The trillion dollar auction to save the world
Duarte sees the project in the Bahamas as a blueprint (pun intended, he says) for a much grander idea that has animated his work for the past two decades: He wants to restore all aquatic habitats and creatures to their pre-industrial bounty. He speaks in terms of “blue natural capital,” envisioning a future in which the value of nature is priced in the way nations calculate their economic productivity.
This is different from previous efforts to finance nature, he emphasizes. Since the 19th century, conservationists have argued that protecting bison, lions or forests is a good investment because extinct animals and felled trees can no longer provide trophies or timber. More recently, environmentalists have tried to show that less popular habitats, such as wetlands, may better serve humanity as flood protectors or water purifiers than as sites for shopping malls. But while these efforts may appeal to hunters or conservationists, they fall far short of reframing nature as a “global portfolio of assets,” as a Cambridge economist described natural capital in a 2021 report commissioned by the UK government.
Duarte and I first met in the halls of a crowded exhibition at the 2022 UN Climate Conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. He had traveled a short distance from his home in Jeddah, where he oversees a wide range of projects, from restoring corals and advising on regenerative tourism projects along Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast to a global effort to expand the cultivation of seaweed (using, yes, income from carbon credits). In Egypt, Duarte was scheduled to appear on 22 panels, serving as the scientific face of the kingdom’s plan for the so-called circular carbon economy, in which carbon is treated as a commodity that must be managed more responsibly, often with the help of nature. .
Chami was there, too, wearing a tight-fitting outfit and a whale-tail pendant around her neck. She was participating as a member of the Bahamian delegation, which included Prime Minister Davis and several conservationists from Beneath the Waves. They had come with a speech on how to include biodiversity in global discussions on climate change. Seagrass was her template, one that could be replicated around the world, ideally with the Bahamas as the center of natural markets.
The UN meeting was a good place to spread the gospel of the seagrass. The theme of the conference was how to make rich polluters pay for the damage they cause in poorer nations that suffer disasters like Hurricane Dorian. The hope was to finally reach a UN deal, but in the meantime, other approaches to moving the money were up in the air. Since the 2015 Paris Agreement, countries have been forced to start accounting for carbon emissions in their balance sheets. Big emitters were aligning deals with biodiversity-rich, cash-poor nations to make investments in nature that would potentially help polluters meet their climate commitments. Chami’s boss at the IMF had suggested that indebted nations might start thinking about using their carbon-valued natural assets to pay it off. “All these poor countries today are going to find out that they are very, very rich,” Chami told me.
At a conference where the main message often seemed doom, the project in the Bahamas was a story of hope, Chami said. When she gave a talk on seagrass, she spoke with the vigor of a carp evangelist. With the time she had left for humanity to fix the weather, she told the audience, “nice projects” weren’t going to cut it anymore. A few million dollars to replant seagrass here, a handful of carbon credits to protect a clump of mangroves there; no, people had to think a thousand times bigger. Chami wanted to know what everyone in Egypt expected. “Why are we having fun?” he asked the crowd. “So much talk. So little action.
one day this Last winter, a former real estate developer from Chattanooga, Tennessee, named David Harris, piloted his personal jet over Little Bahama Bank. From his cabin window, the water below looked like a melancholy painter’s palette. Harris was heading to a weed-cracked airstrip in West End, Grand Bahama, where he would board a fishing boat called The Tigress. Harris and his team, which included his 10-year-old daughter, would spend the rest of the week surveying seagrass beds for Beneath the Waves.
They were tackling a large expanse. Although the total land area of the Bahamas is a mere 4,000 square miles, the islands are surrounded by shallow submarine platforms roughly 10 times that size. These shoals are the work of corals, building towering carbonate civilizations that stack on top of each other like the empires of Rome. When the first seagrasses arrived here around 30 million years ago, they found a perfect landscape. The plants grow best in shallow water, closer to the light.