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The resources available to preserve “every creeping thing of the earth” are constrained. How might Noah navigate this challenge?

The upcoming annual United Nations Climate Change Conference, known as COP, commencing on November 30 in the United Arab Emirates, will assemble governments, businesses, international organizations, and NGOs to address the global climate crisis and explore potential solutions. The accelerated loss of species represents not only a monumental tragedy but also deprives humanity of a crucial defense against climate change. Preserving the diverse array of animals and plants is pivotal for the Earth’s future, but any strategy to curb this loss must confront the reality that limited resources pose challenges to biodiversity conservation. Estimates suggest an annual investment ranging from $598 billion to $824 billion is required globally to reverse the decline of species. As an expert in environmental economics, I propose considering whether to regulate the conversion of habitat from natural to human-centric uses. Another approach focuses on conserving keystone species critical to ecosystem stability, like the gray wolf in Yellowstone National Park. Alternatively, the biblical approach, as mentioned in Noah’s directive, involves saving two of every kind to ensure their survival. The late Harvard economist Martin Weitzman offered an innovative solution, addressing the conservation of endangered species through economic analysis, framing the challenge as a modern-day version of Noah’s Ark Problem, where limited resources necessitate decisions on which species to prioritize for conservation.

According to Weitzman, biodiversity gives rise to two distinct values. The first is utilitarian, as various species, such as insects that pollinate crops, contribute to human well-being. There is widespread acknowledgment that biodiversity, encompassing the array of living species like plants, animals, bacteria, and fungi, offers essential benefits to humans. As articulated by the World Health Organization, well-functioning ecosystems are vital for sustaining healthy communities by providing clean air, fresh water, medicines, food security, disease limitation, and climate stabilization. However, due to human activities, nearly one-third of monitored species are currently endangered.

The second kind of value identified by Weitzman is the inherent worth of the diverse range of species and their genetic information to biological diversity itself. Biodiversity plays a crucial role in upholding the stability and resilience of ecosystems. For instance, increased genetic variation is vital for wild Alaskan salmon returning to their natal streams and rivers for reproduction. Populations in different streams have developed unique sets of genetic information, allowing for adaptations to warming temperatures and earlier snowmelt.

Weitzman likens the task of preserving different species to safeguarding volumes in a library that represent an accumulation of human knowledge. While every volume might be theoretically valuable, some may contain information available elsewhere. Therefore, the conservationist’s objective is to save volumes with unique information not found elsewhere. According to this perspective, conservationists should aim to preserve as much genetic information as possible, even if the species involved provide minimal direct value to humans.

This approach offers unconventional guidance to conservationists, suggesting that the most effective way to conserve biodiversity in an uncertain and resource-limited world is to select a species and save as many individuals as possible. By adopting this proactive or “extreme policy,” conservationists not only safeguard the distinctive information within that species but also preserve shared information with other species.

To illustrate this concept, consider two libraries, each housing numerous volumes (or members of a species), some unique to each library and some shared. If Library 1 faces destruction, we lose all volumes (species members) except those also found in Library 2, and vice versa. If both libraries are ablaze without the means to save both, and one requires fewer resources to rescue, it might be more prudent to allocate scarce resources to protect that one, sacrificing the other to preserve unique volumes (species members) and the knowledge in shared volumes.

In practical terms, when confronted with choices, it may not be wise to allocate limited conservation funds to safeguard highly endangered species, such as pandas, which can be costly to protect. A more effective approach might involve protecting species like the Atlantic menhaden, or pogy, a crucial food source for larger fish and birds along the Eastern Seaboard. The menhaden serves as a vital link between the bottom and top of the food chain. Presently, a legal case alleges its overfishing in and around the Chesapeake Bay.

Weitzman’s Noah’s Ark model aims to offer practical guidance for prioritizing efforts to save endangered species, assuming that biodiversity is valuable both to humans and intrinsically. While resources are insufficient to rescue every endangered species, delaying action on the climate emergency and its detrimental impact on species loss is an expense the world cannot afford.

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