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In White House meeting, Berkeley scholar says advanced tech can support nature

The U.S. can use satellite imaging, artificial intelligence and other tools to track and protect nature's valuable resources, Solomon Hsiang said.

three redwoods in the shade of an old-growth forest in Northern California

Old-growth trees store vast amounts of carbon dioxide, and so can play a crucial role in limiting climate change. But to set effective policy, the U.S. should do more to measure such natural resources and their value, Berkeley’s  Solomon Hsiang said in a White House meeting. (Photo by Edward Lempinen/UC Berkeley)

Nature is vitally important to the U.S. economy but we tend to take it for granted, doing little to measure the nation’s wealth of natural resources or their economic impact. But at a high-level White House meeting Thursday, Berkeley scholar Solomon Hsiang said that advanced technology is creating powerful new tools for measuring nature’s resources and their economic value.

casual headshot of Solomon Hsiang, standing before a whiteboard with equations

Solomon Hsiang (UC Berkeley photo)

Such basic resources as clean air and water, soil, minerals and even trees are a core part of the nation’s wealth, essential for business and public enterprise, Hsiang told leaders convened by the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). To measure their value — and to preserve it — the nation needs to keep track of these assets as if they were savings in the bank.

“We can measure the economic value of the climate by tracing all of the different ways the climate supports and drives the economy,” he said. “We need to start keeping track of the assets…. We don’t want to come up short down the road and regret how we managed our inheritance.”

Hsiang is an expert in economic policy and data science at the UC Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy and also serves as director of Berkeley’s Global Policy Laboratory. He was among an elite team of speakers at a two-hour OSTP video roundtable “Knowledge In Nature: How Nature Can Help Grow a Better Future.”

During the White House event, Hsiang and other environmental and economic experts described how the many facets of nature are linked to human health, agricultural production and business innovation. And, they said, climate change poses enormous economic risks that require closer understanding and management.

The event was held on the eve of Earth Day — and a day before President Joe Biden announced an ambitious measure to inventory and protect the nation’s biggest and oldest trees. Because trees absorb carbon dioxide from the air, they are essential for countering the harmful climate disruptions caused by rising atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide.

The United States covers almost 4 million square miles, and Hsiang acknowledged that counting all of the trees in such an immense territory has seemed all but impossible — until recently.

“Imagine trying to get out there on foot to measure where the natural resources are,” he said. “Counting the trees could take enormous effort — and now imagine trying to update that every year. It would be impossible given the technology in the past. Today, innovation is really changing the game.”

Satellite imaging, sensors, drones and other new tools are generating vast banks of data, he explained, and advanced computing drives artificial intelligence systems that can measure and help to manage the vast inventory of natural resources.

The explosion of data is producing a “golden age,” he said, allowing “environmental economists to understand the value of resources with a clarity and precision that is unprecedented.”

Hsiang helped to lead a research team that last year described development of a low-cost,  easy-to-use machine learning system that could help researchers and governments to analyze satellite imaging data and address critical challenges.

Among other speakers at Thursday’s White House event were Interior Secretary Deb Haaland; Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo; acting OSTP Director Alondra Nelson; Jane Lubchenco, OSTP deputy director for climate and environment; Brenda Mallory, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality; and Scott Wu, executive director of the California Infrastructure and Economic Development Bank.