Monday, July 24, 2006

Moving biodiversity to the front burner

A group of 19 preeminent biodiversity scientists are seeking to move biodiversity off of the environmental back burner and engender public appreciation of the catastrophic loss of biodiversity that is occurring.  They recently published a compelling joint statement in Nature: Biodiversity Crisis


Life on earth is facing a major crisis with thousands of species threatened with imminent extinction - a global emergency demanding urgent action. This is the view of 19 of the world's most eminent biodiversity specialists, who have called on governments to establish a political framework to save the planet.

The planet is losing species faster than at any time since 65 million years ago, when the earth was hit by an enormous asteroid that wiped out thousands of animals and plants, including the dinosaurs. Scientists estimate that the current rate at which species are becoming extinct is between 100 and 1,000 times greater than the normal "background" extinction rate - and say this is all due to human activity.

The call for action comes from some of the most distinguished scientists in the field, such as Georgina Mace of the UK Institute of Zoology; Peter Raven, the head of the Missouri Botanical Garden in St Louis, and Robert Watson, chief scientist at the World Bank. "For the sake of the planet, the biodiversity science community had to create a way to get organised, to co-ordinate its work across disciplines and together, with one clear voice, advise governments on steps to halt the potentially catastrophic loss of species already occurring," Dr Watson said.

In a joint declaration, published today in Nature, the scientists say that the earth is on the verge of a biodiversity catastrophe and that only a global political initiative stands a chance of stemming the loss. They say: "There is growing recognition that the diversity of life on earth, including the variety of genes, species and ecosystems, is an irreplaceable natural heritage crucial to human well-being and sustainable development. There is also clear scientific evidence that we are on the verge of a major biodiversity crisis. Virtually all aspects of biodiversity are in steep decline and a large number of populations and species are likely to become extinct this century.

"Despite this evidence, biodiversity is still consistently undervalued and given inadequate weight in both private and public decisions. There is an urgent need to bridge the gap between science and policy by creating an international body of biodiversity experts," they say.

More than a decade ago, Edward O Wilson, the Harvard naturalist, first estimated that about 30,000 species were going extinct each year - an extinction rate of about three an hour. Further research has confirmed that just about every group of animals and plants - from mosses and ferns to palm trees, frogs, and monkeys - is experiencing an unprecedented loss of diversity.

Scientists estimate that 12 per cent of all birds, 23 per cent of mammals, a quarter of conifers, a third of amphibians and more than half of all palm trees are threatened with imminent extinction. Climate change alone could lead to the further extinction of between 15 and 37 per cent of all species by the end of the century, the scientists say: "Because biodiversity loss is essentially irreversible, it poses serious threats to sustainable development and the quality of life of future generations."

There have been five previous mass extinctions in the 3.5 billion-year history of life on earth. All are believed to have been caused by major geophysical events that halted photosynthesis, such as an asteroid collision or the mass eruption of supervolcanoes. The present "sixth wave" of extinction began with the migration of modern humans out of Africa about 100,000 years ago. It accelerated with the invention of agriculture 10,000 years ago and began to worsen with the development of industry in the 18th century.

Anne Larigauderie, executive director of Diversitas, a Paris-based conservation group, said that the situation was now so grave that an international body with direct links with global leaders was essential. "The point is to establish an international mechanism that will provide regular and independent scientific advice on biodiversity," Dr Larigauderie said. "We know that extinction is a natural phenomenon but the rate of extinction is now between 100 and 1,000 times higher than the background rate. It is an unprecedented loss."

The scientists believe that a body similar to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change could help governments to tackle the continuing loss of species. "Biodiversity is much more than counting species. It's crucial to the functioning of the planet and the loss of species is extremely serious," Dr Larigauderie said. "Everywhere we look, we are losing the fabric of life. It's a major crisis."

One suggestion is creating a global biodiversity science panel akin to the IPCC or the Millenium Project:

One of the reasons the issue of biological diversity remains on the back burner of environmental concern is perhaps linked to the fact that that it is more complex than issues such as the stratospheric ozone hole or global climate change. Scientists say they understand that biodiversity cannot be measured by simple universal indicators such as temperature and atmospheric carbon dioxide because it involves several levels of organization, such as genes, species, and ecosystems. On the other hand, however, statistical facts on the loss of biodiversity suggest the imminent dangers of inaction, as two thirds of the services provided by nature to humankind are already in decline, with 12 percent of bird species, 23 percent of mammals, 25 percent of conifers, 32 percent of amphibians, and 52 percent of cycads (a type of evergreen plant similar to palms and ferns) continuing to face serious threats of extinction. Moreover, according to scientific calculations, within the next 50 years, it is quite likely that up to another 37 percent of currently existing species might be gone due to climate change.

About 14 years ago, the world community created a treaty on biodiversity setting out three main goals that include the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components, and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits from the use of genetic resources. Under the treaty, which has been signed by 188 countries, governments are required to take certain steps that would "significantly reduce" the biodiversity loss by the year 2010. But many countries continue to lag behind in implementing plans on biodiversity protection, in large measure because their policy makers have no close and coordinated links with the scientific researchers in the field. Though comprehensive in various ways, the treaty on biodiversity has no clear-cut structural means to organize scientific opinion on a global level, according to the group that is currently engaged in efforts to create unity among its own rank and file first.

"For the sake of the planet, the biodiversity science community has to create a way to get organized," says Dr. Robert Watson, chief scientists at the World Bank, who led the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Millennium Ecosystems Assessment (MEA). Watson thinks that the global panel on climate change and other similar forums on international environmental issues could prove to be good models for biodiversity experts to help policy makers with advice on how to halt the catastrophic loss of species. "Each model has strengths and weaknesses," he says, "but essentially they all serve as a reliable source of information and advice for the public, their government and decision makers." Michel Loreau, a biology professor at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and one of the leading members of the group, fully agrees with Watson's proposal, but for other reasons as well. "We need diversity of opinions and approaches," he says, "but we also need unity behind this collective effort, to speak with one voice collectively when it comes to recognizing key issues and how they can best be addressed." Additionally, "biodiversity provides ecosystem services such as disease and climate regulation, storm protection, and habitat for useful species," says Charles Perrings of Arizona State University, who also signed the statement issued by the group. In his view, since biodiversity imposes "real economic costs on society, we need to develop clear science guidance for policy options accordingly."  

For their part, officials in some parts of the world, it seems, have no objection to the idea that Watson and his colleagues are floating. The French government, for example, has not merely agreed, but also provided funds for talks to create a global panel.  The ongoing consultations are likely to be concluded shortly before the ninth international conference of the parties to the treaty on biological diversity takes place in Berlin, Germany in 2008. The ongoing talks will determine what kind of biodiversity information is needed by decision makers in many relevant areas, including fisheries, transportation, industry, and parks management, in order to design a panel that addresses those requirements. The group says it wants the panel to be objective, independent, transparent, and representative, which includes official experts, as well as independent scientists, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and private sector representatives.  Source: OneWorld  HT Common Dreams

Unfortunately, such a panel seems less likely to achieve the visibility and the attention it deserves, as compared to the Millenium Assessment project or the IPCC.  First, the Millenium project created a scientific baseline that did not previously exist, while we already have a good notion that we are sustaining major biodiversity losses.  Similarly, with the IPCC, there was a real need to achieve scientific consensus about the science of global warming, due to widespread doubt about the existence, extent, and human contribution to global warming. There seems to be less scientific uncertainty about biodiversity losses.

Second, the major question with biodiversity is "who cares?"   Many, if not most, biodiversity issues boil down to value conflicts.  Do we want to restore wolf populations to the American west?  Do we want to create African animal reserves at the seeming expense of indigenous peoples?  Do we want to protect whales even if they might be hunted "sustainably?"  Why do we need tigers?  Unless and until we care either about the rest of God's creation in a spiritual way or we recognize dangers to humanity from massive biodiversity losses, policy makers simply lack the political incentives to pay attention to advice from a global biodiversity science.

Biodiversity, Environmental Assessment, Governance/Management, International, Law, Sustainability | Permalink

TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Moving biodiversity to the front burner :


Post a comment