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An economist quantifies how valuable whales are to fighting climate change

A humpback whale tail rises above water. Bill Thompson / US Fish and Wildlife Service

A whale tail pendant hangs from Ralph Chami's neck, alongside a crucifix. Both seem equally important to his soul these days. He's talking excitedly about whale poop and whales decaying in the inky depths of the ocean over lunch at a cafe near his office in Washington, D.C., where he seldom talked whales until he had an epiphany three years ago.

Chami, 54, is an assistant director at the International Monetary Fund's Institute for Capacity Development. Normally, his life is full of numbers and statistics and freshly starched suits. But a random bucket-list vacation to the Sea of Cortez in Mexico in early 2017 slightly shifted his career trajectory. Chami joined the Great Whale Conservancy on a blue-whale research vessel and says he brought just two skills with him: He's a good swimmer and doesn't get seasick. So Chami kept his mouth shut, listened to the scientists, and marveled at the world's largest animals swimming around him.

"I just wanted to go see the whales in the wild," he says. "I mean, these things are 100, 110 feet long and she's feeding right next to you. She could swallow you and she wouldn't even know. You're in awe. If there's a soul in your body, you cannot not relate to it."

One night on the boat, Chami overheard Michael Fishbach, executive director of the Great Whale Conservancy, use the term "whale carbon" and the two began talking about the true value of a living whale. Chami found out that whales may be able to store nine tons of carbon in their body by eating phytoplankton, their main food source. A single whale, he learned, could capture the same amount of carbon dioxide as 30,000 trees.

Chami, who has a PhD in economics from Johns Hopkins University, couldn't keep his mouth shut after that and came back, he says, a "man obsessed." He crunched numbers, using the market price for the right to emit carbon dioxide, then crunched them a few more times after a long walk in the city, figuring he'd made a mistake. Finally, Chami sent his calculations to a friend and former colleague, Connel Fullenkamp, an economics professor at Duke University, so he could check them, too. Fullenkamp reported back that the numbers were accurate. One living whale was worth $2 million. "I started crying," Chami says of the moment.

Today, Chami still works his "day job" at the IMF, where he's an expert in fragile states and remittances. His book "Macroeconomic Policy in Fragile States" comes out in 2020. Chami says the IMF has embraced his whale passion, though, asking him to present his findings at recent meetings. He spent much of this past September in Europe giving talks about his whale research.

He has been surprised at just how much his work has resonated when he's presented his studies. Scientists have been researching whales and their abilities to sequester carbon for about a decade now, but Andrew Pershing, chief scientific officer at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in Portland, Maine, says Chami's work is relatively new to the scene and there's more research to be done on the subject. "It hasn't gotten a ton of traction in the scientific community yet," Pershing says, "but I'm really excited they sat down and tried to weave all this together to put an economic take on it."

Fishbach of the Great Whale Conservancy says he'd been contemplating the economic value of whales for a long time before he met Chami, but having an economist on the whales' side is a windfall. "Ralph's the guy behind the nuts and the bolts. He's the guy that can make those figures real," Fishbach says. "He pays way more attention to money than I do."

The pitch for saving endangered whales has long played on emotion, delivered by a few to the many, arguing it was simply the right thing to do. Globally, whales are threatened by vessel strikes, strandings in fishing gear, and hunting by countries that still consume whale meat. For centuries, a whale could be valued only when it was dead, hunted and divvied up for its blubber, oil and meat. Chami knew that putting living whales' worth into dollars and cents, casting them as an international public good, would get some attention in his world.

"I've dealt with presidents, prime ministers, heads of budget, private sector, and those guys always look at it like, 'What's in it for me?' " he says. "When you approach them and talk about the whales, they say, 'Everybody's hitting me up for money. I just contributed to cheetahs and bonobos and gorillas and elephants. Take a number, stand in line.' But if you were to say, 'The whales, even if you don't care for them, they are saving you,' that's a whole different conversation. The people with the money speak a different language."

As a boy in Beirut, Chami would lie in bed at night and through an open window hear the Mediterranean Sea crash against the shore just a few hundred yards away. He grew up watching Jacques Cousteau and Sir David Attenborough and dreamed of a life on the water. "I would tell my father, 'I want to be an oceanographer,' " Chami recalls, "and he'd say, 'Come on, what are you going to do with that? Forget about it.' "

Chami sailed twice to Cyprus on a sheep boat to escape the war in Lebanon in the 1980s. After the first trip, he returned home. The next time, he didn't, and he didn't see his parents again until 1994. His mother, he recalls, "thought I was going to visit a friend. I actually didn't have the heart to tell her."

He fled to rural Pennsylvania to live with an uncle, then to Kansas to attend graduate school before landing at the University of Notre Dame, where he taught finance. He now lives in Fairfax County, Virginia, with his wife and 20-year-old son, a vegan who is his toughest critic, initially telling his dad that he had no right to put a "monetary value on a whale." But recently, Chami says, he overheard his son telling a friend his dad is doing "cool stuff," and Chami feels vindicated.

He sought the approval of Attenborough, too, writing his childhood idol a letter telling him about his research. To his surprise, Attenborough wrote back, calling the science of whales capturing and storing carbon - and quantifying their value - a "most potent and valuable revelation." "This is it for me, life has come full circle," Chami says of the letter. "My wife is getting it framed right now as we speak."

This article was written by Jason Nark, a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer.