How much is a coral reef worth? by mattsteinglass

I posted the other day at Democracy in America on Brad Johnson’s response to CBO head Doug Elmendorf’s scoring of the GDP impact of global warming. As an example of the catastrophic climate change Elmendorf seemed to underplay, Johnson listed “widespread coral reef mortality.” And that immediately seemed to me like a really wimpy argument that wouldn’t convince the average centrist American of the dangers of climate change. When you’re talking about strong government action to restrict CO2 emissions, the danger that more coral reefs will die probably just won’t move the average American focus group’s dials.

Why is that?

Nha Trang Bay, 17/10/2009

Nha Trang Bay, 17/10/2009

Yesterday, I went out scuba diving with my wife in Nha Trang. Nha Trang and Cam Ranh Bay are being hopelessly overfished by thousands of small- to medium-sized Vietnamese fishing boats. At night, the spotlights of the boats lined up off the coast look like a superhighway. (They focus the lights on the water to attract fish.) But the provincial government has established a Marine Protected Area to preserve the local coral reefs, and they’ve largely succeeded in stopping the dynamite-fishing and cyanide-fishing that local fishermen used to practice. So the scuba diving off Nha Trang is still pretty nice. My wife and I went out with a group of about 16 people, organized by the very excellent Rainbow Divers, and we dropped down to 13 meters or so and saw a whole bunch of stuff that looked more or less like what you’d expect from “Little Nemo.” I did, in fact, see some Tomato Clownfish, along with trumpetfish, angelfish, two different species of lionfish, some crazy anemones that seemed to grow inside a protective bright-blue bag, and several species from a family of very strange bright-colored sea slugs called Nudibranches, which Vietnam is famous for.

Coral reefs everywhere are threatened by global warming, with its attendant increasing sea acidity, rising water temperatures, and rising sea levels. The question Johnson and Elmendorf were clashing over, though, was the impact of such changes on GDP over time. Elmendorf had stated that it didn’t seem unreasonable to estimate that global temperature increases of 7 degrees Fahrenheit would lead to a maximum reduction in US GDP of about 3% by 2100. A rise of 11 degrees, well within IPCC estimates, might lead to a drop in US GDP of 5%, and global GDP of 10%. Johnson thinks this idea is crazy, and that economic impact would have to be higher.

But here’s the thing: killing all the coral reefs off Nha Trang wouldn’t really impact the global economy that much. My wife and I paid $50 each to dive for the morning. There were perhaps 20 divers on the boat, and some of them were paying for more expensive training dives; let’s say the boat was worth $2000 in revenue. Dozens of boats of divers go out in Nha Trang every day. Add in the hotel rooms, meals, and transit consumed by all of those divers, and you’ve got…an industry that still isn’t bringing in very much money. The entire tourism economy of Nha Trang is projected to bring in about 1.3 billion Vietnam dong, or a bit over $70 million, in 2010, according to (somewhat out-of-date but probably ballpark accurate) government figures. Vietnam’s GDP is just $85 billion or so, so that’s significant on a national scale, but not a global one.

So what are the reefs of Nha Trang worth?

They’re priceless. The inability to measure anything except in terms of dollar value in a retail consumer economy is a disease, a kind of contagious psychosis. It’s one that has invaded the global consciousness to an increasing degree over the past three decades. It’s time for that to stop. As I noted in the Democracy in America post, Iraq has recently been increasing its GDP by plundering its ancient ruins and selling off priceless antiquities. There is no way for a dollar-value calculus to make it look more profitable for Iraq to preserve the ruins of Ur than to sell them off piece by piece to the highest bidder. But if we now actually embrace a value system that says those ruins should actually be plundered and sold off, then we are a sick and degenerate society.

Towards the end of our first dive yesterday, our guide, Tran, motioned us over and began poking around under a rock with a length of PVC hose he carried for such purposes. There was something flat and spotted underneath, brown, green, and yellow; I couldn’t figure it out. Was it a big crab? After a few more pokes it started to move a bit, and then finally it launched itself out and began swimming away. It was a Hawksbill Turtle, about two feet long,  like the ones in “Little Nemo”. It looked back at me; I could almost hear it say “Dude!” And then it swam away, extraordinary, priceless, and contributing not a cent to the world’s GDP.

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Speaking just for myself, the reefs are what clarifies the whole mess. I’m pretty convinced by the general science on global warming, but it’s hard to see the changes in the atmospheric temperature being necessarily destructive. California’s glaciers are obviously melting and its forests are burning, but glaciers aren’t much of an ecosystem and forests have always burned. It was a report I heard on how the sea chemistry is changing and how coral can’t adapt quickly enough that made it possible to envision the kind of cascading biological catastrophe that really compels moving feet and bunched trousers.

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