“I’m so stunned I can’t even talk. I’m on my hands and knees crawling around looking for dead bees in among the stones, and there wasn’t any. I mean, there was no dead bees,” Florida Beekeeper Dave Hackenberg told New York Magazine. “Three weeks ago, these bees are fine… You got a murder scene, and nobody knows what happened. There are no weapons, there are no corpses.”
American beekeepers have seen more than one in three honeybee colonies perish during each of the last five years, an ecological crisis that has furrowed the brows of farmers, scientists and even the President. These die-offs offer a very visible example of the perils of climate change, but they also serve as an important reminder of the economic value of nature. Honeybees pollinate one in every three mouthfuls of food Americans consume. We depend on them to eat.
Scientists point to the contribution of American honeybees as an example of ecosystem services, benefits provided by nature at no cost. The honeybee pollinates blueberries, cherries, almonds and other plants, a service worth $14.6 billion a year. Bats eat insects, like moths, that feed on cotton and other cash crops, a service worth roughly $22.9 billion a year. A 2014 study estimated the total value of all ecosystem services worldwide to be roughly $145 trillion, nearly twice global GDP.
Factored into those trillions is the value of systems slowing the advance of climate change. Forests sequester heat-trapping carbon. The polar ice caps reflect the sun’s light. Coral reefs protect shorelines against flooding. But rising temperatures and ocean acidification threaten to unravel these systems, meaning that as global warming cooks up new threats to human health and safety, it also dismantles many of the protections against those dangers. This is useful to remember when calculating the cost of mitigation and adaptation. If we save a coastal reef now, it may obviate the need to build an expensive levy later on. If we preserve a forest now, it will offset years of carbon pollution.
As an argument for climate action the concept of “ecosystem services” does have its limitations. Not everything in nature has an easily quantifiable benefit: the fragrance of a rose in bloom, the cool shade of a tall tree, a view of Central Park when the leaves are changing color. The value of some things is ineffable. That’s why UC Santa Barbara biologist Douglas J. McCauley believes environmental advocates should appeal “to people’s hearts rather than to their wallets” when arguing for the protection of nature.
Not every oak or honeybee comes with a price tag, and not every business makes use of their services. The question “How much is nature worth?” is difficult, if not impossible, to answer, but regardless of your method of accounting, it’s clear that it belongs on the balance sheet.