283 – Whose environmental values matter?

One of my pet issues is how to decide which the environment projects should receive public funding. One of the factors influencing this decision is (or should be) the importance or value of the environmental outcomes that would be delivered. But whose judgements about importance or values should be taken into account?

There are at least three groups whose values might be influential:

  1. Environmental experts.
  2. The general public.
  3. Politicians.

Environmental experts, such as ecologists, are crucial to decisions about environmental investments. We need their advice about threats to environmental assets, and about the effectiveness of different ways of managing them. However, they often also provide advice on priorities, which are, at least implicitly, value judgements. In my observation, many environmental scientists don’t appreciate how much of their own preferences and values they are injecting into this advice. This matters because studies have shown that the preferences of environmental experts are often rather different from the preferences of the general public (e.g. Seymour et al. 2011; Rogers 2013). The experts tend to be greener, and they emphasise factors that don’t matter as much to others.

seagrassThe general public’s views about the relative importance of different environmental outcomes should be considered because (a) they pay the bills and (b) this is a democracy. The way that economists tend to approach Benefit: Cost Analysis implies that values expressed by the general public are the only values that should matter in these decisions. I don’t agree with that because, like many environmental scientists, I think that the ignorance of the general public is an important consideration. For example, people may feel that sea grass is not very important, but only because they are unaware of its contributions as a source of food and shelter for many marine organisms, or of its roles in stabilising the sea floor and maintaining water quality. Basing decisions on people’s expressed values could result in outcomes that they themselves are not happy with. At least some in the community are aware of their ignorance and feel that their own views are not sufficient to base decisions on (e.g. Clark et al. 2000).

Finally, there are politicians. Ministers have more influence than anybody else in the determination of environmental decisions. In principle, their decisions should reflect community preferences and expert advice, and sometimes they do. However, their own preferences and values also impinge. For example, this was starkly evident in the Abbott government’s decision making about climate change.

Although environmental values are crucial to sound public decision making, there is no clear-cut “correct” way to combine the values of these various groups. Somehow we need to factor in the preferences of the general public, but also account for the greater knowledge of experts, even though we know that their personal values may be different. (Politicians’ views should not matter in principle but inevitably will in practice.)

The INFFER framework (Pannell et al. 2012 – www.inffer.com.au) embodies a particular way to combine public and expert input when prioritising environmental projects. It’s not the only option, of course, but it does work quite well at bringing the values discussion to the surface.

Further reading

Clark, J., J. Burgess, and C. M. Harrison. 2000. I Struggled with this Money Business: Respondents’ Perspectives on Contingent Valuation. Ecological Economics 33 (1), 45–62. Journal web site

Pannell, D.J., Roberts, A.M., Park, G., Alexander, J., Curatolo, A. and Marsh, S. (2012). Integrated assessment of public investment in land-use change to protect environmental assets in Australia, Land Use Policy 29(2), 377-387. Journal web site ♦ IDEAS page for this paper

Rogers, A.A. (2013). Public and expert preference divergence: Evidence from a choice experiment of marine reserves in Australia, Land Economics 89(2), 346-370. Journal web site

Seymour, E., Curtis, A., Pannell, D.J., Roberts, A. and Allan, C. (2011). Same river, different values and why it matters, Ecological Management and Restoration 12(3), 207-213. Journal web site

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