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Interviewee: Thara Srinivasan, University of California at Berkeley
Totalling the Damage
From climate change to over fishing to damaging the ozone layer, the environmental challenges from the past 40 years have been both daunting and expensive. Now, a group of scientists are starting to give us a rough idea of just how expensive it’s been. But, just as impressive as the overall cost is a new sense of who is paying for this damage.
“What’s really striking about the results,” explains Thara Srinivasan, a researcher at the University of California at Berkeley, “is that we’ve found that the costs and the responsibilities of ecological damage around the world are distributed quite unevenly with poor countries shouldering a disproportionate burden.”
Srinivasan is a research scientist at the university’s Pacific Ecoinformatics and Computational Ecology Lab. She and a group of researchers from several universities combed official estimates of environmental damage worldwide. They looked at which countries were creating the damage and which countries were enduring the damage and sorted it by low, middle and high-income countries.
Writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the group explained that they limited their accounting to the 40 years between 1961 and 2000. Srinivasan says they, “focused on climate change, ozone depletion, agriculture, deforestation, over fishing and the destruction of the mangrove habitat.” However, she notes, “We didn’t look at other important sources of ecological damage such as industrial sources.” She says that, “had we included industrial sources, it’s possible that the patterns would be even more striking.”
The researchers found that largest impact, especially for poorer countries is from climate change, which, Srinivasan says, “may be most vulnerable,” because of problems such as drought, flooding and infectious diseases.
Another major impact is from over fishing. She says, “Seafood derived from the depleted fish stocks off low income country waters ultimate ends up on the plates of consumers in middle and high income nations.”
They put the final damage totals at somewhere between $8.7 trillion and a staggering $47 trillion. Numbers that large are hard to grasp and Srinivasan says the totals are not as important as understanding the way the costs are distributed between industrial and developing nations. She explains, “We really intend our numbers to be illustrative of the patterns of the distribution of environmental damages between nations.”
She points out that, “We estimate that the portion of that footprint that’s falling on the low-income group is greater than the poor countries’ foreign debt.” She offers the argument that, such a disparity should be considered as rich and poor nations discuss debt repayment and the environment.
The large total comes even though the researchers tried to use the most conservative assumptions available. Srinivasan points out, “we only looked at the impact of human activities …since 1961, even though much ecological damage happened before 1961. Additionally, she says, “we chose monetary valuations of environmental damages that appeared to us to be in the middle of the range.”
Collaborators on the project included John Harte, UC Berkeley Environmental Sciences Professor, Richard Norgaard, UC Berkeley Ecological Economics Professor, and Reg Watson, University of British Columbia
This research appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Online Early Edition for the week of January 21, 2008. The research was self-funded by the members of the research team.
Elsewhere on the Web:
The World Bank Group, World Development Indicators Database
World Resources Institute, Climate Analysis Indicators Tool
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