Epistemic status: This is just my impression. It is based primarily on a few conversations with a conservation-inclined friend, and reading a tiny bit on wikipedia and in the Economist.
Ruth Gates died in 2018. She seems to have been the highest profile researcher working on making coral reefs able to survive climate change. Quoting wikipedia:
"Coral Assisted Evolution, a $4 million research project, was funded by the Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group. This supported Gates' research for four years from 2016, developing super corals that can withstand climate change.[...] If Gates' project is successful, it could save [$9.9 trillion USD]."
So just based on that estimate, that would be a 2,500,000x return if her project was successful (using only that funding). This makes it seem like this type of research is dramatically underfunded.
Three considerations I haven't looked in to:
- Are there still people to fund (e.g. her collaborators) in this space?
- How much funding is there, in total, for such projects? (Her obituary in the economist makes her seem like a maverick and the world leader in her area).
- How much more research/funding would it take to bring this research to fruition?
It's hard to imagine an answer to these questions that would challenge the central claim that this work is dramatically underfunded.
Based on my current understanding, I'd strongly recommend EAs to look into this cause area, and/or respond to this post with their thoughts.
RE "Are there still people to fund... in this space?"
Here's a small one! This Experiment.com crowdfunding project is open until 2/18. An existing reef health monitoring program seeks supplemental funding to train volunteer divers from Adventure Scientists so they can expand their area.
This may be a good opportunity to ask professionals in the area about challenges to their work, since they'll already be expecting to answer questions publicly in the discussion section of the raise. In my limited experience, researchers on Experiment.com are usually delighted to talk about their work!
The main thing I found interesting here is the "$9.9tn" claim, which seems super big. The original source seems to be this paper (non-paywalled link for convenience). I'm not sure how much I buy the paper's estimates and would be curious to hear other people's thoughts!
Yes, I don't understand where the monetary value comes from?
A brief answer from NOAA: "Coral reefs provide coastal protection for communities, habitat for fish, and millions of dollars in recreation and tourism, among other benefits." Like jetties and quays, reefs dissipate wave energy, lessening the impact of storms on the shore and coastal investments. Young and small fish can hide from larger fish in the nooks and crevices of reefs, helping more of them to reach adulthood and build up fishery stock.
Reef Resilience has additional numbers and citations under the "Economic Value" tab if you're curious!
(Sorry, this is a bit stream-of-conscious):
I assume its because humans rely on natural ecosystems in a variety of ways in order to have the conditions necessary for agriculture, life, etc. So, like with climate change, the long-term cost of mitigation is simply massive... really these numbers should not be thought of as very meaningful, I think, since the kinds of disruptions and destruction we are talking about is not easily measured in $s.
TBH, I find it not-at-all surprising that saving coral reefs would have a huge impact, since they are basically part of the backbone of the entire global ocean ecosystem, and this stuff is all connected, etc.
I think environmentalism is often portrayed as some sort of hippy-dippy sentimentalism and contrasted with humanist values and economic good sense, and I've been a bit surprised how prevalent that sort of attitude seems to be in EA. I'm not trying to say that either of you in the thread have this attitude; it's more just that I was reminded of it by these comments... it seems like I have a much stronger prior that protecting the environment is good for people's long-term future (e.g. like most people here have probably heard the idea that all the biodiversity we're destroying could have massive scientific implications, e.g. leading to the development of new materials and drugs).
I think the reality is that we're completely squandering the natural resources of the earth, and all of this only looks good for people in the short term, or if we expect to achieve technological independence from nature. I think it's very foolhardy to assume that we will achieve technological independence from nature, and doing so is a source of x-risk. (TBC, I'm not an expert on any of this; just sharing my perspective.)
To be clear, I also think that AI timelines are likely to be short, and AI x-risk mostly dominates my thinking about the future. If we can build aligned, transformative AI, there is a good chance that we will be able to leverage to develop technological independence from nature. At the same time, I think our current irresponsible attitude towards managing natural resources doesn't bode well, even if we grant ourselves huge technological advances (it seems to me that many problems facing humanity now require social, not technological solutions; the technology is often already there...).
I like this project shape: trying to keep a solved problem solved. We have functioning reefs to study. We already know some of the conditions they like. Our knowledge might not have to be as thorough to protect a system that is already working at scale compared to the level of knowledge needed to design, launch, and scale a solution to an unsolved problem.