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What's in a Whale?

These are questions Ralph Chami tackled for several years, even doubting his first calculations of the value of a living blue whale at $2 million versus $40,000 (dead), as a resource. The market value of whale oil, meat, or lumber from a tree is known, but it's harder to determine the value of living creatures in their natural state, before they are turned into commodities.

After a life-altering encounter in the Sea of Cortez, Ralph, veteran economist with the International Monetary Fund, knew the math. His perspective changed. He spent nights and weekends putting a value on living nature for all its intrinsic benefits. He declared that the market systems are failing nature. 

In this episode of Blue Pioneers with host Dr. Kat Bruce,  Ralph discusses the concept of creating a market for nature as well as for protection and restoration. He explained that restoration and biodiversity laws are creating a market by requiring companies to report on their net nature impact. 

“So the whales do a lot of other things than just sequester carbon. But for me, I was sitting at the IMF in 2017, we were trying to figure out what would be the price of carbon that would change people's behavior." 

Carbon prices were rising with the 2015 Paris Accord, and Ralph turned to the whale, with her huge contributions to our ecosystem, for answers. And she said:  “Hey Ralph, you got paid by the IMF. Why shouldn't I be paid for my services? My services are more important than your services. I'm helping to keep you alive.”

Blue Whale jumping out of water.
In April 2024, Indigenous leaders from the Cook Islands, French Polynesia, New Zealand, and Tonga signed the He Whakaputanga Moana (Declaration for the Ocean) treaty, which recognizes whales and dolphins as legal persons. This treaty gives whales the same rights as people, including the right to life, autonomy, and safe movement across the ocean. The treaty also aims to protect whales from harm and ensure their legal standing if they are harmed. Image Source: Envato

The key, according to Ralph, is translating this scientific knowledge into the language of markets and policymakers. By assigning monetary values to the "ecosystem services" provided by living nature, we can reshape economic incentives and decision-making. Companies and investors are starting to realize that protecting and restoring nature is not just an ethical imperative, but an enormously valuable economic proposition.

Ralph envisions innovative financial and legal mechanisms to make this a reality - from insurance systems that recognize the value of living whales to new forms of "personhood" rights for critical species and ecosystems. Indigenous peoples like the Maori of New Zealand are leading the way, showing how to live in harmony with nature. 

As Ralph powerfully stated: "The living nature, living for itself, is incredibly valuable to us... to embrace the new paradigm that is nature positive and people positive. Because without the people, there is no nature. And certainly without nature, there's no people."

For more whale talk with Ralph and Kat, join this episode to open your eyes wider to the wonders of nature, and the value it creates.

About Ralph

Ralph Chami PhD, is an Assistant Director at the IMF. He is currently on sabbatical from the IMF working on tackling the two risks to humanity – climate change and biodiversity loss. He has developed a model for valuing natural capital, including blue and green nature as well as flora and fauna, and a framework for developing the natural capital markets for ecosystem services. He has co-founded two entities working on bringing this new paradigm to life – Blue Green Future and Rebalance Earth that are engaged in realizing the value of the natural world to our well-being and integrating it into our economic system. He has co-authored a number of peer reviewed publications that value the carbon sequestration service of keystone species such as the Great Whales and Elephants. His work on valuing natural capital has been featured at TED2022, and in National Geographic, Financial Times, Washington Post, WEF, among others. He provides thought leadership and engages with stakeholders across sectors – governmental, financial, private sector, NGOs – communicating this new vision. His approach has been widely heralded, and he is in great demand as a speaker and visionary at this critical time of transition.

During his 23-year career at the IMF, he has been known as an expert on fragile states and low and middle income countries (LMICs); and also as innovative thinker for his research and training. He has served in some of the most fragile and troubled regions, showing his dedication to helping those most in need, and receiving the IMF 2014 Operational Excellence Award for his field work on fragile and LMICs. He oversaw surveillance and program work in Egypt, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, and Yemen, and was Mission Chief for Libya and Somalia. His book on “Macroeconomic Policy in Fragile State,” has was published by Oxford University Press in 2021.

He also served the Assistant Director in the Institute for Capacity Development (ICD), in the Financial Policies Division. During his time in ICD he oversaw the development and implementation of the internal economics training program for all IMF economists as well as the revamping of the Institute’s external training program for officials from member countries.

Prior to joining the IMF, he was on the faculty of finance at the Mendoza School of Business, University of Notre Dame, IN, USA. Ralph has PhD in Economics from the Johns Hopkins University, MBA from University of Kansas, and BS from the American University of Beirut. His areas of expertise also include: banking, remittances climate change and natural capital.


This was compilled with AI. Originally published on Better Worlds.

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