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
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.
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