News: News Archives
Policy Meeting at AAAS Considers Report
on Ways to Measure State of Environment
Twenty years after warnings of acid rain first splashed across front pages nationwide, a bipartisan group called the Heinz Center published a report aimed at changing the way people think about environmental policy. If the economy has a set of indicators, then so should the environment, according to the leadership of nonprofit organization.
"These economic indicators are numbers that people believe tell us how the economy is doing, and politicians respond to these numbers," said Robin O'Malley, senior fellow and program director of the Heinz Center, in a seminar hosted by AAAS and the Washington Science Policy Association (WSPA).
The report, The State of the Nation's Ecosystems: Measuring the Lands, Waters, and Living Resources of the United States, arose from a Heinz Center project to provide useful information for environmental policymakers. The first one was published in 2002, and new editions are scheduled to come out every five years, as new information emerges and as new issues arise. The long-term goal of the group is to create national environmental indicators that would receive as much attention from politicians as economic indicators.
To make the report as objective and widely accepted as possible, the Heinz Center convened 180 people with diverse interests and perspectives on the nation's ecosystems to come up with a set of indicators that the government could use to guide environmental policy.
The seminar on the Heinz report was the latest in a series of events sponsored by the Washington Science Policy Alliance (www.aaas.org/spp/wspa), a loosely-knit coalition of institutionsincluding AAASthat provides the public with opportunities for considering specific science and technology policy issues.
The Heinz Center was established in 1995 and is based on the vision of Senator John Heinz of Pennsylvania, who envisioned a place where academics, scientists, politicians and environmentalists might convene to work on environmental matters. Heinz died in a plane crash in 1991.
In taking on the project, Heinz Center staff understood that legislators would accept a report only if it were politically neutral, in fact and in tone. O'Malley noted, for example, that the report might disclose that an indicator has risen, but would not suggest whether the impact the increase might have on the environment was good or bad.
What are the indicators? In order to be as comprehensive as possible, the Heinz Center strove to appeal to everyone, not just the "birds and bunnies" folks, O'Malley said jokingly.
Keeping this in mind, Center staff designed a scheme that could be used to quantify the health of any ecosystem. Among the indicators they collected were changes in the number of acres of forest or grassland, soil temperatures, nitrate levels in rivers, numbers of rare and declining species, and rates of farming and recreation.
So, what is the state of the nation's ecosystems? O'Malley cited two reasons for not answering this question. First of all, half of the indicators in the first report could not be calculated on a national level. For example, O'Malley noted that although the report included an indicator for human recreation, it lacked data that could pinpoint where the recreation takes place. Boating, for example might appear in a survey, but the survey did not reveal whether the boating occurred on the sea, or on a freshwater lake.
Secondly, he noted that a judgment regarding the state of the environment would fall outside the scope of the Center's mission. Nonetheless, policymakers might infer a pattern of environmental decline reflected in the report indicators. One indicator, for example, revealed that one-third of plants and animals risk extinction. Another suggested that 100% of all U.S. streams contained at least one contaminant, although O'Malley noted that some interest groups point out that at least 80% of these same streams are free of contaminants that violate human health standards.
The plan for the 2007 report is to refine the indicators and to identify the most important data gaps, O'Malley said. He also suggested that the Heinz Center will start to scale down and look at regional levels in order to bring environmental issues close to home for many people.
"We'd like to say to everyone, 'here's what you should know about your ecosystem'."
A copy of the report can be found at www.heinzctr.org/ecosystems/report.html.
9 May 2003