The Trillion-Dollar Auction to Save the World

Ocean creatures soak up huge amounts of humanity’s carbon mess. Should we value them like financial assets?
Photo illustration showing shapes and graphs over images of a blue whale divers and the floor of the sea.

You are seated in an auction room at Christie’s, where all evening you have watched people in suits put prices on priceless wonders. A parade of Dutch oils and Ming vases has gone to financiers and shipping magnates and oil funds. You have made a few unsuccessful bids, but the market is obscene, and you are getting bored. You consider calling it an early night and setting down the paddle. But then an item appears that causes you to tighten your grip. Lot 475: Adult blue whale, female. 

What is the right price for this masterwork of biology? Unlike a Ming vase, Lot 475 has never been appraised. It’s safe to say that she is worth more than the 300,000 pounds of meat, bone, baleen, and blubber she’s made of. But where does her premium come from? She has biological value, surely—a big fish supports the littler ones—but you wouldn’t know how to quantify it. The same goes for her cultural value, the reverence and awe she elicits in people: immeasurable. You might conclude that this exercise is futile. Lot 475 is priceless. You brace for the bidding war, fearful of what the people in suits might do with their acquisition. But no paddles go up.

Ralph Chami has a suggested starting bid for Lot 475. He performed the appraisal six years ago, after what amounted to a religious experience on the deck of a research vessel in the Gulf of California. One morning, a blue whale surfaced so close to the ship that Chami could feel its misty breath on his cheeks. “I was like, ‘Where have you been all my life?’” he recalls. “‘Where have I been all my life?’” 

Chami was 50 at the time, taking a break from his job at the International Monetary Fund, where he had spent the better part of a decade steadying markets in fragile places such as Libya and Sudan. “You become fragile yourself,” he says. When he saw the whale, he sensed her intelligence. He thought: “She has a life. She has a family. She has a history.” The moment brought him to tears, which he hid from the others on board. 

That evening, Chami fell into conversation with his hosts, who told him the unhappy tale of the seas. The ocean, they explained, has been left to fend for itself. Trapped between borders, largely out of reach of law and order, its abundance is eroding at an alarming rate. The water is warming and acidifying. More than a third of fisheries are overexploited, and three-quarters of coral reefs are under threat of collapse. As for whales, people might love them, might pass laws to ban their slaughter and protect their mating grounds, but people also love all the things that threaten whales most—oil drilled from offshore platforms that pollute their habitat, goods carried by cargo ships that collide with them, pinging sonar signals that disrupt their songs

Chami had always loved the water. Growing up in Lebanon, he toyed with the idea of becoming an oceanographer before his father told him “in your dreams.” As he heard the researchers’ story, something awakened in him. He sensed that the same tools he had used to repair broken economies might help restore the oceans. Were they not a crisis zone too?

Chami’s hosts sent him scientific papers, from which he learned about the whale’s role in the carbon cycle. She stored as much as 33 tons of carbon in her prodigious body, he calculated, and fertilized the ocean with her iron-rich poop, providing fuel to trillions of carbon-dismantling phytoplankton. This piqued Chami’s interest. In a world economy striving to be greener, the ability to offset greenhouse-gas emissions had a clearly defined value. It was measured in carbon credits, representing tons of carbon removed from the atmosphere. While the whale herself couldn’t—shouldn’t—be bought and sold, the premium generated by her ecological role could. She was less like an old painting, in other words, than an old-growth forest. 

So what was the whale worth in carbon? It appeared no one had done the calculation. Chami loaded up his actuarial software and started crunching the numbers over and over, until he could say with confidence that the whale would pay dividends with every breath she took and every calf she bore. He concluded that the whale’s value to humanity, on the basis of the emissions she helped sequester over her 60-year lifetime, was $2 million. A starting bid.

For Chami, this number represented more than a burned-out economist’s thought experiment. It would allow for a kind of capitalistic alchemy: By putting a price on the whale’s services, he believed he could transform her from a liability—a charity case for a few guilt-ridden philanthropists—into an asset. The money the whale raised in carbon credits would go to conservationists or to the governments in whose waters she swam. They, in turn, could fund efforts that would ensure the whale and her kin kept right on sequestering CO2. Any new threat to the whale’s environment—a shipping lane, a deepwater rig—would be seen as a threat to her economic productivity. Even people who didn’t really care about her would be forced to account for her well-being.

Before he went into finance, Ralph Chami toyed with the idea of becoming an oceanographer.

It was a “win-win-win,” Chami believed: Carbon emitters would get help meeting their obligations to avert global collapse; conservationists would get much-needed funds; and the whale would swim blissfully on, protected by the invisible hand of the market.

What’s more, Chami realized, every wild organism is touched by the carbon cycle and could therefore be protected with a price tag. A forest elephant, for example, fertilizes soil and clears underbrush, allowing trees to thrive. He calculated the value of those services at $1.75 million, far more than the elephant was worth as a captive tourist attraction or a poached pair of tusks. “Same thing for the rhinos, and same thing for the apes,” Chami says. “What would it be if they could speak and say, ‘Hey, pay me, man?’” 

Chami’s numbers never failed to elicit a reaction, good or bad. He was interviewed widely and asked to value plants and animals all over the world. He gave a TED Talk. Some people accused him of cheapening nature, debasing it by affixing a price tag. Cetacean experts pointed to vast gaps in their understanding of how, exactly, whales sequester carbon. But it seemed to Chami that by saying a blue whale must remain priceless, his detractors were ensuring that it would remain worthless. 

In 2020, Chami was invited to participate in a task force about nature-based solutions to climate change whose participants included Carlos Duarte, a Spanish marine biologist at Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. Duarte was widely known in conservation circles as the father of “blue carbon,” a field of climate science that emphasizes the role of the oceans in cleaning up humanity’s mess. In 2009, he had coauthored a United Nations report that publicized two key findings. First, the majority of anthropogenic carbon emissions are absorbed into the sea. Second, a tiny fraction of the ocean floor—the 0.5 percent that’s home to most of the planet’s mangrove forests, salt marshes, and seagrass meadows—stores more than half of the carbon found in ocean sediments.

After the task force, the two men got to talking. Duarte told Chami that scientists had recently mapped what he believed to be 40 percent of the world’s seagrass, all in one place: the Bahamas. The plant was a sequestration power house, Duarte explained. And around the world, it was under threat. Seagrasses are receding at an average of 1.5 percent per year, killed off by marine heat waves, pollution, development. 

Chami was intrigued. Then he did a rough estimate for the worth of all the carbon sequestered by seagrass around the world, and he got more excited. It put every other number to shame. The value, he calculated, was $1 trillion.

Seagrass has a long history of being ignored. Though it grows in tufted carpets off the coast of every continent but Antartica, it is a background character, rarely drawing human attention except when it clings to an anchor line or fouls up a propeller or mars the aesthetics of a resort beach. Divers don’t visit a seagrass meadow to bask in its undulating blades of green. They come to see the more charismatic creatures that spend time there, like turtles and sharks. If the seagrass recedes in any particular cove or inlet from one decade to the next, few people would be expected to notice. 

When Duarte began studying seagrasses in the 1980s, “not even the NGOs cared” about what was going on in the meadows, he recalls. But he had a unique perspective on unloved environments, having tramped around bogs and swamps since graduate school and gone on dives in the submerged meadows off Majorca. The more he studied the plants, the more he understood how valuable they could be in the fight against climate change.

Seagrasses are the only flowering plants on Earth that spend their entire lives underwater. They rely on ocean currents and animals to spread their seeds (which are, by the way, pretty tasty). Unlike seaweeds, seagrasses not only put down roots in the seabed but also grow horizontal rhizomes through it, lashing themselves together into vast living networks. One patch of Mediterranean seagrass is a contender to be the world’s oldest organism, having cloned itself continuously for up to 200,000 years. Another growing off the coast of Western Australia is the world’s largest plant. 

Those massive networks of rhizomes, buried beneath a few inches of sediment, are the key to the seagrasses’ survival. They’re also how the plants are able to put away carbon so quickly—as much as 10 times as fast, Duarte eventually calculated, as a mature tropical rainforest. And yet, no one could be convinced to care. “I nicknamed seagrass the ugly duckling of conservation,” he told me. 

Then one day in 2020, Duarte connected with a marine biologist named Austin Gallagher, the head of an American NGO called Beneath the Waves. Gallagher was a shark guy, and the seagrass was largely a backdrop to his work. But his team of volunteers and scientists had spent years studying tiger sharks with satellite tags and GoPro cameras, and they had noticed something in the creatures’ great solo arcs around the Bahamas: The sharks went wherever they could find sea turtles to eat, and wherever the sea turtles went, there were meadows of seagrass. From the glimpses the team was getting on camera, there was a lot of it. 

Gallagher knew about Duarte’s work on seagrass carbon through his wife, a fellow marine scientist. Together, the two men came up with a plan to map the Bahamian seagrass by fitting sharks with 360-degree cameras. Once they verified the extent of the meadows, Chami would help them value the carbon and organize a sale of credits with the Bahamian government. The project would be unique in the world. While some groups have sought carbon credits for replanting degraded seagrass meadows—a painstaking process that is expensive, uncertain, and generally limited in scale—this would be the first attempt to claim credits for conserving an existing ecosystem. The scale would dwarf all other ocean-based carbon efforts. 

The government was eager to listen. The Bahamas, like other small island nations, is under threat from sea-level rise and worsening natural disasters—problems largely caused by the historical carbon emissions of large industrialized nations. In 2019, Hurricane Dorian swept through the islands, causing more than $3 billion in damage and killing at least 74 people; more than 200 are still listed as missing. For the government, the idea of global carbon emitters redirecting some of their enormous wealth into the local economy was only logical. “We have been collecting the garbage out of the air,” Prime Minister Philip Davis said to a summit audience last year, “but we have not been paid for it.” 

The government formalized its carbon credit market last spring, in legislation that envisions the Bahamas as an international trading hub for blue carbon. Carbon Management Limited, a partnership between Beneath the Waves and local financiers, will handle everything from the carbon science to monetization. (The partnership, which is co-owned by the Bahamian government, will collect 15 percent of revenue.) The plans at first intersected with the booming crypto scene in the Bahamas, involving talks to have the cryptocurrency exchange FTX set up a service for trading carbon credits. But after FTX collapsed and its CEO was extradited to face charges in the US, the organizers changed tack. They project that the Bahamian seagrass could generate credits for between 14 and 18 million metric tons of carbon each year, translating to between $500 million and more than $1 billion in revenue. Over 30 years, the meadows could bring in tens of billions of dollars. Far from being an ugly duckling, the seagrass would be a golden goose. 

Seagrass is the “ugly duckling of conservation,” Carlos Duarte says. He calculated that the plant may put away carbon at 10 times the rate of a mature rainforest.

Duarte sees the project in the Bahamas as a blueprint (pun intended, he says) for a much grander idea that has animated his work for the past two decades: He wants to restore all aquatic habitats and creatures to their preindustrial bounty. He speaks in terms of “blue natural capital,” imagining a future in which the value of nature is priced into how nations calculate their economic productivity.

This is different from past efforts to financialize nature, he emphasizes. Since the 19th century, conservationists have argued that protecting bison or lions or forests is a sound investment because extinct animals and razed trees can no longer provide trophies or timber. More recently, ecologists have tried to demonstrate that less popular habitats, such as wetlands, can serve humanity better as flood protectors or water purifiers than as sites for strip malls. But while these efforts may appeal to hunters or conservationists, they are far from recasting nature as a “global portfolio of assets,” as a Cambridge economist described natural capital in a 2021 report commissioned by the UK government. 

Duarte and I first met in the halls of a crowded expo at the 2022 UN Climate Conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. He had traveled a short distance from his home in Jeddah, where he oversees a wide array of projects, from restoring corals and advising on regenerative tourism projects along Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast to a global effort to scale up seaweed farming (using, yes, revenue from carbon credits). In Egypt, Duarte was scheduled to appear on 22 panels, serving as the scientific face of the kingdom’s plan for a so-called circular carbon economy, in which carbon is treated as a commodity to be managed more responsibly, often with the help of nature.

Chami was there too, wearing a trim suit and a pendant in the shape of a whale’s tail around his neck. He was participating as a member of the Bahamian delegation, which included Prime Minister Davis and various conservationists from Beneath the Waves. They had arrived with a pitch for how to include biodiversity in global discussions about climate change. The seagrass was their template, one that could be replicated across the world, ideally with the Bahamas as a hub for natural markets. 

The UN meeting was a good place to spread the gospel of seagrass. The theme of the conference was how to get wealthy polluters to pay for the damage they cause in poorer nations that experience disasters such as Hurricane Dorian. The hope was to eventually hammer out a UN agreement, but in the meantime, other approaches for moving money around were in the ether. Since the 2015 Paris Agreement, countries had been forced to start accounting for carbon emissions in their balance sheets. Big emitters were lining up deals with cash-poor, biodiversity-rich nations to make investments in nature that would potentially help the polluters hit their climate commitments. Chami’s boss at the IMF had suggested that nations in debt could start to think about using their natural assets, valued in carbon, to pay it off. “All of these poor countries today are going to find out that they’re very, very rich,” Chami told me.

At a conference where the main message often seemed to be doom, the project in the Bahamas was a story of hope, Chami said. When he gave a talk about the seagrass, he spoke with the vigor of a tent revivalist. With the time humanity had left to fix the climate, he told the audience, “cute projects” weren’t going to cut it anymore. A few million dollars for seagrass replanting here, a handful of carbon credits for protecting a stand of mangroves there—no, people needed to be thinking a thousand times bigger. Chami wanted to know what everyone gathered in Egypt was waiting for. “Why are we dilly-dallying?” he asked the crowd. “So much talk. So little action.”

One day this past winter, a former real estate developer from Chattanooga, Tennessee, named David Harris piloted his personal jet over the Little Bahama Bank. From his cockpit window, the water below looked like the palette of a melancholic painter. Harris was bound for a weed-cracked landing strip in West End, Grand Bahama, where he would board a fishing boat called the Tigress. Harris and his crew—which included his 10-year-old daughter—would spend the rest of the week surveying seagrass meadows for Beneath the Waves. 

They were tackling a great expanse. While the total land area of the Bahamas is a mere 4,000 square miles, the islands are surrounded by shallow undersea platforms roughly 10 times that size. These banks are the work of corals, which build towering carbonate civilizations that pile atop one another like the empires of Rome. When the first seagrasses arrived here about 30 million years ago, they found a perfect landscape. The plants do best in the shallows, closest to the light.

Harris, who speaks with a warm twang and has the encouraging air of a youth baseball coach, had been traveling to the Bahamas for years in pursuit of dives, fish, and the occasional real estate deal. He met Gallagher on a fishing trip and soon began helping with his tiger shark advocacy. That work was an exciting mix of scientific research—including dives alongside the notoriously aggressive animals—and playing host to crews for Shark Week TV programs and their celebrity guests. Eventually, Harris sold his company, retired, and threw himself into volunteering full-time.

He had not expected to spend his days looking at seagrass. But here he was, leading a blue carbon expedition. With help from Duarte, Beneath the Waves had created its shark-enabled seagrass map. The group pulled in a Swedish firm to scan the region using lidar cameras affixed to a small plane, allowing them to peer through the water and, using machine learning, infer from the pixels how dense the meadows were. 

Now Harris and his crew were validating the aerial data, a painstaking process that required filming dozens of hours of footage of the seafloor and taking hundreds of sediment cores. The footage was meant to verify the lidar-based predictions that separated the seagrasses from beds of empty sand and algae. The cores would be sent to a lab in a prep school outside Boston, Gallagher’s alma mater, where they would be tested for their organic carbon content. When all the data was combined, it would reveal how much carbon the meadows contained. 

The Tigress was set to autopilot along a straight line, hauling GoPro cameras off the starboard side. From this vantage, the scale of the task was easy to appreciate. At a lazy 5 knots, each line took about an hour. This patch of sea—one of 30 that Beneath the Waves planned to survey around the banks—would require about 20 lines to cover. Harris’s daughter counted sea stars and sketched them in a journal to justify a few days off from school. Her father surveyed the banks in hopeful search of a shark. At the end of each line, the crew retrieved the cameras, dripping with strands of sargassum, and swapped out the memory cards.

Harris’ crew would eventually present their protocol for assessing the carbon storage potential of seagrass to Verra, a nonprofit carbon registry. Verra develops standards to ensure there’s real value there before the credits are sold. To meet the organization’s requirements, Beneath the Waves must prove two things: first, that the seagrass is actually sequestering carbon at the rates it estimates; second, that the meadows would put away more carbon if they were protected. No one is going to pay to protect a carbon sink that would do fine on its own, the thinking goes. A billion-dollar opportunity requires a commensurate threat. 

Harris told me that Beneath the Waves was still in “the exploratory phase” when it came to quantifying threats. They had various ideas—mining near shore, illegal trawl fishing, anchoring, water quality issues. As far as the carbon calculations went, though, Harris and his team felt confident in their approach. Prior to the outing on the Tigress, Beneath the Waves had already set up a for-profit company to bring its tools and methods to other blue carbon projects. It was in talks with government officials from across the Caribbean, Europe, and Africa. (Gallagher told me the company would pass the profits back to the nonprofit to continue its advocacy and research.) 

Meanwhile, the head of Carbon Management, the scientific and financial partnership behind the project, told me he was pitching the investment to his clients, mostly “high-net-worth individuals” looking to diversify their portfolios while fighting climate change. Oil companies and commodities traders are interested too, he told me, as well as cruise lines and hotels that do business in the Bahamas. The Bahamian government has not yet said how it will allocate the money from the seagrass project. Hurricane recovery and preparedness could be on the list, as could seagrass conservation. 

The Tigress crew worked until the light began to fade, then headed back to port. Harris said he was happy to be doing his part out on the water. All that money would be a good thing for the Bahamas, he thought, especially as the country planned for a future of bigger storms. In the days after Hurricane Dorian, which hit Grand Bahama with 185-mph winds and heaved the shallow waters of the Banks over the land, Harris had flown to the island to help a friend who had survived by clinging to a tree along with his children. The storm’s legacy is still apparent in ways small and large. At a restaurant near the Tigress’ berth, there was no fresh bread—“not since Dorian,” when the ovens were flooded, the waitress told me with a laugh. Then she stopped laughing. The recovery had been slow. The young people and tourists had not come back. The airport had not been repaired. She wondered where her tax dollars were going. 

That night, over dinner in the ovenless restaurant, Harris showed me a photo of his vintage Chevy Blazer. He said he hoped the seagrass project would generate enough carbon carbon credits to offset the old gas-guzzler. This was a joke, obviously, but it expressed a deeper wish. The promise of carbon credits is that, wielded in their most ideal form, they will quietly subtract the emissions humans keep adding to the atmospheric bill. Every stroke of a piston, every turn of a jet engine, every cattle ranch and petrochemical plant—every addiction that people can’t give up, or won’t, or haven’t had a chance to yet—could be zeroed out.    

For governments, assigning nature a concrete value could take many forms. They could encourage the development of sustainable ecotourism and aquaculture, where the value of the ecosystem is in the revenue it creates. Or they could confer legal rights on nature, effectively giving ecosystems the right to sue for damages—and incentivizing polluters to not damage them. But in Duarte’s 30 years of advocating for creatures and plants like seagrasses, politics have gotten in the way of biodiversity protections. Only carbon trading has “made nature investable,” he says, at a speed and scale that could make a difference.  

That is not to say he loves the system. Carbon credits arose from a “failure to control greed,” Duarte says. Beyond that, they are not designed for the protection of nature; rather, they use it as a means to an end. Any plant or creature that packs away carbon, like a tree or a seagrass meadow—and perhaps an elephant or a whale—is a tool for hitting climate goals. It’s worth something. Any creature that doesn’t, including those that Duarte loves, like coral reefs, is on its own. 

Duarte also worries about “carbon cowboys” trying to make a buck through sequestration projects that have no real scientific basis or end up privatizing what should be public natural resources. Even projects that seem to adhere closely to the market’s rules may fall apart with closer scrutiny. Earlier this year, a few weeks after the Tigress sailed, The Guardian published an analysis of Verra’s methodologies that called into question 94 percent of the registry’s rainforest projects. Reporters found that some developers had obtained “phantom credits” for forest protection that ended up pushing destruction one valley over, or used improper references to measure how much deforestation their projects avoided. (Verra disputes the findings.) 

When it comes to carbon arithmetic, trees should be a relatively simple case: addition by burning fossil fuels, subtraction by photosynthesis. The forestry industry has honed tools that can measure the carbon stored in trunks and branches. And yet the math still broke, because people took advantage of imperfect methods. 

Seagrass is also more complex than it might seem. After an initial wave of enthusiasm about its carbon-packing powers, increasing numbers of marine biologists expressed concerns when the discussion turned to carbon credits. For one thing, they argue, the fact that seagrass removes CO2 through water, rather than air, makes the sequestration value of any particular meadow difficult to appraise. In South Florida, a biogeochemist named Bryce Van Dam measured the flow of CO2 in the air above seagrass meadows. He found that in the afternoons, when photosynthesis should have been roaring and more CO2 being sucked into the plants, the water was releasing CO2 instead. This was the result, Van Dam suggested, of seagrass and other creatures that live in the meadows altering the chemistry of the water. (Duarte contends that Van Dam’s premise was flawed.) 

Another issue is that, unlike a rainforest, which stores most of its carbon in its trunks and canopies, a seagrass meadow earns most of its keep belowground. When Sophia Johannessen, a geochemical oceanographer at Fisheries and Oceans Canada, took a look at common assessments of carbon storage in seagrass, she concluded that many were based on samples that were far too shallow. Though this carbon was considered permanently locked away, the sediment could easily be disturbed by animals or currents. When Johannessen saw the ways that nonprofits and governments were picking up the science as though it were gospel, she was stunned. “I hadn’t known about ‘blue carbon,’ so perhaps it’s not surprising they didn’t know about sediment geochemistry,” she told me. 

Chami’s solution to these niggling scientific uncertainties is to focus instead on the global picture: Earth’s seagrass meadows sit atop vast stores of carbon, and destruction has the potential to visit all of them. He likens natural capital to the mortgage market. When a prospective homeowner gets a loan from a bank, the bank then sells the loan, which is swapped and bundled with other loans. Each loan contains unique risks, but the bundled asset controls for that uncertainty. Financiers have no problem with uncertainty, Chami notes; it is the locus of profit. The money they invest gets poured back into the mortgage market, allowing banks to issue more loans. The characteristics of the individual homes and borrowers don’t matter that much. “You can’t scale up when every case is a unique case,” he says. “You need to homogenize the product in order to make a market.” Scale is the bulwark against destruction. One seagrass meadow can be ignored; a seagrass market, which encompasses many meadows and represents a major investment, cannot. 

When each ecosystem is treated the same—based on how much carbon it has socked away—the issue of quantifying threats becomes simpler. Chami cites the example of Gabon, which last year announced the sale of 90 million carbon credits based on recent rainforest protections. Skeptics have pointed out that nobody has plans to fell the trees. The government has replied that if it can’t find a buyer for the credits, that may change. In the Bahamas, Prime Minister Davis has invoked a similar idea. Seagrass protection, he has said, could be reframed as a payment to prevent oil companies from drilling in the banks for the next 30 years. Seen one way, these are not-so-veiled threats. Seen another, they reveal a fundamental unfairness in the carbon markets: Why can’t those who are already good stewards of nature’s carbon sinks get their credits, too? 

The numerous seagrass scientists I spoke with expressed a common wish that Chami’s simplified carbon math could be true. Seagrass desperately requires protection. But instead they kept coming back to the uncertainty. Van Dam compares the standard methods for assessing seagrass carbon to judging a business based only on its revenue. To understand the full picture, you also need a full accounting of the money flowing out. You need to trouble yourself with all of the details. This is why the rush to monetize the meadows—and offer justification for additional carbon emissions—worried him. “Now that there’s money attached to it,” he told me, “there’s little incentive for people to say ‘stop.’”

A few months after the Tigress outing, members of the Bahamian conservation community received invitations to a meeting in Nassau. The invitees included scientists from the local chapter of the Nature Conservancy and the Bahamas National Trust, a nonprofit that oversees the country’s 32 national parks, as well as smaller groups. Gallagher kicked off the meeting with a review of what Beneath the Waves had achieved with its mapping effort. Then he came to the problem: He needed data about what might be killing Bahamian seagrass. 

This problem wasn’t trivial. The government’s blue carbon legislation required that the project adhere to standards like Verra’s, which meant figuring out how conservation efforts would increase the amount of carbon stored. Beneath the Waves was drawing a meticulous map of the seagrass and its carbon as they exist today, but the group didn’t have a meticulous map from five years ago, or 30 years ago, that would show whether the meadows were growing or shrinking and whether humans were the cause. 

Gallagher told me he is confident that the multibillion-dollar valuation of the seagrass reflects conservative assumptions. But the plan itself is in the hands of the Bahamian government, he said. Officials have not spoken much about this part of the process, despite early excitement about eye-popping valuations and rapid timelines for generating revenue. (Government officials declined multiple interview requests, referring WIRED back to Beneath the Waves, and did not respond to additional questions.) 

Some of the local conservation groups had received the meeting invitation with surprise. Among many Bahamians I spoke with, frustration had been simmering since Beneath the Waves first proclaimed its seagrass “discovery,” which it described as a “lost ecosystem that was hiding in plain sight.” Many locals found this language laughable, if not insulting. Fishers knew the seagrass intimately. Conservationists had mapped swaths of it and drawn up protection plans. “You’ve had a lot of white, foreign researchers come in and say this is good for the Bahamas without having a dialog,” Marjahn Finlayson, a Bahamian climate scientist, told me. (Gallagher said that as a well-resourced group that had brought the seagrass findings to the government, it only made sense that they would be chosen to do the work.)

It was not clear that any of the groups could offer what Beneath the Waves needed. For one thing, most locals believe the seagrass to be in relatively good condition. There are threats, surely, and interventions to be done, but as Nick Higgs, a Bahamian marine biologist, told me, they likely vary with the immense diversity of the country’s 3,100 islands, rocks, and cays. Higgs gave the example of lobster fisheries—an industry that many people mentioned to me as among the more potentially significant threats to seagrass. His own research found little impact in the areas he studied. But if the fisheries are harming seagrass elsewhere, who will decide their fate from one community to the next? Protecting seagrass is a noble goal, Adelle Thomas, a climate scientist at the University of the Bahamas, told me. The question for Bahamians, she said, is “Do we have the capacity to maintain these things that we’re claiming to protect?” Money alone won’t solve the seagrass’s problems, whatever they might turn out to be. 

The creature at the heart of this debate appears to be in a sort of limbo. The prospect of a price has showered attention on seagrass, putting it in the mouths of prime ministers and sparking an overdue discussion about its well-being. Perhaps, if you ask Chami, it has helped people value the plant in other ways too—for how it breaks the force of storms hitting the islands, for the habitat it provides other animals, maybe even for its intrinsic right to go on growing for another 30 million years. 

But can the math of the carbon market get it there? On one side of the equation, where carbon is added to the atmosphere, the numbers couldn’t be clearer: They’re tabulated in barrels and odometers and frequent flier accounts. On the other side, where carbon is subtracted, there is uncertainty. Uncertainty about how carbon moves through a seagrass meadow, or a whale, or an elephant, and how money moves to protect those species. What happens when the equation doesn’t balance? More carbon, more heat, more Hurricane Dorians. A gift to polluters. As Finlayson put it, “You’re taking something from us, throwing a couple dollars at it, and then you’re still putting us at risk.” 

Chami has faith that the math will balance out in the end. He wants people to care about nature intrinsically, of course. But caring needs a catalyst. And for now, that catalyst is our addiction to carbon. “I’m conning, I’m bribing, I’m seducing the current generation to leave nature alone,” he told me. Perhaps then, he said, the next generation will grow up to value nature for itself.

This story was reported with support from the UC Berkeley-11th Hour Food and Farming Fellowship. 

Source imagery courtesy of Cristina Mittermeier, Guiomar Duarte (Portrait), Ralph Chami (Portrait), Drew McDougall, Wilson Haynes, Beneath the Waves, Getty Images, and Alamy.

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