Saturday, August 24, 2013

“You’re flying across the world for a what? A conceptual framework? A diagram?”

By Kai Chan
Part of a series of posts about IPBES (the UN's Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) and an inside look at its processes. Next is IPBES: Intense Politics of Biodiversity & Ecosystem Services.
These are the words that echo in my head as I sit for my 19th hour (only about nine left to go!), now flying over Europe en route to Cape Town for the IPBES (Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) expert workshop on the conceptual framework. IPBES is a major UN-funded effort to perform assessments and initiate capacity building for biodiversity and ecosystem services. But there’s basically no place on land further from Vancouver, so I should be grateful it’s only 28 hours.
These words of my wife’s were actually never uttered. I feel certain she would have said them, if I’d explained the meeting in the terms it describes itself. A workshop to set up a conceptual framework for an international bureaucratic ‘platform’ that no regular person has heard of?
Put that way, the trip is tricky to justify, especially since I had to miss my daughter’s third birthday. So instead, I said, “It’s a meeting for a new global process for biodiversity and ecosystem services, like the IPCC for climate change,” (at least some lay people have heard of the IPCC--the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which coordinates prominent scientific assessments), “to basically set the conceptual grounding for what it does.” Though not explicitly, what I effectively said was, “You know how they say that whoever controls the process controls the outcome? Well, whoever controls the conceptual basis on which the process sits controls the process and the perceptions.”
Well, maybe. I guess we’ll see, won’t we?
But even though it’s unlikely that the conceptual framework will control the process, there is real reason to believe that a poor conceptual framework could sink an effort like IPBES, and a sound conceptual basis might just enable an idea whose time has come to really take root.
Take as a model the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment’s (MA) famous/infamous Figure A above. This figure has been viewed millions of times; it is shown at least once in almost every meeting or session on ecosystem services, and by now these are occurring several times a day somewhere in the world. If I had a dime for every time it was shown, I’d be rich. And I’d gladly spend a chunk of those riches to get people to stop showing this figure and to show a different one instead.
Don’t get me wrong—there’s a lot right about this figure. It successfully made the point that there are lots of things associated with ecosystems that contribute in different but important ways to human well-being. Quite possibly, it was this figure that put the idea of ecosystem services on the map, so to speak, in government agencies, corporations, and non-profit organizations. And that’s a tremendous achievement.
But the figure is also problematic in multiple important ways. First, it suggests a reality to the four ‘master’ classes of ecosystem services that just can’t be supported. Just as Mollie Chapman wrote here about Sarah Klain’s work, and as Terre Satterfield, Josh Goldstein and I have argued in conceptual terms here, cultural services cannot be understood as separate from the other categories: often these cultural benefits come not from biodiversity itself, but from people’s engagement with other ecosystem services (particularly provisioning ones, as through fishing and farming). But the MA figure seems to suggest that we can understand and even manage cultural services separately from the others; and we have argued that this misunderstanding has held up the engagement of ecosystem services with cultural values for far too long (here and here).
Second, it makes empirical claims that appear to have no support. The thickness and color of the arrows conveys critically important information about the magnitude of the contribution to well-being and how viable it is for socioeconomic factors to change that. I’ve never found any evidence in support of the width and shading, and my own experience stands in stark contrast: e.g., we and others have evidence that the cultural benefits associated with ecosystems are critically important to people. Meanwhile, the MA figure appears to justify the decision not to bother with those tricky cultural dimensions.
For all that the MA did right with this figure, which provided a conceptual framework of sorts for the MA and ecosystem services generally, there were clearly things it did wrong.
Obviously a conceptual framework cannot be all things to all people. The conceptual framework draft says that the framework is a model of how social-ecological systems work. Of course, that doesn’t pin it down at all: since social-ecological systems are monstrously complex, there are innumerable ways to represent their workings more simply. Specifying an audience and a purpose pins it down more. So what should it strive to be, to whom?
In my mind, there are two kinds of audiences for the conceptual framework: there are the folks that we hope will participate in IPBES, contributing understanding about social-ecological systems (natural and social scientists), and the folks we hope will be consumers of the scientific understanding that IPBES will consolidate (policymakers and practitioners). For the former (scientists), we’re conveying how we’re choosing to see SES for the purposes of compiling science and informing decision-making. For the latter (decision-makers), we’re conveying how we’d like them to see the world in a way that clarifies what we have to offer in relation to what they can do with it (the decisions they face).
I’m going to save most of my thoughts for after the meeting, after my best efforts to help make this framework useful. For the time being, I’ll make just one observation about the current draft of the framework. Valuation is conspicuously absent from the figure. The absence is conspicuous because valuations are the first things that decision-makers look for when they hear about ecosystem services, and they make up an important part of virtually all scientific assessments of ecosystem services. We’ve argued elsewhere that valuation, while important, need not play such a central role (that ecosystem services assessments can inform decision-making without valuations as most people imagine them), but since they do play a central role, I figure they deserve a place in the conceptual framework diagram.
From my own perspective, misunderstandings of valuations are so common, both in the research and decision-maker communities, that setting the record straight about their role and meaning is essential.
I’ll report back in three days about what happens when a group of experts get together and try to make something that will both please everyone and serve as the first step towards an improved mechanism for integrating ecosystem services research into policy worldwide.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Sea otters: a conservation success story, or rats of the ocean?
By Raoul Wieland, Sarah Ravensbergen, Edward Gregr, and Kai Chan

After being re-introduced to the north end of Vancouver Island in the 1970s, sea otters can once again be found in many areas from which they were extirpated in the fur trade of the 18th and 19th centuries. From a conservation perspective, this is an important success story, yet events are rarely as black and white as they might appear. How could an animal returning to its natural habitat—the epitome of ‘charismatic megafauna’—be grounds for concern?

                                                                                                         A sea otter floats with her pup off the West Coast of Vancouver Island

In short, species conservation is complicated. Although the return of the sea otter is good news for many, it’s especially complicated because otters have a disproportionately large effect on ecosystems relative to their abundance (so much so that biologists call them ‘keystone’ species). Throwing otters back into the mix has had a wide variety of impacts, both positive and negative, on both marine ecosystems and local communities.

By eating urchins and other kelp-eating invertebrates, sea otters enable the vast expansion of kelp forests, thereby triggering a trophic cascade leading to a system with increased productivity and diversity. See, kelp forests are the tropical forests of the undersea world, housing and feeding all manner of critters in a lush, multi-storey cathedral of life. Researchers at UBC and elsewhere have shown how kelp forests are important nursery habitats for fish and invertebrate species. So on the one hand, sea otters are a species at risk, an attractive and potentially lucrative one (for tourism), and they are instrumental in bringing back the vast kelp forests of centuries gone by.

 Kelp forests like this one provide habitat for a great number of species, including birds, fish, invertebrates like snails and starfish, and even large mammals such as sea lions and grey whales

On the other hand, sea otters have decimated shellfish populations in many areas on the West Coast of Vancouver Island (WCVI), particularly in Kyuquot Sound. This causes real negative impacts on communities who rely on shellfish like crabs, urchins, geoduck, and clams, for their livelihoods. It is from the combination of these contrasting perspectives that the fierce tension in many coastal communities, particularly about otter management plans, ensues.

Enter the BC Coastal Ecosystem Services Project (BCCES, pronounced “BC Seas”), with a hub at the CHANS Lab at IRES at UBC. This 5-year project brought together a team of researchers who care deeply and equally for the natural environment and the human communities of Vancouver Island. Long-time marine enthusiasts like Russ Markel (who first approached Kai Chan about a possible collaboration; now at OuterShores have gained great insight into how the distribution and abundance of rocky reef fish and shellfish are affected by sea otters.

Researchers from UBC sample the kelp density, algae cover, and diversity of species in kelp beds  near Bamfield, BC, as part of the BC Coastal Ecosystem Services project

But what do these biological changes mean for human communities on the west coast? To answer this, we first need to understand how various human uses (like fishing and tourism) are affected by the abundance of different plants and animals in different places. So, the four of us (in particular Raoul Wieland and Sarah Ravensbergen) are contacting experts to check our assumptions about shellfish harvesting, recreational fishing, and tourism. Once we can represent how various kinds of fishing and tourism are affected by these changing abundances in different places (near, far, accessible, and less so), we can determine the suite of impacts sea otters have on people. In some places, like Kyuoquot Sound and the rest of northern WCVI, this is a matter of what sea otters have already changed; in other places, like Barkley Sound and southern WCVI, it’s what otters could change when they arrive en masse. We’re interested in both material goods (e.g. consuming or selling fish) and non-material experiences (e.g. leisure, education, culture).

The dialogue around the return of otters has centered around negative fisheries experiences vs. positive impacts on tourism. Our hope is that this research will broaden the dialogue to include other benefits and costs (like indirect boosts to some fisheries, for organisms who rely on kelp forests), and improve our understanding of how and where different groups of people (such as local fishers, harvesters, and tourists) are using, and getting the most out of, the ecosystem around them.  Incorporating such findings into management strategies is one step towards finding fair solutions, and possibly even elusive ‘win-wins’.

So, conservation poster-child or rat of the ocean? Otters are both, with delicious nuance.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Of Bundling and Baselines

Mollie Chapman studies Cultural Ecosystem Services with CHAN’s Lab.

A letter from the ICES (International Council for the Exploration of the Seas) Workshop in Hamburg, Germany on integrating Cultural Ecosystem Services into Marine Spatial Planning

After giving a presentation discussing a values typology and its application to spatial expression of cultural ecosystem services, my fellow workshop participants zeroed in on an introductory slide I had quickly presented. The slide that struck a chord for a dozen researchers, indigenous leaders, practitioners and even a government fisheries manager showed a picture of a salmon and a quote from fellow lab-mate Sarah Klain’s research on Vancouver Island explaining the many types of values bundled up in fishing for a salmon and feeding it to your child.

“Especially now that I have children… when you cook food that you’ve caught with your own hands and set it down in front of your own offspring and its good food, like a salmon that’s so good for you, it’s a spiritual act...That’s like such a connection to place, to earth, doing something so tangible, eating and getting nutrients.... you’re out there just trawling this single line and to be able to catch it, to do battle with it, sometime you win, sometimes it wins, it’s more like a dance than a battle.” 
-a British Columbian Fishing Lodge Owner [emphasis my own]

In a field of typologies and categorizations, I had presented a simple concept that most lay people would intuitively understand—meaningful experiences do not occur in neat categories. We do not take separate hikes for tourism, recreation, aesthetics, inspirational and educational values; instead all these and other ‘cultural ecosystem services’ tend to be experienced together.

the author experiencing a bundle of cultural ecosystem services

While by no means earth-shattering, the idea of bundling in cultural ecosystem services research is indeed a shift in focus for a field which has traditionally focused on discrete categories and sub-categories.

Recognizing the messy, bundled nature of cultural ecosystem services shifts the focus from an effort to define, categorize, value and sum cultural ecosystem services to a focus on a set of simple questions:
1. What is important?
2. To whom is it important?
3. Where and when is it important?
4. What is needed to sustain it?
Answering these questions can help us create baseline data related to cultural ecosystem services, and more easily compare and contrast tradeoffs along side ecological and economic concerns. Development and planning proposals can then integrate this knowledge from the very beginning. For example, a company looking to site off-shore wind turbines could focus their site exploration on areas with the least potential conflict with ecologically and culturally important areas.

Baseline cultural ecosystem services data can be useful for communities too. The First Nations researchers in our group explained that they often have only 30 days to respond to a development proposal. From their baseline of cultural ecosystem services data in their community they can then use their limited time to explore issues specific to the proposal, already knowing potential issues, e.g., where burial or ceremonial sites are and which members collect medicinal plants in the area.

Given the complex nature of cultural ecosystem services, data alone is not sufficient to make decisions. But it offers a starting point for discussions and can help identify some of the essential groups that will be affected by new plans or developments. If a new shipping line is proposed, we need to know if it will impinge upon a treasured area, why that area is valued and who will be affected.

When decisions are made, the trade-offs between different types of values and stakeholder groups remain, but if we better align the way we collect and organize cultural ecosystem services data with the way people experience cultural ecosystem services we can build a more useful and relevant data set to support better decisions.

To learn more about bundles and baselines and read the full workshop report, see the Mapping Cultural Dimensions of Ecosystem Services Workshop website.

What is Marine Spatial Planning?
An increasingly popular process for environmental decision-making that seeks to include both integrative science and stakeholder values, Marine Spatial Planning involves selecting areas and times for marine activities in order to achieve economic, ecological and social goals (Dahl et al. 2009).

What are Cultural Ecosystem Services?
Ecosystem services approaches seek to link the direct and indirect ways that ecosystems benefit humans, including less tangible benefits such as cultural and spiritual values (Chan, Ban, et al. 2012). Chan, Satterfield and Goldstein define cultural ecosystem services as: “ecosystems' contributions to the non-material benefits (e.g., capabilities and experiences) that arise from human–ecosystem relationships” (2012, p.2).

Chan, K.M., Ban, N.C. & Naidoo, R., 2012. Integrating conservation planning with human communities, ecosystem services, and economics. In L. Craighead, C. Convis, & F. Davis, eds. Shaping the Future: Conservation Planning from the Bottom up - A Practical Guide for the 21st Century. Redlands, CA: ESRI Press.

Chan, K.M., Satterfield, T. & Goldstein, J., 2012. Rethinking ecosystem services to better address and navigate cultural values. Ecological economics, 74(0), pp.8–18.

Dahl, R., Ehler, C. & Douvere, F., 2009. Marine Spatial Planning, A Step-by-Step Approach toward Ecosystem-based Management. IOC Manuals and Guides, 53.

Friday, August 2, 2013

by Jordan Tam

An ongoing topic in climate change risk perception research is understanding why a threat with such disastrous potential can have such little effect in inspiring actual behavioural change. In a 2006 op-ed in the Los Angeles Times by Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert, he suggests that one of the main reasons is that climate change lacks a human face.

Behold: the human-faced brain-eating amoeba that is making its way northward as conditions become more favourable (i.e., warmer)! Behold!! Brain-eating! Face!

 *The actual risk of being infected is actually very small, but you're afraid now...aren't you? Even though emotional appeals are ill-advised, I had to do it.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

"it's not just science stupid"

by Jordan Tam

A nice article from Alice Bell in The Guardian about the nuances of public policy controversies that sometimes use science a bludgeon and why science supporters sometimes appear to contradict themselves. Read here: Can you be sceptical about GM but believe in climate change?