Even the IPCC undersells the climate emergency

31 03 2019


Uncertainty is to science what the score is to music. Everything scientists measure is subject to various types of ‘error’ — from measurements to models. And climate change is no exception. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the United Nation’s scientific body informing the political response to the human disruption of our planet’s climate. In a recent paper, we reveal that the IPCC’s language to address climatic uncertainty is overly conservative in its assessment reports.

Uncertainty dominates our lives. We might grumble, but we generally accept the bus arriving late, the risotto being a little colder than we might want, or a blood test unexpectedly announcing higher cholesterol than usual. We even treat uncertainty as an inevitable outcome of many professions: meteorologists might fail to predict rain for our camping weekend, an investor might make back the money today that was lost yesterday, or Messi might fail to score in the last minute of a Champions League final.

So, we shouldn’t be surprised that scientific research is suffused with uncertainty. In fact, scientists indulge themselves with uncertainty. For them, acknowledging an uncertain outcome is not enough; instead, a critical component of their work is to quantify the amount of that uncertainty by, say, measuring the degree of variance (uncertainty) in the average height of a tree in a forest, or in the exact number of bees in a hive.

The treatment of uncertainty even gains added value when we deal with themes that directly affect our society — like climate change. But whoever communicates the uncertainty of climate science faces two formidable challenges. First, people often have a flawed understanding of science as a source of statements of fact. Instead, science is, in essence, about asking questions (1) and gradually refining the accuracy of our answers to those questions. Second, people perceive climate change through the lens of their ideology, education, and personal interests (2, 3, 4).

Therefore, what scientists say about the climate is not necessarily what some people will hear, even to the point that what scientists collectively recommend as ‘useful’ for addressing climate change might instead be deemed ‘useless’ by policymakers (5). 

Mathematical jargon

The IPCC evaluates the technical literature about climate change, and publishes such comprehensive evaluations in the form of periodical ‘assessment reports’ (AR). Those reports — which receive vast, global attention — provide policy-relevant, but not policy-prescriptive, advice to national governments and international organizations. The reports also catch the eye of a variety of audiences such as business people, educators, scientists, and the public as a whole.

To date, the IPCC has published five assessment reports in 1990 (AR1), 1995 (AR2), 2001 (AR3), 2007 (A4) and 2014 (AR5), and the next one (see progress updates here) is scheduled for 2022 (AR6) (6). With a focus on climate change, each report comprises three components: (i) the physical basis of climate, (ii) its socio-economic consequences, and (iii) adaptation and mitigation options. Every component is elaborated by a different ‘working group’ in charge of editing, integrating, and synthesizing the inputs of multiple experts. Read the rest of this entry »

Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss LIII

25 03 2019

The second set of six biodiversity cartoons for 2019. See full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here.

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A call to wings

19 03 2019

This week sees the launch of an updated bat synopsis from Conservation Evidence, adding new studies that have come out since the first synopsis was published in 2013.

The synopsis collects and summarises studies that test conservation actions such as ‘provide bat boxes for roosting bats’, and organises the studies by the action that they test. This focus on solutions makes it a handy point of reference for conservationists wishing to see what might work — and what is unlikely to work — to conserve bats.

Bechstein’s bat – photo credit Claire Wordley

Bechstein’s bat (Myotis bechsteinii) — photo credit Claire Wordley


Free to read or download from Conservation Evidence, the update represents a major addition to the original, containing 173 studies to the original 101. Studies are included if they tested an action that could be put in place for conservation, and measured an outcome for bats. As well as adding studies published from 2013 on, the update adds studies originally published in Spanish or Portuguese, and it is hoped that more languages will be added in future editions. Read the rest of this entry »

The dingo is a true-blue, native Australian species

7 03 2019

dingo(reproduced from The Conversation)

Of all Australia’s wildlife, one stands out as having an identity crisis: the dingo. But our recent article in the journal Zootaxa argues that dingoes should be regarded as a bona fidespecies on multiple fronts.

This isn’t just an issue of semantics. How someone refers to dingoes may reflect their values and interests, as much as the science.

How scientists refer to dingoes in print reflects their background and place of employment, and the Western Australian government recently made a controversial attempt to classify the dingo as “non-native fauna”.

How we define species – called taxonomy – affects our attitudes, and long-term goals for their conservation.

What is a dog?

Over many years, dingoes have been called many scientific names: Canis lupus dingo (a subspecies of the wolf), Canis familiaris (a domestic dog), and Canis dingo (its own species within the genus Canis). But these names have been applied inconsistently in both academic literature and government policy.

This inconsistency partially reflects the global arguments regarding the naming of canids. For those who adhere to the traditional “biological” species concept (in which a “species” is a group of organisms that can interbreed), one might consider the dingo (and all other canids that can interbreed, like wolves, coyotes, and black-backed jackals) to be part of a single, highly variable and widely distributed species.

Members of the Canis genus: wolf (Canis lupus), coyote (Canis latrans), Ethiopian wolf (Canis simensis), black-backed jackal (Canis mesomelas), dingo (Canis dingo), and a representative of the domestic dog (Canis familiaris).

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Action, not just science

25 02 2019

raised fistsIt has taken me a long time to decide to do this, but with role models like Claire Wordley, Alejandro Frid, and James Hansen out there, I couldn’t really find any more excuses.

Yes, I’ve been a strong advocate for action on biodiversity, environment and climate-change issues for a long time, and I’ve even had a few political wins in that regard with my writing and representation. I’ve even called out more than once for universities to embrace divestment from fossil fuels (to my knowledge, even my own university still has not).

While I still think these avenues are important, my ongoing observation is that things are getting worse politically, not better. That means that the normal armchair advocacy embraced by even the most outspoken academics is probably not going to be enough to elicit real political change that we — no, the planet — desperately needs.

Extinction-Rebellion-South-Australia2It is for this reason that I’ve joined the Extinction Rebellion (South Australia Chapter), especially after my friend and colleague, Dr Claire Wordley of the University of Cambridge, joined the UK Rebellion and wrote about her experiences on this very blog. That, coupled with my ongoing and mounting concern for the future Earth my daughter will inherit, requires me to take to the streets. Read the rest of this entry »

Good English and the scientific career: hurdles for non-native English speakers

13 02 2019

New post from Frédérik Saltré originally presented on the GE.blog.

It’s no secret that to be successful in academia, it’s not enough just to be a good scientist — being able to formulate and test hypotheses. You also need to be able to communicate that science effectively.

This implies a good command of the English language for anyone who wants a career in science. Mastering English (or not) will directly affect your work opportunities such as publishing, establishing networks at conferences, taking leadership of working groups, contributing to lab meetings (there is nothing worse than feeling left out of a conversation because of language limitations), and so forth.

But when it comes to language skills, not everyone is created equal because those skills mostly depend on a person’s background (e.g., learning English as a child or later in life), cultural reluctance, fear of making mistakes, lack of confidence, or simply brain design — this last component might offend some, but it appears that some people just happen to have the specific neuronal pathways to learn languages better than others. Whatever the reason, the process of becoming a good scientist is made more difficult if you happen not to have that specific set of neuronal pathways, even though not being a native English speaker does not prevent from being academically successful.

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Politics matter: undoing conservation progress in the land of the dodo

4 02 2019

The island of Mauritius is known, particularly in conservation circles, for the ill-fated extinction of the dodo, but also for its many conservation success stories. These include the recovery of emblematic birds such as the Mauritius kestrel (Falco punctatus) and the pink pigeon (Nesoenas mayeri) that narrowly avoided extinction several decades ago. 

Mauritius (greater Mascarene) flying fox Pteropus niger

Behind this veil of achievements, however, local political realities are increasingly making the protection and management of Mauritian biodiversity more complex and challenging as new conservation issues emerge.

Emergence of human-wildlife conflict

In the midst of the third government-led mass cull of the Endangered Mauritian flying fox (Pteropus niger) in 2018, a paper published in the Journal for Nature Conservation shed light on the events that led to the government’s choice to do the first two mass culls of the Mauritian flying fox in 2015 and 2016. Documentation of human-wildlife conflict in Mauritius is relatively new, as noted by the authors, but provides a unique case study.

Given that the mass-culling opted for did not increase fruit growers’ profits (in fact, fruit production dropped substantially after the mass-culls) and that the flying fox, a keystone species for the native biodiversity, became more threatened with extinction following the mass culls, it appears that Mauritius provides a rare opportunity to study what precisely should be avoided when trying to resolve such a HWC [Human-wildlife conflict],

Florens & Bader (2019)

Indeed, to mitigate rising conflicts between fruit farmers and the Mauritian flying fox, the Mauritian government opted in 2006 to cull this threatened species (only six individuals were culled at the time). Despite disputes over the population size of the Mauritian flying fox and the extent of damage it caused to commercial fruit growers, as well as scientific arguments against the cull, culling continues to be the preferred approach. 

The law that kills threatened wildlife 

This focus on culling as a solution contributed to a legal amendment in October 2015 that now facilitates the population control of any species of wildlife, irrespective of its origin and its conservation status. The Native Terrestrial Biodiversity and National Parks Bill was passed on 20 October 2015, just two weeks after the government announced its plan to cull 18,000 threatened native bats.

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