What conserving rhinos taught me about climate economics

Never did I imagine that my trip to Africa to help "save the rhinos" would provide a lesson in economics, one which I could readily relate to addressing climate change.

I'm in South Africa with the Earthwatch Institute, volunteering with one of the most focused and committed groups fighting to protect the rhino from extinction. If organizations such as the Mankwe Wildlife Reserve aren’t successful, these magnificent animals have a mere 10 to 20 years left. The prospect of their extinction is due to poaching, driven by criminal syndicates that brutally slash their spinal cords, mutilate their faces, hack off their horns and leave them to die.

In 2008, South Africa implemented a domestic ban on rhino horn that followed an international ban put in place by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Disastrous consequences followed. Once banned, rhino horn elevated in status making it the most valuable commodity in the world, exceeding the price of gold. Insatiable demand, primarily from China, for rhino horn — actually just keratin, but believed to be an aphrodisiac or cure-all — caused poaching to skyrocket by 8,000 percent.

It’s simple economics.

How ironic that animal rights activists, who supposedly care the most about saving the rhino, put pressure on CITES to maintain a ban that ignores the basic principles of economics and, consequently, is killing the very species it’s meant to protect.  

While we won't stop demand for a product — the use of which dates back centuries, even predating Christianity — the best way to drive rhino conservation is to "manage the resource" and let the economics work.

Governments need to establish a regulated and legal market for rhino horn. The stewards at Mankwe have proven that regular horn trimming, adopted as a last resort to save their rhinos from poaching, can provide a steady stream of horn (it grows back annually so it’s a renewable resource, like stone crabs) while still allowing the rhino population to thrive.

With a legal market for this commodity in place, the price of rhino horn will drop. Surrounding economies will benefit from additional jobs created to care for the rhinos and to manage their habitat. The organized criminal element that supports poaching will evaporate and the funds from rhino horn, instead of going to the most elite criminal actors, will go to the custodians.

It’s all about using economics to drive our preferred outcomes. We can apply these same concepts to climate change.

In the case of global warming, which threatens to push our human species into extinction, what we need to manage isn’t rhino horn, it’s carbon emissions. In fact, William Nordhaus, a recipient of this year’s Nobel Prize in economics, concluded that to stave off the most disastrous impacts of global warming it is critical for governments around the world to put a fee on carbon emissions. This would increase the price of carbon-intensive products (such as gas-guzzling cars, energy-inefficient buildings or bottled water transported half way around the world from Fiji) while making low-carbon solutions (electric vehicles, mass transit, green buildings) cheaper.

This shift in consumer choices made by individuals, businesses and governments would unleash widespread demand for eco-friendly solutions at the speed and scale the world needs. Our economy will thrive as jobs are created. And the escalating costs of global warming from worsening hurricanes, sea-level rise, flooding and wildfires will be slowed.

As with protecting the rhino, we have limited time. Addressing carbon emissions also must be treated with urgency. As climate activists, let’s not ignore the principles of economics that drive the outcomes we desperately need.