Climate change’s ugly cousin – biodiversity loss

17 05 2009

uglybaby…nobody puts a value on pollination; national accounts do not reflect the value of ecosystem services that stop soil erosion or provide watershed protection.

Barry Gardiner, Labour MP for Brent North (UK), Co-chairman, Global Legislators Organisation‘s International Commission on Land Use Change and Ecosystems

Last week I read with great interest the BBC’s Green Room opinion article by Barry Gardiner, Labour MP in the UK, about how the biodiversity crisis takes very much the back seat to climate change in world media, politics and international agreements.

He couldn’t be more spot-on.

I must stipulate right up front that this post is neither a whinge, rant nor lament; my goal is to highlight what I’ve noticed about the world’s general perception of climate change and biodiversity crisis issues over the last few years, and over the last year in particular since ConservationBytes.com was born.

Case in point: my good friend and colleague, Professor Barry Brook, started his blog BraveNewClimate.com a little over a month (August 2008) after I managed to get ConservationBytes.com up and running (July 2008). His blog tackles issues regarding the science of climate change, and Barry has been very successful at empirically, methodically and patiently tearing down the paper walls of the climate change denialists. A quick glance at the number views of BraveNewClimate.com since inception reveals about an order of magnitude more than for ConservationBytes.com (i.e., ~195000 versus 20000, respectively), and Barry has accumulated a total of around 4500 comments compared to just 231 for ConservationBytes.com. The difference is striking.

Now, I don’t begrudge for one moment this disparity – quite the contrary – I am thrilled that Barry has managed to influence so many people and topple so effectively the faecal spires erected by the myriad self-proclaimed ‘experts’ on climate change (an infamous line to whom I have no idea to attribute states that “opinions are like arseholes – everyone’s got one”). Barry is, via BraveNewClimate.com, doing the world an immense service. What I do find intriguing is that in many ways, the biodiversity crisis is a much, much worse problem that is and will continue to degrade human life for millennia to come. Yet as Barry Gardiner observed, the UK papers mentioned biodiversity only 115 times over the last 3 months compared to 1382 times for climate change – again, that order-of-magnitude disparity.

There is no biodiversity equivalent of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (although there are a few international organisations tackling the extinction crisis such as the United Nation’s Environment Program, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and the International Union for Conservation of Nature), we still have little capacity or idea how to incorporate the trillions of dollars worth of ecosystem services supplied every year to us free of charge, and we have nothing at all equivalent to the Kyoto Protocol for biodiversity preservation. Yet, conservation biologists have for decades demonstrated how human disease prevalence, reduction in pollination, increasing floods, reduced freshwater availability, carbon emissions, loss of fish supplies, weed establishment and spread, etc. are all exacerbated by biodiversity loss. Climate change, as serious and potentially apocalyptic as it is, can be viewed as just another stressor in a system stressed to its limits.

Of course, the lack of ‘interest’ may not be as bleak as indicated by web traffic; I believe the science underpinning our assessment of biodiversity loss is fairly well-accepted by people who care to look into these things, and the evidence spans the gambit of biological diversity and ecosystems. In short, it’s much less controversial a topic than climate change, so it attracts a lot less vitriol and spawns fewer polemics. That said, it is a self-destructive ambivalence that will eventually come to bite humanity on the bum in the most serious of ways, and I truly believe that we’re not far off from major world conflicts over the dwindling pool of resources (food, water, raw materials) we are so effectively destroying. We would be wise to take heed of the warnings.

CJA Bradshaw

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12 responses

17 12 2010
Biowealth – a lexical leap forward for biodiversity appreciation « ConservationBytes.com

[...] aspect of biodiversity across better. I’ve reported before that biodiversity loss is the ugly cousin of climate change – the latter has such as catchy (and unfortunately, politically loaded) ring to it, and it hangs [...]

30 11 2010
The Joke’s On Us « ConservationBytes.com

[...] Clearly other approaches aren’t working. [...]

6 02 2010
kirsten

sooo … ever heard of the convention on biological diversity (cbd.int) it is like the climate change convention.. and it has the cartagena protocol, which is like the kyoto protocol. it is out there, it just isn’t as main stream as climate change right now.

to learn more about all of this email me.
biodiversity@powerhalton.ca

6 02 2010
CJAB

Well, yes, of course we’ve heard about the CBD; however, I beg to differ ardently – it is in no way near as ‘main stream’ as climate change. Biodiversity takes very much the back seat in world affairs.

29 11 2009
nemski

Our little site gets plenty of comments . . . . and all the wrong ones. Be careful what you wish for. ;-)

30 11 2009
CJAB

True. Too true.

20 05 2009
Response to Corey on Biodiversity « LitFuse

[...] Corey Bradshaw from the Environment Institute at the University of Adelaide in Australia writes about how climate change is getting all the attention while biodiversity conservation does [...]

19 05 2009
Geoff Russell

Yes Justin they can and will cough up. But not to save biodiversity (eg deep cumbungi habitat), but to save the dairy industry. This is a largish export earner (and water exporter) and far and away the biggest user of water in the MDB. Adelaide is spending $1.4 billion on desalinating 50 giga litres while the dairy industry was pulling 4000 gigalitres from the MDB at its peak (CSIRO figures, not ABS). When the last drought started, rice and cotton pretty much stopped planting, but a dairy is like permanent plantings and just keeps going until the bank forecloses … and there has been plenty of that. Conservationists are poor lobbyists compared with farmers about to lose their livelihood. They are seriously focused.

19 05 2009
Justin Brookes

Is the problem just that climate change covers so many aspects with biodiversity being just one aspect.
Ie Climate change is mitigation, carbon accounting, alternative enrgy, sealevel rise etc etc . The many aspects of biodiversity such as habitat loss extinctions may be referred to differently in articles and so not captured in a general search.

However, I do feel we are unable to adequately explain why biodiversity is important. People care about climate change because it is in their face – bushfires, water restrictions, heatwaves etc.

Now that we have to pay for biodiversity in places like the Coorong will we value them differently? Engineering to maintain the status quo is not cheap let alone engineering to achieve restoration of biodiversity and ecosystem function. The relative costs of conservation now against restoration later must weigh heavily in favour of conservation. We may not be able to afford restoration later and almost certainly can not mimic natural biodivesity with onground works, engineering and planting.

In the past we had to convince people of the relative value of ecosystem services with estimates of fisheries, fresh water, biodiversityy etc. In the case of the Murray we have real values on what it will cost for conservation and restoration of biodiversity – will society cough up?

17 05 2009
Geoff Russell

Do you also keep stats on the ratio of readers to commenters on this blog, Corey? I for one, always read but rarely comment. Is that common?

As you know, I’m interested in reducing net pain and suffering, human and non-human — this is the basic reason d’etre of Animal Liberation. Its taken me a few decades (obviously, I’m a bit thick) to realise that most people really don’t give a damn. So I deliberately, and unashamedly, use non-compassion arguments that may change people’s behaviours by appealing to the things they do care about … or purport to care about.

This is pretty much what conservationists do. People don’t care about biodiversity for its own sake, but tell them that it will impact their tuna salad and they might come on board. I was interested to hear Hugh Possingham say almost exactly this at a CCSA summit a few months back. If I’ve misrepresented him, then perhaps he can do a guest blog to correct me. But that’s one of the things I reckon he said.

But conservationists have a fundamental problem. The really important species which benefit humans probably aren’t the iconic ones that people care about, but more likely the little things like bees, termites, fungi, and the like. All of us bigger critters need these little things but not too many of us are actually interested in them.

A cartoon on Barry’s blog summed up the public attitude to biodiversity brilliantly, in a black sort of way … “How many species do we need? Cattle, pigs, chickens …”.

18 05 2009
CJAB

Hi Geoff,

No, I don’t have stats like that, but I suspect that what you insinuate is likely true – many lookers, tsk-tsk-ers and interested types, but few who have anything novel or controversial to add. That’s fine, of course, but it doesn’t solve the problem.

In many respects, the short-sightedness epitomised by caring only for the cute-and-cuddlies (and why celebrity conservation has little, if any, net effect on public behaviour – see earlier posts) is EXACTLY why conservation biologists need to make more compelling links between biodiversity loss and erosion of ecosystem function/service provision. I for one am guilty of not having dedicated enough of my research career towards this, and something I’m trying to rectify. Thanks for your comment.

19 05 2009
Geoff Russell

I’m thinking aloud here, but perhaps the relationship between biodiversity and icon species is a bit like relationship between public health measures and medicine. Good plumbing saves more lives than medicine but few people are interested in it. But they seem to love medical “breakthroughs”. We expect Governments to supply clean water and not bother us with the details but we love TV programs about new medical procedures. The analogy isn’t perfect because conservationists have done a far better job than engineers in making their field sexy, but the cost has been a confusion over whether icon species are a symptom of a good ecosystem or the cause. If people think icon species are an end in themselves, then they won’t focus on the little things and the end result is zoos with animals and nowhere to release them because more work went into saving the animal than the habitat.

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