Nature is vitally important to America’s economy, yet we tend to take it for granted, doing little to measure the nation’s natural resource wealth or economic impact. But at a high-level meeting at the White House on Thursday, Berkeley researcher Solomon Hsiang said cutting-edge technology is creating powerful new tools for measuring nature’s resources and their economic value.
Basic resources such as clean air and water, soil, minerals and even trees are at the heart of the nation’s wealth, essential for business and public enterprises, Hsiang told leaders summoned by the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). To measure their value – and to preserve it – the nation must keep track of these assets as if they were savings in the bank.
“We can measure the economic value of climate by tracing all the different ways the climate supports and drives the economy,” he said. “We need to start tracking assets…. We don’t want to fall down the road and regret the way we handled our legacy.
Hsiang is an economic policy and data science expert at the UC Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy and is also the director of Berkeley’s Global Policy Laboratory. He was part of an elite team of speakers on a two-hour OSTP video panel discussion titled “Knowledge In Nature: How Nature Can Help Grow a Better Future.”
At the White House event, Hsiang and other environmental and economic experts described how the many facets of nature are linked to human health, agricultural production and business innovation. And, they said, climate change poses huge economic risks that require closer understanding and management.
The event took place on the eve of Earth Day – and a day before President Joe Biden announced an ambitious move to inventory and protect the nation’s tallest and oldest trees. Because trees absorb carbon dioxide from the air, they are essential in counteracting harmful climate disturbances caused by rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.
The United States covers nearly 4 million square miles, and Hsiang acknowledged that counting all the trees in such a huge territory seemed nearly impossible — until recently.
“Imagine trying to walk to measure where the natural resources are,” he said. “Counting trees can be a huge effort – and now imagine trying to update that every year. That would be impossible given the technology of the past. Today, innovation is truly a game-changer.
Satellite imagery, sensors, drones and other new tools are generating vast databases, he explained, and edge computing is driving artificial intelligence systems that can measure and help manage the vast inventory of natural resources.
The data explosion is producing a “golden age”, he said, allowing “environmental economists to understand the value of resources with unprecedented clarity and precision”.
Hsiang helped lead a research team that last year outlined the development of a low-cost, easy-to-use machine learning system that could help researchers and governments analyze satellite imagery data and to meet critical challenges.
Other speakers at Thursday’s event at the White House included Interior Secretary Deb Haaland; Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo; Alondra Nelson, Acting Director of OSTP; Jane Lubchenco, OSTP Deputy Director for Climate and Environment; Brenda Mallory, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality; and Scott Wu, executive director of the California Infrastructure and Economic Development Bank.