In a few weeks the world will turn its attention to Copenhagen, as diplomats gather to hash out an agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions and fight climate change.
For many environmentalists, including some of my colleagues here at The Nature Conservancy, it’s the culmination of decades of work and preparation. And yet while there’s a good change of a positive agreement emerging in Copenhagen, there’s also a good chance that little will emerge. In a sense, environmentalists’ policy work has been very high-risk (we could spend a lot of effort and not achieve an agreement) but also with high potential reward (if there is a agreement that reduces the severity of climate change, it will help conservation in every habitat on Earth).
This is a rather striking evolution from The Nature Conservancy’s roots as a land-protection organization. Our first conservation project was protecting a small hemlock grove from a local developer, and much of our work has historically been protecting particular parcels from particular local threats.
While we’ve now evolved to work at a range of scales, there is something very comforting to a conservationist about this kind of early land protection. While it was fairly low reward (it takes a lot of parcels to protect a whole landscape), it was also low-risk (we knew our conservation actions would work to stop the local threat of development).
One of the fun things for me to think about is what kind of conservation risk is appropriate for which situation. If you had to choose among a set of potential projects, each with a different risk of project failure and a different potential conservation reward, what’s the optimal mix?
I think the answer depends very much on what threat to biodiversity the conservation project is supposed to mitigate. If you are dealing with small-scale threats (such as local land development) that are relatively uncorrelated with one another, you do a series of small projects. If you are dealing with large-scale threats to many or all species (like climate change) you have to do big projects.
Not to get too wonky, but there’s a really elegant piece of math here that describes an analogous case in the insurance industry. First, picture an insurance company taking bets (that’s all insurance is, after all) against the probability of a lot of small events occurring, each of which is relatively uncorrelated with the next (e.g., auto insurance). The math part says that if this company goes bankrupt, it will be because of the (unlikely) occurrence of a string of bad events.
But now picture an insurance company taking bets against the probability of rare but expensive or highly correlated events occurring (e.g., flood insurance for people inside the Mississippi’s floodplain). The math part says that if this company goes bankrupt, it will be because of a single catastrophic event. In fact, in this situation the only thing the company can do to improve its chances of survival is reduce the risk of that catastrophic event happening.
What the future of conservation looks like will depend very much on which of these two scenarios we face. If biodiversity is mostly threatened by small-scale threats, we can act locally, doing lots of small projects, knowing it’s unlikely they will all fail. The only reason in that case to do big-scale projects is the lure of a bigger reward.
Conversely, if we face large-scale threats to biodiversity, we have to respond at the same scale. In the limit, a global existential threat to biodiversity like climate change implies an intense focus on dealing with one threat — for without addressing that threat, nothing else matters.