The Trillion-Dollar Auction to Save the World

Photo illustration showing shapes and graphs over images of a blue whale divers and the floor of the sea. - ILLUSTRATIONS: ISRAEL G. VARGAS

The Trillion-Dollar Auction to Save the World
WIRED, May 25, 2023
By Gregory Barber

“Ocean creatures soak up huge amounts of humanity’s carbon mess. Should we value them like financial assets?”


YOU ARE SEATED in an auction room at Christie’s, where all evening you have watched people in suits put prices on priceless wonders. A parade of Dutch oils and Ming vases has gone to financiers and shipping magnates and oil funds. You have made a few unsuccessful bids, but the market is obscene, and you are getting bored. You consider calling it an early night and setting down the paddle. But then an item appears that causes you to tighten your grip. Lot 475: Adult blue whale, female.


What is the right price for this masterwork of biology? Unlike a Ming vase, Lot 475 has never been appraised. It’s safe to say that she is worth more than the 300,000 pounds of meat, bone, baleen, and blubber she’s made of. But where does her premium come from? She has biological value, surely—a big fish supports the littler ones—but you wouldn’t know how to quantify it. The same goes for her cultural value, the reverence and awe she elicits in people: immeasurable. You might conclude that this exercise is futile. Lot 475 is priceless. You brace for the bidding war, fearful of what the people in suits might do with their acquisition. But no paddles go up.


Ralph Chami has a suggested starting bid for Lot 475. He performed the appraisal six years ago, after what amounted to a religious experience on the deck of a research vessel in the Gulf of California. One morning, a blue whale surfaced so close to the ship that Chami could feel its misty breath on his cheeks. “I was like, ‘Where have you been all my life?’” he recalls. “‘Where have I been all my life?’”


Chami was 50 at the time, taking a break from his job at the International Monetary Fund, where he had spent the better part of a decade steadying markets in fragile places such as Libya and Sudan. “You become fragile yourself,” he says. When he saw the whale, he sensed her intelligence. He thought: “She has a life. She has a family. She has a history.” The moment brought him to tears, which he hid from the others on board.


That evening, Chami fell into conversation with his hosts, who told him the unhappy tale of the seas. The ocean, they explained, has been left to fend for itself. Trapped between borders, largely out of reach of law and order, its abundance is eroding at an alarming rate. The water is warming and acidifying. More than a third of fisheries are overexploited, and three-quarters of coral reefs are under threat of collapse. As for whales, people might love them, might pass laws to ban their slaughter and protect their mating grounds, but people also love all the things that threaten whales most—oil drilled from offshore platforms that pollute their habitat, goods carried by cargo ships that collide with them, pinging sonar signals that disrupt their songs.


Chami had always loved the water. Growing up in Lebanon, he toyed with the idea of becoming an oceanographer before his father told him “in your dreams.” As he heard the researchers’ story, something awakened in him. He sensed that the same tools he had used to repair broken economies might help restore the oceans. Were they not a crisis zone too?


Chami’s hosts sent him scientific papers, from which he learned about the whale’s role in the carbon cycle. She stored as much as 33 tons of carbon in her prodigious body, he calculated, and fertilized the ocean with her iron-rich poop, providing fuel to trillions of carbon-dismantling phytoplankton. This piqued Chami’s interest. In a world economy striving to be greener, the ability to offset greenhouse-gas emissions had a clearly defined value. It was measured in carbon credits, representing tons of carbon removed from the atmosphere. While the whale herself couldn’t—shouldn’t—be bought and sold, the premium generated by her ecological role could. She was less like an old painting, in other words, than an old-growth forest.


So what was the whale worth in carbon? It appeared no one had done the calculation. Chami loaded up his actuarial software and started crunching the numbers over and over, until he could say with confidence that the whale would pay dividends with every breath she took and every calf she bore. He concluded that the whale’s value to humanity, on the basis of the emissions she helped sequester over her 60-year lifetime, was $2 million. A starting bid.


For Chami, this number represented more than a burned-out economist’s thought experiment. It would allow for a kind of capitalistic alchemy: By putting a price on the whale’s services, he believed he could transform her from a liability—a charity case for a few guilt-ridden philanthropists—into an asset. The money the whale raised in carbon credits would go to conservationists or to the governments in whose waters she swam. They, in turn, could fund efforts that would ensure the whale and her kin kept right on sequestering CO2. Any new threat to the whale’s environment—a shipping lane, a deepwater rig—would be seen as a threat to her economic productivity. Even people who didn’t really care about her would be forced to account for her well-being.


It was a “win-win-win,” Chami believed: Carbon emitters would get help meeting their obligations to avert global collapse; conservationists would get much-needed funds; and the whale would swim blissfully on, protected by the invisible hand of the market.


What’s more, Chami realized, every wild organism is touched by the carbon cycle and could therefore be protected with a price tag. A forest elephant, for example, fertilizes soil and clears underbrush, allowing trees to thrive. He calculated the value of those services at $1.75 million, far more than the elephant was worth as a captive tourist attraction or a poached pair of tusks. “Same thing for the rhinos, and same thing for the apes,” Chami says. “What would it be if they could speak and say, ‘Hey, pay me, man?’”


Chami’s numbers never failed to elicit a reaction, good or bad. He was interviewed widely and asked to value plants and animals all over the world. He gave a TED Talk. Some people accused him of cheapening nature, debasing it by affixing a price tag. Cetacean experts pointed to vast gaps in their understanding of how, exactly, whales sequester carbon. But it seemed to Chami that by saying a blue whale must remain priceless, his detractors were ensuring that it would remain worthless.


In 2020, Chami was invited to participate in a task force about nature-based solutions to climate change whose participants included Carlos Duarte, a Spanish marine biologist at Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. Duarte was widely known in conservation circles as the father of “blue carbon,” a field of climate science that emphasizes the role of the oceans in cleaning up humanity’s mess. In 2009, he had coauthored a United Nations report that publicized two key findings. First, the majority of anthropogenic carbon emissions are absorbed into the sea. Second, a tiny fraction of the ocean floor—the 0.5 percent that’s home to most of the planet’s mangrove forests, salt marshes, and seagrass meadows—stores more than half of the carbon found in ocean sediments.


After the task force, the two men got to talking. Duarte told Chami that scientists had recently mapped what he believed to be 40 percent of the world’s seagrass, all in one place: the Bahamas. The plant was a sequestration power house, Duarte explained. And around the world, it was under threat. Seagrasses are receding at an average of 1.5 percent per year, killed off by marine heat waves, pollution, development.


Chami was intrigued. Then he did a rough estimate for the worth of all the carbon sequestered by seagrass around the world, and he got more excited. It put every other number to shame. The value, he calculated, was $1 trillion.


SEAGRASS HAS A long history of being ignored. Though it grows in tufted carpets off the coast of every continent but [Antarctica], it is a background character, rarely drawing human attention except when it clings to an anchor line or fouls up a propeller or mars the aesthetics of a resort beach. Divers don’t visit a seagrass meadow to bask in its undulating blades of green. They come to see the more charismatic creatures that spend time there, like turtles and sharks. If the seagrass recedes in any particular cove or inlet from one decade to the next, few people would be expected to notice.

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About the Author:

Gregory Barber is a staff writer at WIRED covering energy and the environment. He graduated from Columbia University with a bachelor’s degree in computer science and English literature and now lives in San Francisco.