment: Addressing Differences on Communications and Policy

He breaks the problem and solution down into three steps:

1. Get clear about messaging

What can be done? First, separate the communications debate from the policy debate, and try to have a real conversation about the merits of each messaging approach given the outcomes we are trying to achieve.

2. Get clear about messages

Second, discuss the policy agenda outside the context of this conversation about messaging, to isolate the items where there is substantial agreement.

3. Rally around agreement

Third, galvanize around the agenda items where there is significant agreement, and push for those policies based on whatever strategy can be salvaged out of the communications discussion.

As an illustration of the above in action, I’d probably swap the first two points (#1).  So the message drives messaging (#2). But that’s just a quibble (#3).

I firmly believe that when people know better, they do better. As a messenger, it’s my job to help that happen.

Time to stand up for the S-word.

Sustainability.

Most people I talk to still don’t know what this word means.  I have to say, “Like green. But bigger. Everything a company or community does to stop messing up the planet.”

That generally makes the light bulb go on. In my experience, there is still a pretty low awareness of Sustainability as a profitable business approach.

So we know there’s a gap in understanding. That’s why there is real, honest debate about the S-Word in the corporate and environmental communities.

Like this: Joel  Makower’s Why Sustainability Execs Should Shun the S-Word

And this:  Matt Polsky’s Do We Still Need the S-Word?

And even the “let’s come up with something better”: Kathrin Winkler’s An idea for 2013: Crowdsourcing Sustainability

For myself, I land on the S-word side. Sustainability is a perfectly good word.

Imperfect, perhaps, in explaining the full spectrum of doing right the right things for people, profits and the planet. But generally positive and moving in the right direction.

Which is why it makes me nuts when a political group grabs hold and twists it into something else.

Get this. The major of Provo, Utah, John Curtis, has acquiesced to Agenda 21 conspiracy theorists’ concerns and said he won’t use the S-word anymore.

Provo Mayor Accused Of Participating In Agenda 21

(KUTV) Tonight the mayor of a Utah County city is editing his words after accusations that Provo might be under the control of a sinister plan by the United Nations to take over the world.

Mayor John Curtis wrote a blog, mostly tongue in cheek, saying he will no longer use the word “sustainable” when talking about the city’s budget

When Curtis says sustainable budget he says it means not spending more money than the city has. But there is a world out there, lead primarily by glen beck who says sustainability is just a code word for a United Nations environmental scheme to take over the world by eliminating property rights. The program is known as Agenda 21.

Curtis was perplexed by accusations of Agenda 21 agents infiltrating Provo and he says many residents have told the mayor to watch his back.

Curtis began researching Agenda 21 and he stumbled upon a list of 100 words to watch for to see if your city council is under UN control and at the top of the list is sustainability.  The list contains many other words city governments use all the time.

Curtis says Provo leaders are only influenced by Provo voters but sometimes he says getting some people to believe him isn’t always sustainable.

“The moment you tell them you don’t have to worry about Agenda 21,” Curtis says, “they worry about agenda 21.”

Mayor Curtis seems to have his sense of humor intact and his priorities straight. In essence, he’s saying: Fine. You don’t like me using a certain word because for you it has connections to a conspiracy theory? Then I won’t use it. Problem solved. Now on to the People’s Business.

He says as much on his blog.

Via provomayor.blogspot.com:

Sustainability is Officially Out in Provo

Merriam-Websterdefines sustainability as “using a resource so that the resource is not depleted.” For three years we have been using the word sustainable in reference to our budget. The intent is that we want a budget that is based on principles that endure. In other words, if our budget is sustainable  we are not spending more than our revenue. I know what your thinking – government never worries about how it spends its money. Right?I’ve sadly learned coming into elected office that too often elected officials spend money they don’t have. It’s the easy thing to do to kick the can down the road and let the next group of elected officials deal with problems. One of the aspects I admire most about our City Council members is that they get it. They are willing to make the hard decisions today to protect the fiscal future of our City.None of that has changed but I’ve come to the conclusion that we need to have a better name. I could live with the fact that some thought of the green movement when they heard us use the term “sustainability” but now something called Agenda 21 is convincing people that the word is evil and that anyone who uses it is working with the United Nations to overthrow civilization as we know it! (cue the Darth Vader music) If this is the case, they’re really good because no UN official has EVER contacted me – very stealth!So if you hear I’m in league with the United Nations to destroy Provo because I use the term “sustainability” you’ll likely first scratch your head and then understand why I think I need to find a better word to describe our efforts.

Mayor Curtis is quite rightly (in my book) using Sustainable to mean governing sensibly for the City’s fiscal future.

So the problem here isn’t with the word. The problem is with the people who are twisting it.

I suspect that Mayor Curtis is doing a bit of face-saving here. I admire and respect Mayor Curtis’ attempt to thread the needle. If it makes people happy that he won’t use “that word,” and it means he can get on with running the city, that seems fair enough.

But when we appease bullies, they keep pushing. Don’t be surprised if they come back and tell you there’s another word you can’t use. I’m not worried at all about Mayor Curtis. He seems more than up for the challenge.

Three new Climate Change articles worth your time.

Nutshell: Where things stand, why,  and what to do about it.

1. Where Thing Stand: Worse than we thought

Via grist.org:

Famed climate economist Nicholas Stern: ‘I underestimated the risks’ of climate change

Published in 2006, the “Stern Review Report on the Economics of Climate Change” suggested that climate change would result in a 5 percent drop in the annual gross domestic product in perpetuity, and that stabilizing the climate would itself cost 2 percent — a massive sum.

Last week in Davos, however, Stern suggested that his conclusions were wrong. They were too optimistic. In an interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Stern, who is now a crossbench peer, said: “Looking back, I underestimated the risks. The planet and the atmosphere seem to be absorbing less carbon than we expected, and emissions are rising pretty strongly. Some of the effects are coming through more quickly than we thought then.”

“This is potentially so dangerous that we have to act strongly. Do we want to play Russian roulette with two bullets or one? These risks for many people are existential.”

2. Why We Aren’t Doing Anything About It

Via CSRwire.com:

Acting As If Tomorrow Matters: Mapping the Obstacles to Sustainability

Habit-The sheer force of existing unsustainable habits — personal, social, organizational, and governmental — reinforced by both lack of urgency and uncertainty about what more sustainable behavior would entail. Essentially, sustainability requires all of us in all of our roles to do things in different and more sustainable ways. To do that, we need to take the time and effort to change something we have done, probably without much thought, for a while.

Unsupportive or hostile law and governance is the second area of obstacles. As many of us are all too aware, the legal playing field is often biased against sustainable alternatives.  Fossil fuels tend to get sustainable vs unsustainable developmentmore, and more permanent, financial support from the federal government — in the form of tax incentives and subsidies — than renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Politics–Political opposition and the growing influence of other countries. In principle, sustainable development is middle ground because it is does not put the environment over development, or development over the environment, but rather emphasizes both equally. But because it is based on a preference for sustainable development over unsustainable development, fossil fuel interests have funded climate change denial campaigns and political candidates who oppose action on climate change.

In practice, these obstacles reinforce each other.

3. What We Might Want to Start Doing

Via treehugger.com:

Why Environmentalists Need to Talk More About the Basics and Stop Skipping Steps

To Protect Nature, We Have to Be More Convincing
If you consider yourself an environmentalist, or green, or care at all about the life-support systems of our blue marble of a planet, one of the best things you can do to help is to convince others of what must be done. This is simple math. One person, even doing their best, usually cannot achieve as much as a group working together. But bringing others on board can be pretty hard. If you’ve tried before, you’ve probably noticed that people fall into three groups: Those that are already on board on one end of the spectrum, those that for various ideological reasons won’t be convinced even by a mountain of evidence on the other, and a large group of open minded but fairly neutral people in the middle.

 

I wear my PFD every time I kayak.

That’s Personal Flotation Device, more commonly known as a lifejacket.

Even though I am an experienced kayaker. Even in calm water. .

For lots of reasons. It sets a good example for the rest of the kayaking community.

Two, my PFD has pockets for gear and snacks.

Third, if I become unconscious, the PFD will help keep my head above water.

But mostly, I wear it because if an accident happens, I won’t have time to put it on. By definition, accidents are unexpected events.

So I take prudent steps to reduce my risk of personal injury and death. (Sadly, people die every year while kayaking.)

And honestly, I can’t afford not to wear it. My own health aside, I have a family and friends to think about.

On the flipside, I don’t worry or spend money planning for highly unlikely, rare possibilities. You’d never launch if you did.

Which is why, given my bent, I find Jared Diamond’s New York Times essay on risk and personal decision-making such a good read. Daily life has risks. Humans are famously bad at knowing which ones are likely and which aren’t.

Via nytimes.com:

That Daily Shower Can Be a Killer

Studies have compared Americans’ perceived ranking of dangers with the rankings of real dangers, measured either by actual accident figures or by estimated numbers of averted accidents. It turns out that we exaggerate the risks of events that are beyond our control, that cause many deaths at once or that kill in spectacular ways — crazy gunmen, terrorists, plane crashes, nuclear radiation, genetically modified crops.

At the same time, we underestimate the risks of events that we can control (“That would never happen to me — I’m careful”) and of events that kill just one person in a mundane way.

This nexus of risk assessment and personal decision making plays out everywhere. And not just in personal, individual choices.

Public policy essentially boils down to: How much money are we willing to spend, to manage which risks, to protect and benefit which people?

As a simple example, children walking to school. You need sidewalks in good conditions. Crossing guards assigned to key intersections. Buddy systems. Driver awareness campaigns. Street signs in school zones. Altogether, at some cost to the community, these steps mitigate much potential risk and support healthy walking habits. The benefits outweigh the risks, at a cost that is deemed acceptable and appropriate.

Which brings me to thinking about the risk conversation in the larger world.

At what point (how about now?) will enough people be willing to have conversations about appropriately acting on risks from climate change?

Perhaps once they get over the unrealistic fear of what they will have to give up.

But that’s a false assumption. Being cautious in the shower doesn’t mean Mr. Diamond no longer travels.

Likewise, wearing a PFD does not make my world smaller. In fact, being realistic about risks and planning for what is in my control makes my world larger. It’s so worth it to be able to paddle farther because I’m aware and prepared.

I’m interested in being part of the conversation that shows how climate change action is worth it too. For all the positive benefits: clear air, safe water, nutritious food, prosperous economics, connected communities.

Considering what we have to lose, we can’t afford not to.