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Seeds of Change

Global warming is causing some plants to flower early, while others can now survive the winter. Scientists have found that climate change may even threaten the dissemination of plants. Noelle Beckman, post-doctoral fellow at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, says healthy seed dispersal is crucial for the survival of plant species.

Learning from India's 'Smart' Farming Villages

Joginder Singh, a 68-year-old farmer in the village of Noopur Bet in Punjab, is among the thousands of farmers in India trying to reconcile the risks posed by a changing climate with their need to improve crop yields to support their families.

Rainfall has been erratic over the past decade, and when it finally arrives, it comes in a few heavy torrents. Heat is stressing crops. Water for irrigation is becoming increasingly depleted.

A River Runs Again: Reporting on India’s Natural Crisis

In her new book, A River Runs Again: India’s Natural World in Crisis, From the Barren Cliffs of Rajasthan to the Farmlands of Karnataka, environmental journalist Meera Subramanian chronicles India’s efforts to balance economic development and environmental protection, including innovative programs to educate youth about sexual and reproductive health.

Café Scientifique: Dennis vanEngelsdorp

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) organizes the Annapolis Café Scientifique—a place where, for the price of a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, anyone can come to explore the latest ideas in science and technology.

There is never a cover charge for Café Scientifique!

Café Scientifique: Elizabeth Daut

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) organizes the Annapolis Café Scientifique—a place where, for the price of a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, anyone can come to explore the latest ideas in science and technology.

There is never a cover charge for Café Scientifique!

Will Indonesian Fires Spark Reform of Rogue Forest Sector?

The fires that blazed in Indonesia’s rainforests in 1982 and 1983 came as a shock. The logging industry had embarked on a decades-long pillaging of the country’s woodlands, opening up the canopy and drying out the carbon-rich peat soils. Preceded by an unusually long El Niño-related dry season, the forest fires lasted for months, sending vast clouds of smoke across Southeast Asia.

Community Net Metering

As renewable energy becomes more affordable, many homeowners are installing systems to generate their own electricity and lower their utility bills through a process called net metering. While some might want to install larger systems and sell the excess power to the utility for a profit, it’s usually not that simple.

New Climate Adaptation Professionals

Adaptation planners help communities prepare for climate change impacts. For instance, in some areas, they write new zoning and building codes to protect communities against sea level rise. In other areas, they help prepare for drought, wildfire, and extreme weather disasters, such as hurricanes or blizzards. But despite these important activities, as a profession, adaptation planning is still in its infancy.

From Policy to Practice: Integrating Ecosystem Services into Federal Decision Making

October 22, 2015

Communications Coordinator

Above photo: U.S. federal agencies including the Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Bureau of Indian Affairs conduct a prescribed burn for prairie restoration in the fall of 2011. Prescribed burning is a management technique used to control invasive grasses on refuge lands. Prescribed fires also reduce hazard fuels to prevent wildfires and lower the risk to nearby rural residential homes, agricultural lands, and private woodlands. Courtesy George Gentry/USFWS - Pacific Region via Flickr/Creative Commons.

The Forest Service. The Bureau of Land Management. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The Department of Defense. From managing the nation’s forests and rangelands to our military facilities and nuclear plants, these and other U.S. federal agencies take actions that change the physical landscape as well as the environment’s capacity to contribute to human society—and on a large scale.

Clean air and drinking water, erosion and flood control, and outdoor recreation are just a few examples of “ecosystem services,” or benefits that people receive from natural systems. And while it can be difficult to pin a specific dollar value on such services, new data, methods, and expertise are making it increasingly possible to do just that.

Yet, federal agencies have not consistently incorporated measures of ecosystem services into their decision making processes.

Which is why new policy guidance released earlier this month by the White House is welcome (and exciting!) news. The guidance directs federal agencies to begin incorporating ecosystem services into their planning and decision making. Specifically, it:

“… directs agencies to develop and institutionalize policies to promote consideration of ecosystem services, where appropriate and practicable, in planning, investment, and regulatory contexts. It also establishes a process for the federal government to develop a more detailed guidance on integrating ecosystem service assessments into relevant programs and projects to help maintain ecosystem and community resilience, sustainable use of natural resources, and the recreational value of the Nation’s unique landscapes.”

The new guidance isn’t a win just for the environment—it’s decisive progress for human health and economic well-being, too.

“An ecosystem services approach to decision making can help agencies link natural resource management choices to the things people care about in an understandable and analytically robust manner,” said Jim Boyd, Director of Social Science & Policy at SESYNC and Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for the Management of Ecological Wealth at Resources for the Future.

For agency staff left wondering exactly how to make this happen, the National Ecosystem Services Partnership (NESP) has worked for three years with agencies, academics, and practitioners to develop the Federal Resource Management and Ecosystem Services Guidebook, an online resource that provides a framework for incorporating ecosystem services into decision making and highlighting relevant efforts under way by federal agencies. NESP also produced a companion Best Practices for Integrating Ecosystem Services into Federal Decision Making report, released earlier this year.

The resources provide much-needed clarity for how to design ecosystem services assessments that meet minimum standards of scientifically-rigorous assessments even when time, resources, or capacity are limiting.

The NESP guidebook and best practices report were supported in part by the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) under funding received from the National Science Foundation DBI-1052875.

[1] Tamara Dickinson, Timothy Male, and Ali Zaidi: “Incorporating Natural Infrastructure and Ecosystem Services in Federal Decision-Making.” The White House Blog.

Recommended Reading

Ecosystem services and resource management: Institutional issues, challenges, and opportunities in the public sector
A 2015 study published in the journal Ecological Economics by Lynn Scarlett, The Nature Conservancy, and Jim Boyd, SESYNC and Resources for the Future.

Principles to Guide Assessments of Ecosystem Service Values
A 2013 document arising from the Ecosystem Services Valuation Workshop held July 8–9, 2013, at Portland State University, an event sponsored by Portland State University’s Institute for Sustainable Solutions, the Cascadia Ecosystem Services Partnership, and Defenders of Wildlife.

Sustaining Environmental Capital: Protecting Society and the Economy
A 2011 Report to the President from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology Working Group on Biodiversity Preservation and Ecosystem Sustainability.

U.S. Federal Government Sends Agencies to Bat — For Nature and People
A 2015 blog published in Cool Green Science by Heather Tallis, The Nature Conservancy, and Lydia Olander, Duke University.

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center is a research center dedicated to accelerating scientific discovery at the interface of human and ecological systems. Visit us online at www.sesync.org and follow us on Twitter @SESYNC.

SESYNC Welcomes Joe Maher

October 20, 2015

Communications Coordinator

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) is pleased to welcome to our Annapolis center Dr. Joe Maher, a Computational Postdoctoral Fellow. Get to know our newest researcher:

Name: Joe Maher
PhD: Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Maryland
SESYNC Project: Valuing Forest Benefits & Policies across Multiple Spatial Scales: From Urban Shade Trees to Amazon Protected Areas

How would you describe your primary field of study?

Environmental economics.

What does that mean in terms of the broad questions you’re interested in studying?

I use data to understand how policies shape people’s incentives to behave differently, and I apply that to issues that have environmental significance—such as, for example, energy use and conservation.

Can you briefly describe your proposed SESYNC postdoctoral project?

Mine is a two-part project: the first investigates the potential energy savings from shade trees. In warm climates, trees provide natural air conditioning by shading homes, which at least anecdotally decreases energy generation. But do shade trees provide measurable and verifiable benefits that are comparable to engineering-based policy solutions? I will be working to address quantitatively whether energy savings vary across tree species, shade intensity, and house characteristics to determine whether urban forestry is a cost-effective policy tool for managing energy demand.

The second part of my project investigates the makings of effective protected areas. In an effort to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from deforestation and degradation and enhance forest carbon stocks, governments in tropical regions are establishing vast networks of protected forest areas. However, the link between protected area designation and avoided deforestation is widely debated. My project will investigate tropical forest conservation policies and how protecting a piece of land that has forest on it augments the deforestation rate from what would have occurred otherwise without the protections. I’ll also investigate whether the incentives of various government agencies influence protected area effectiveness in reducing carbon emissions.

Is there anything about your work that the general public might find surprising?

To a lot of people, “environmental economics” sounds made-up or contradictory. I’m not an environmentalist advocating for any particular economic policies—rather, I evaluate whether environmental policies are effective or efficient, and how the benefits measure up to the costs of implementation.

To learn more about Dr. Maher and his work, click here.

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, funded through an award to the University of Maryland from the National Science Foundation, is a research center dedicated to accelerating scientific discovery at the interface of human and ecological systems. Visit us online at www.sesync.org and follow us on Twitter @SESYNC.

Associated Project: 
Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 


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