Climate Change

World Bank's Watson, WRI's Lash discuss U.N. study on the planet's future

Is the human race wrecking the planet with reckless overuse of resources and mass damage to the environment? A new U.N.-sponsored ecological study by more than 1,300 scientists predicts dire shortages and a worldwide ecological crisis in this century without radical policy changes by all nations. World Resources Institute President Jonathan Lash and World Bank chief scientist Robert Watson join OnPoint to discuss the ecosystem assessment and its critics, the media's coverage of climate change reports, and ending subsides for agriculture and fisheries.


Brian Stempeck: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Brian Stempeck. With U.S. today is Jonathan Lash, president of the World Resources Institute and also Dr. Robert Watson, chief scientist of the World Bank. Gentlemen thanks a lot for joining us today.

Jonathan Lash: Thank you.

Brian Stempeck: We're here today to talk about the millennium ecosystem assessment. It's a major report that just came out sponsored by the U.N. and a number of other groups. Dr. Watson can you tell us little bit about what this report is and how long you've been working on it?

Robert Watson: The report tries to assess what is the state of the world's ecosystems. Are they degrading? Are they improving and what are the implications for human well-being? We've been working it for about four years.

Brian Stempeck: I know it took about $20 million to this effort. How many scientists do we have involved with this?

Robert Watson: Over 1,350 scientist helped to prepare this report and another 850 scientists peer reviewed it and governments also peer reviewed it.

Brian Stempeck: What were basically some of the key findings of this report? I know there is a lot of broad issues here, but if you had to lay out kind of the general points that you realized with these 1,400 scientists, what would they be?

Robert Watson: In our quest to meet the needs of food, clean water and energy we're finding we're now degrading many of our ecological systems all over the world. The world's fisheries are collapsing in many parts. We've got water scarcity in many parts of the world that's unsustainable. Many of the dry land systems are degrading. We're putting too much nitrogen into the soil which is leaching into the rivers and leaching into the coastal zone causing dead spots. Habitat fragmentation is causing loss of biodiversity and climate change is becoming an ever increasing problem.

Brian Stempeck: Now these are all problems we've heard about before from various different environmental reports, different environmental groups. What's new about this report and why should people be paying attention to this as opposed to all the other doom-and-gloom reports that we hear about?

Robert Watson: Well it's not so much a doom-and-gloom report. For the first time ever we've stood back and we've assessed 24 key services that we get from nature, provisioning of food, water, the regulating service of the quality of the air, the quality of our water and the supporting services, quality of our soils, the cultural services, the religious aesthetic. So for the first time ever we've assessed all 24 services. Only four are improving. The amount of livestock we've got, crops, fish from farming, but many of them are degrading. But it's not all gloom and doom, what we've said now is business as usual is unacceptable, but we can with government action, private sector action and civil society we can manage the systems much more sustainably and meet what we need as humans and at the same time not degrade these systems.

Jonathan Lash: You know Brian, one of the most striking messages out of this assessment is the extent of human dependence on ecosystems. A cup of coffee, the water in the coffee is an ecosystem product. The coffee is an ecosystem product. The paper that your notes are written on, ecosystem product, the cotton in your shirt, the wool in your suit they're all ecosystem products. We live completely dependent on these systems, but we live in a totally engineered environment and we just aren't conscious of it. This is an audit by the world's leading scientists of nature's economy and their message back to us is, "Whoa folks, the accounts are running in the red. We better start managing this."

Brian Stempeck: Who are some of the groups that you've had involved in this, that are doing this research? I mean we're talking about 1,400 scientists, obviously they're coming from all over, but who are we talking about here?

Jonathan Lash: Well, that's one of the unique aspects of this review actually. It consciously engaged governments, international organizations, U.N. organizations like the food and agricultural organization, the United Nations development program and so forth, and the private sector. A number of industries represented and NGOs like my own organization, World Resources Institute, and then hundreds of academic institutions. So it's really an effort by all the different sectors to come together and say, "How are these natural systems doing?" This is not an environmental report, it's about human well being. It's not a conservation report. It's about using the systems in a way that we don't deplete them.

Brian Stempeck: What's your sense though, I know with reports like this people tend to see a real broad assessment. They lose focus on it. It just seems like all parts of the environment are going downhill. If you can just focus for a moment on any one of these indicators that you're talking about. Can you give us a sense of what you looked at and what solutions there might be? I know fisheries was one of the key things that this report focused on. Some of the problems with potential fisheries collapse in various areas.

Jonathan Lash: Let me first just push back a little bit, I think what you say is right, but if this, if I were Alan Greenspan and I were talking about 15 of 24 leading economic indicators going sharply downward and the other nine under a lot of pressure, policymakers would pay attention and the public would know this is going to affect us directly and demand some action. That's the message here. The message isn't we're doomed. The message is we need to do something about managing these systems. Bob, I don't know if you want to respond to some of the specifics.

Robert Watson: Yeah, I mean we specifically analyzed the state of all the coral reefs in the world, 20 percent are now dead, another 20 percent are degraded. We looked at the mangrove systems in the world, where we had good data, 35 percent of those mangrove systems have also been highly degraded. Now does this matter? Coral reefs are a key issue for fisheries. They're key issue for ecotourism in those parts. Mangrove swamps protect us from storm surges and things like tsunamis. Those areas in Asia where they have not degraded their ecosystems, not degraded or converted their mangrove systems, were less hit by the tsunami than those areas that did. Why have we converted them? We'd converted many of the mangroves so that the shrimp fancier, we in the U.S. and in Europe, can have shrimp all year round. These are the trade-offs. We have to understand if we convert a system as far away as a mangrove, for some of our self pleasure it can have adverse effects locally.

Brian Stempeck: Still though, I think, when a lot of people read this report, I read this report and my kind of take on it was, there aren't many recommendations here. It is a kind of state of the environment, but if you, as you take this report to members of Congress, to policymakers, you're taking it to CEOs in the business community as well, what's your message to them? I mean many of them are going to think, they're going to say, these are huge problems we have nothing to do with. How do you get them to take specific action?

Jonathan Lash: Let me give a couple of specifics. Take fisheries, which you mentioned, there are successful examples in the world of interventions by governments to pursue policies to protect fisheries for the long term. Alaska is doing quite a reasonable job at managing its salmon. The rockfish in the Chesapeake Bay, just a few miles from us, have made a tremendous recovery because the states of Virginia and Maryland cooperated to bring that fish back. I think that a key recommendation would be, one, we have to stop subsidizing overuse of resources. Stop the fisheries subsidies. Stop agriculture subsidies that are driving overuse of resources. Two, as we're making decisions about economic policy and development we have to be conscious that underlying it all are ecosystems which if they're overused will begin to collapse and so integrate it into those policies, integrate it into trade policy. Third, we absolutely have to do something about climate change.

Brian Stempeck: So is that then the message you're going to be taking? I mean those are pretty big things, even those three specific recommendations, if you're going to go to a member of Congress and say, "Hey, I want you to the end the agriculture subsidies." Congress would say, "That's a big lobby that you're fighting against." I mean is that basically the top recommendation of the report, to go around ending some of the subsidies?

Robert Watson: Well, as Jonathan has said, we need to get the economic situation correct. We do need to eliminate subsidies that perversely affect it, both national treasuries actually and the environment. We do need to put value in our ecosystems, payment for ecological goods and services. We do need to integrate ecosystem concerns across all sectors of government, the energy sector, the transportation sector, the forestry water sector. We can't look at environment here away from all of the other sectors. And in many developing countries, as well as our own, we need to empower local communities to also play major parts in how to manage these various ecosystems. But there are some big issues. The technology can also be a major part of the solution. We can produce our energy much more cleanly. We can also use it much more efficiently. We can improve our irrigation systems around the world. We can apply nutrients much more efficiently. So there's some big issues, but there are both some simple policy changes that could make a big difference and some technological changes.

Brian Stempeck: I know one thing I've heard you both mention, in kind of previously discussing this report, is looking at what the private sector is doing. People seem to be very optimistic that a lot of businesses are going to step up to the plate with some of the things you're talking about, most notably maybe some of the carbon trading going on in Europe. Is that you're general sense, that the private sector is going to be leading the way over most national governments right now?

Jonathan Lash: The leading companies are doing more innovative things than governments right now and we were really quite astonished at the level of interest from leading companies in this assessment. My organization has been regularly approached by companies that are thinking about these issues, asking for guidance on how to manage their impact on ecosystems. Well, that's what this provides. This is a user's guide. This is a starting point so that you have the kind of information, the framework within which to make a decision about how to construct a pipeline in Kamchatka or how to develop a fishery based food industry worldwide.

Brian Stempeck: What's your sense on how the media's portraying is? I want to read you a quote. This is from Fox News a couple of days ago, they said, Dr. Watson, that you have, that you oversaw the report and that you have "a somewhat controversial track record on environmental issues." They went on to attack your statements about the ozone layer and also climate change. What's your response to that? I mean that's Fox News, a lot of people are watching that and that's how they're getting their news about this report.

Robert Watson: There's literally nobody in the world that disagrees that we put chlorine and bromine containing chemicals into the upper atmosphere, destroys stratospheric ozone with the potential increase for more ultraviolet radiation. In fact, it's the private sector that once they realized what the scientific evidence was, helped to lead the charge to find better solutions such as DuPont. So the major companies in the world actually believe that stratospheric ozone depletion is a very serious issue and not only in developing countries, we're phasing out all long-lived chemicals. With respect to the climate change issue, most governments of the world have ratified the Kyoto Protocol. The major multinational companies have advocated good climate policies. Many of the major oil companies, some of the major industrial companies have all actually latched on to reducing greenhouse gases emissions and many of them have made a profit in it. So while Fox News may well think these are controversial issues, the evidence, the scientific evidence is very, very strong. It's not only been taken up by governments around the world, but also by the private sector around the world.

Brian Stempeck: Still, I think this is a key issue right now, this whole idea to of politics being injected into science. Michael Crichton's book about climate change, this is the top thing he mentions. Where is this research coming from? Who's sponsoring that? How do you address that issue?

Jonathan Lash: Well, I was actually going to respond to your question about Fox News. It's absolute essential that scientists be willing to talk about what they know and what they're finding to the public. In our society, for some reason right now, if they do so they're taking the risk of having to wage a constant political battle defending their reputation against attacks from people who don't like the message. Not who find any scientific basis from challenging it, but simply politically don't like the message. I think Bob should be congratulated for taking that on. The fact is that what Michael Crichton is saying is just wrong.

Robert Watson: And the interesting thing is who's finding the research? In climate research, 50 percent of it is funded by the U.S. government and most of the rest is funded by European or Japanese governments. This is not being funded by some green organization with a suspicious track record. This is research, because I used to work in NASA and then in the White House, there's heavily peer-reviewed research, heavily peer-reviewed research. In fact, in those documents there about ozone depletion, about climate change, the same with the millennium ecosystem, not only do we send the assessments out for review by scientists, experts in the private sector, we sent it to every government in the world and each of the comments was taken very seriously onboard. So these are not left-wing assessments done by a cliquy group basically, these are mainstream scientists with strong peer review throughout society.

Brian Stempeck: But dealing with climate change you do have environmental groups that do fund some of this research. It is half U.S. government funded, you're right, but there are plenty of reports we see coming out from Pew, from other groups that are even farther left than that. How do you, I guess how do you verify that that information is correct and doesn't have a bias to it?

Robert Watson: Well, I think the key point is I believe the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is the primary document that governments and much of the private sector have used to base their policies and strategies. That is the most heavily peer-reviewed document in the world. In fact, it's signed off by the U.S. government and after the third assessment report came out, President Bush asked a legitimate question, is this valid? He sent it to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences reviewed the document and said, "The messages in this document are absolutely valid." So not only did the world review IPCC, but the U.S. National Academy independently reviewed it for the U.S. administration.

Brian Stempeck: But you even have the IPCC as under attack right now. You were formerly chairman of that and you were replaced with a great deal of rumor about some of the reasons for that. We're talking about the U.N. agency right now in charge of climate science basically and you know you have these people kind of attacking the IPCC. Do you think they have valid concerns or is this more of a movement funded, maybe, by the energy lobbyists, funded by some of the climate skeptics?

Jonathan Lash: Maybe it's easier for me to respond to that since I was never chairman of the IPCC. It is the largest scientific enterprise in history. It is the most consistently peer-reviewed scientific enterprise in history. It is a reflection of government's acceptance of its conclusions. So when I hear people attacking it as political rather than scientific I question their motives.

Brian Stempeck: Do you think then, I mean is that a problem with the media and how they report this? We've seen a lot of the climate reporting as being very this side versus that side. Is it time to step beyond that debate and say, look these skeptics, and figure out where they're funding is coming from?

Jonathan Lash: I have a real problem with that. I don't think it is legitimate and often it seems to me a bit lazy to simply look for two views on every issue when one view represents the entire scientific community and another few represents an outlier, probably funded by those who have a political ax to grind and you don't see it in the coverage in Europe. Serious skeptical newspapers who are just as harsh on governments and just as apt to question NGOs, but when they look at the science they accept it as science.

Brian Stempeck: Do you think that's happening in the U.S.? That it's more a question of the American media willing to hear from some of these energy industry groups and things like that?

Robert Watson: Typically in the U.S. media there is always two sides to a story. So when one of the IPCC last came out, 2,000 scientists had carefully prepared it, peer reviewed it and the media often found the one or two skeptics in the U.S. that would give a counterpoint of view. As Jonathan basically said, you have 2,000 scientists here, a handful on the other side, but to the reader it sounds like there's two different opinions, whereas in reality, the vast majority of the world's experts do come down with one conclusion. Then for private sector or for governments to question is do you believe the vast majority or the one or two skeptics? And in the case of ozone depletion, the case of climate change, most governments in the world and many of the largest multinationals have indeed agreed they need to look at the IPCC and base their strategies on that.

Brian Stempeck: How do you do something about this in the eye of the public though? You have a best-selling book from Michael Crichton who, it will probably turn into a movie, and it's questioning a lot of this climate science. I mean it uses footnotes and makes it seem like a very official document. You said that you don't think the science in his book is accurate, but then again you have millions of people reading this book and they aren't reading other climate science publications.

Jonathan Lash: You know, he has the right to write whatever he wants. I mean he wrote "Jurassic Park" as well and it's entertainment and sometimes entertainment influences people. I wouldn't deny Michael Crichton the right to say what he wants to, but I think it's important that the public debate reflect the fact that these aren't equally scientific views. That one reflects a scientific process in the community that's peer reviewed and another reflects the author of fiction.

Brian Stempeck: Do you think Mr. Crichton is passing off entertainment as science?

Robert Watson: I think he's being controversial and unfortunately there are, unfortunately, lots of misstatements in that particular book and I think the average reader it's hard for them to say, is this an entertainment book or is it scientific fact? And it's clearly not scientific fact. If you want to make policy, you do read the scientific literature and use large assessments, such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or the Stratospheric Ozone Depletion Assessments or the millennium ecosystem. You don't go to a book like Michael Crichton and base policy.

Brian Stempeck: One last question for you both. The millennium ecosystem, what's next? Where do you plan on taking it? It's four years of study, $20 million, 1,400 scientists, where are you taking this? What's kind of the rollout plan here?

Jonathan Lash: Well, the assessment itself has reached an end point. There is ongoing work on a local and regional level. There are a number of some global assessments going on and that will continue, but the most important piece is that the different stakeholders in this process, industry, the various international treaty organizations, the NGOs, each pick up a piece of it and use this information and use it to base the kind of policy recommendations that you were asking us about earlier.

Brian Stempeck: All right. Well, we're out of time. I'd like to thank you both for coming. Our guests today were Jonathan Lash, president of the World Resources Institute, and Dr. Robert Watson, chief scientist of the World Bank. I'm Brian Stempeck. This is OnPoint. Thanks for watching.

[End of Audio]



Latest Selected Headlines

More headlinesMore headlines

More headlinesMore headlines

More headlinesMore headlines

More headlinesMore headlines