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Economics and Conservation Biology

How do we value nature? Can we put a monetary value on natural systems? How much money are ecosystems worth?

Some people believe we should preserve biodiversity because species and ecosystems have intrinsic value, or value of their own just for being, not because of what they provide to humans.

It is hard to quantify intrinsic value, and ecosystems have not historically been put into monetary terms. Ecosystems provide so many things to humans—food, water, air, filtration of pollution, prevention of storm damage, gas, and electricity—that it is hard to even imagine putting a dollar amount on them.

Without the ecosystems around us, humans could not live on Earth. Duh, right? Unfortunately, it is not so obvious to everyone that natural things are important. If ecosystem services do not have dollar values, they do not even get considered in economic-based decision making. The World Bank is currently working on Payments for Environmental Services, a program that pays landowners for the ecosystem services of their land. Find out more .

Thinking about ecosystem services in terms of monetary values is an expanding area of research. Another related topic is the economic costs of climate change. Future rain patterns and temperatures will make some areas better suited for farming than others, which will have economic impacts. Currently, the Midwest and Great Plains regions of the United States produce most of the grain for this part of the world—wheat, corn and rice. But as the climate changes, it is going to get too hot and dry to grow grains in the US and the so called "grain belt" will move north into Canada. This will have a big impact on economics of both regions, as farmers in the US will have to find new jobs.

Coastal states are in big trouble, too. Increased water temperatures will negatively affect fishing industries, as marine organisms move or die out. Flooding due to sea level rise is a huge threat for low-lying states and cities, especially in the southeast US. Remember what hurricane Katrina did to New Orleans? Imagine that in more coastal cities, as sea level rises, hurricanes happen more often and with more intensity, and storm surges become more powerful.

In Washington State, economists have predicted the economic impact of climate change if things continue on as they have with no major climate change solutions. They predict it will cost the state $12.9 billion by 2080 in increased energy costs, lost fishing revenue, damage from storms, and other climate-related losses. See their report here.

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