Will 30×30 reboot conservation or entrench old problems?

When governments meet next year to finalise a global deal to halt loss of the biodiversity on which human wellbeing depends, “30 by 30” will be one phrase on everybody’s lips. The target – to protect at least 30% of Earth’s land and sea by 2030 – is part of a package being negotiated under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) for the next decade and beyond.

Absent a collapse of the talks, it will be the headline outcome of the CBD’s COP15 meeting in Kunming, China, in April–May 2022. And big news it would be. Today, just 17% of land and 8% of the sea are protected. Scientists say 30×30 could go a long way towards averting the biodiversity crisis while also helping to address climate change and the risk of future pandemics.

But 30×30 is controversial because protected areas have a chequered history. While some have saved species from extinction, others – so-called “paper parks” – are ineffectively managed. A disturbing number of protected areas have also harmed local people through forced displacement and human rights abuses inflicted by militarised park guards.

Amid fears that 30×30 could entail more “conservation by coercion”, there are also signs of hope. With adequate support, little-known alternatives to protected areas, known as OECMs and explored below, could address concerns about equity and effectiveness. And there is growing acknowledgement that communities living close to nature are its best stewards, and should be empowered to manage local areas. But there remains a big gap between rhetoric and action. Decisions made in Kunming will determine whether 30×30 repeats or corrects conservation’s past failings.

Mixed feelings

The 30X30 target already has backing from 75 nations in the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People, co-chaired by Costa Rica, the United Kingdom and France, and from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. The United States, while not a party to the CBD, has its own 30×30 target in President’s Biden’s America the Beautiful plan.

But for the CBD, 30×30 is not a done deal. China has reservations, particularly about applying the target to marine areas. Other highly biodiverse countries such as Brazil, India, Indonesia, Malaysia and South Africa are waiting before committing; agreement on 30×30 at COP15 will depend on progress in other areas, such as how much finance rich countries will provide to fund conservation.

Far from the negotiating tables, there are concerns about what 30×30 could mean for people living in areas rich in biodiversity. Survival International, which campaigns for the rights of indigenous peoples, calls 30×30 the “biggest land grab in history” and says it threatens to evict 300 million people by turning their ancestral lands into protected areas.

Jonathan Mazower, the organisation’s communications director, told me that the CBD should “drop the 30% target unless and until there are cast-iron safeguards for indigenous peoples and other local communities that will apply to all new and existing protected areas”.

Converging agendas

Other groups working with indigenous peoples, such as Rights and Resources International (RRI) see opportunities as well as risks. RRI points to the body of evidence showing that indigenous and other local communities are far more effective than governments at protecting ecosystems, especially when they have secure rights to those lands. A 2020 study by RRI and the Campaign for Nature showed that recognising tenure rights of communities in areas of high biodiversity would cost less than 1% of what it would cost to resettle those people when creating exclusionary protected areas.

RRI and others – such as the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment – see 30×30 as an opportunity to shift conservation into a new paradigm, in which rights are the foundation not an afterthought. It is a message that is increasingly being taken up by conservation biologists, who say it would be possible to exceed the 30X30 target by recognising indigenous and community-conserved areas outside of protected areas.

“The single most important thing we can do to conserve life on Earth, and to stabilise the climate, is to support the efforts of indigenous people to have ownership and management of their lands,” says wildlife scientist Eric Dinerstein, director of biodiversity and wildlife solutions at the non-governmental organisation Resolve.

This convergence of conservation and rights agendas was also reflected in the communiqué issued in May 2021 by G7 climate and environment ministers, who committed to “recognising that Indigenous Peoples, and local communities, are full partners in the implementation of this [30×30] target”. In September, nine philanthropic foundations joined the chorus when they announced the biggest ever private funding commitment for conservation – US$5 billion to fund implementation of 30×30.

“I know than many conservation efforts have failed in the past,” said Jeff Bezos, announcing his contribution of US$1 billion. “Top-down programmes failed to include communities. They failed to include Indigenous Peoples that live in the local area. They’ve systematically not worked. We won’t make those same mistakes.”

But while narratives are shifting, few governments are doing enough to recognise governance of biodiversity by indigenous people and local communities. Area-based conservation remains extremely exclusionary. In 2018, only 0.6% of protected areas were managed by indigenous peoples and local communities. Trust and transparency are in short supply, even in the case of governments that claim to be ambitious, says Oscar Soria, campaigns director of Avaaz.

“We are still not seeing concrete actions from member states of the High Ambition Coalition for Nature to set up meaningful spaces for discussion about this issue, let alone spelling out a consistent position that provides all the reassurances, safeguards and guarantees that any area-based conservation measures will be designed and implemented in accordance with UN norms and international law relevant to the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities,” he says. “This is the time for truth. There’s no space for ambiguity anymore.”

Another way

With growing concerns about strict, exclusionary protected areas, attention is turning to little-known alternatives. The Convention on Biological Diversity and its draft 30×30 target call them “other effective area-based conservation measures”, or OECMs. These are areas that conserve biodiversity even if that is not their primary purpose. Examples could include sacred groves, certain kinds of farms, community forests and other economically productive landscapes and seascapes. Crucially, many areas of land and sea that indigenous and local communities manage according to local needs and values, while also conserving nature, could qualify as OECMs.

“If done well, OECM recognition can foster support for these areas, at national and international levels, and help overcome current challenges faced by governing actors including insecure rights, insufficient funding and exclusion from decision-making,” says Georgina Gurney, a senior research fellow at the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University.

Parties to the CBD only agreed on how to define OECMs in 2018, which explains why, so far, less than 1% of land and freshwater areas and 0.1% of marine areas have been registered in this category. But potential OECMs are everywhere. A 2019 study of 740 unprotected “key biodiversity areas” in ten countries found that more than three-quarters of these areas were at least partly covered by one or more potential OECMs.

Gurney points out that a key criterion of OECMs is that, for countries to register them, these areas must be effective at conserving biodiversity. By contrast, protected areas only need a goal of conserving biodiversity, rather than a proven impact.

“OECMs hold considerable promise for advancing equitable and effective conservation,” she says. “But whether they deliver on this promise will depend on how the tool is implemented, including importantly, processes of demonstrating biodiversity conservation effectiveness and ensuring that OECM designation strengthens rather than displaces existing local governance.”

Improving 30×30

With so much depending on governments upholding rights and social safeguards in indigenous and community areas, Jonathan Mazower, of Survival International, is doubtful about OECMs and 30×30 more generally.

“These rights are never properly acknowledged,” he says. “No country in the world properly recognises them. In many countries, such as Brazil, the whole system of indigenous rights built up over recent decades is under concerted attack. To think that governments will suddenly make a 180 degree turn from the status quo and finally recognise these rights is naive to put it mildly. It’s far more likely that the 30×30 narrative will be used to increase protected areas, most of which exclude human activity or presence.”

With the main meeting of COP15 just six months away, civil society groups and others – including 49 philanthropic organisations – are urging CBD officials and negotiators to strengthen the draft text of the 30×30 target and its monitoring framework. They want the text to better recognise indigenous and community-conserved areas, strengthen respect for rights, and ensure that governance is truly equitable.

“We would like to see the concept of ‘free, prior and informed consent’ more often,” says Avaaz’s Oscar Soria, referring to the rights of communities to consent to decisions affecting lands they live in and manage. “We also believe the CBD should make it explicit that any protected areas that are contested as ‘land grabs’ shouldn’t be accounted as such under the Convention.”

“These issues must be understood as central and not just as a nice add-on serving to ease consciences, or as a communication feature,” says Soria. “Indigenous people and local communities are starting to be everywhere in speeches but still almost nowhere on stage. And they are certainly still not treated on an equal footing, neither by central governments, obviously, but nor still by the biggest players in conservation. We can do very much better.”

This article was first published by ChinaDialogue on 7 October 2021, and is reproduced here with permission under a Creative Commons licence. 

Photo credit: Adbar / Wikimedia Commons

New recipe needed to make food systems better for people and planet

The global food system is a mess. The way we produce, transport, consume and waste food is destroying nature, degrading soil, and polluting air and water. It powers climate change, accounting for around one-third of humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Social inequality and violations of human rights are widespread. Malnutrition and obesity are both major killers. And while we produce more food than ever, the UN reported in July 2021 that 811 million people still go hungry each day. That’s more than one in every ten people. Perversely, most are farmers and their children.

So, on the face of it, it is good news that the UN will host a Food Systems Summit on 23 September. It aims to accelerate the transformation of these systems so they provide nutritious food for all, are good for people and nature, help fight climate change and boost resilience to environmental and economic shocks. But lift the lid on the summit process and you will find a hot stew. Stakeholders are deeply divided about how to fix the food system, and many have big concerns about the summit itself.

Critiques and boycotts

UN Secretary-General António Guterres announced the meeting in October 2019, to boost progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals. It got off to a rocky start. The UN upset many civil society and farmers’ groups by partnering with corporate powerhouse, the World Economic Forum. Guterres compounded this by appointing as his special envoy Agnes Kalibata, president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, a promoter of high-tech commercial seeds.

Summit planners also bypassed a key UN body, the Committee on World Food Security (CFS). It has 125 member countries, mechanisms through which civil society groups, indigenous people and the private sector take part, and a scientific advisory body – the High Level Panel of Experts. But the summit team initially left the CFS out in the cold. It formed its own Scientific Group and appointed leaders of five “action tracks” – to generate “game-changing propositions” for each of the summit’s main themes.

Critics are legion. They include hundreds of NGOsacademics, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food (and his two predecessors), and scientists, including summit action track members. In July 2021, thousands of people attended a counter-forum held by organisations boycotting the summit.

Critics say the summit’s process marginalises human rights and fails to acknowledge that corporate domination of food systems and weak governance are root causes of the problems the summit wants to address. They say its various modes of participation are a smokescreen that will enable corporations to exert greater control over food systems and the UN itself.

The UN rejects this. It has stressed that the summit’s formal leadership structures include no companies, only business networks. It points out that more than 100,000 people have taken part in 147 country-led and 900 independent multi-stakeholder dialogues on food system transformation, whose outcomes are publicly available online.

Representatives of smallholders, indigenous peoples, youth and women have all been involved in the summit action tracks, generating a greater share of ideas for improving food systems than private sector participants. These groups also had prominent roles in a pre-summit in July. Many praised the degree of consultation and inclusion.

But a seat at the table does not mean equal power. And participants – including Anne Nuorgam, chair of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues – have expressed concern about a lack of clarity about who is deciding the summit outcomes. In August, the chair of the summit’s “governance action area” resigned, citing concerns about the transparency and accountability of decision-making in the summit process.

Science versus systems

The summit’s content is also contested. There is a strong focus on increasing production and resilience by boosting the development and uptake of technologies – from biotech crops and precision farming to nanoparticle coverings that extend the shelf-life of produce.

But there has been less attention on fundamentally redesigning food systems by addressing structural barriers such as access to finance, legal recognition of land tenure and corporate policies that lock poor farmers into problematic modes of food production. Western science holds sway while traditional knowledge developed over millennia remains at the margins, despite growing calls for its integration into policy advice.

Critics say the focus on science and innovation over systemic change promotes the corporate agenda of high-input intensive agriculture for export markets, rather than diverse and resilient local food systems. This flashpoint is particularly visible around agroecology.

There is growing evidence that this mode of farming – which applies ecological principles – can boost incomes and food security, while enhancing biodiversity, storing carbon and increasing farmers’ resilience. These are all the things the summit is setting out to promote. But advocates of agroecology had to fight for a place on the agenda of July’s pre-summit.

When 10 countries including Costa Rica and Switzerland signed a letter demanding this, they had to wait weeks for a positive response. They were disappointed when – just a few days before the pre-summit – they were given an evening side-event slot competing with 17 parallel sessions. Despite this, the agroecology event had the greatest overall attendance, in-person and online, of all pre-summit events.

Agroecology was also prominent in many of the solutions proposed through the summit action tracks and dialogues. But its supporters say it is being undermined by misinformation campaigns backed by vested interests in high-input farming, who see rising support for agroecology as a threat.

Countries supporting agroecology are now forming a coalition that will follow a set of 13 agroecology principles identified by the High Level Panel of Experts – as urged by those boycotting the summit.

Summit outcomes

Critiques aside, the summit process has succeeded in boosting understanding of how biophysical, social and economic systems are all tied up in the food we eat. This focus on systems should improve coordination among government ministries and help policymakers join the dots between food, climate change and biodiversity.

Climate change in particular has featured strongly in the ideas emerging from the summit’s action tracks and dialogues. There was less of a focus on reducing fossil fuel use and more on increasing carbon storage through agroforestry and regenerative agriculture, reducing methane emissions from rice-fields and livestock, and increasing farmers’ resilience.

There is, however, no formal mechanism linking the summit to the UN negotiations on climate change and biodiversity – which have both tended to overlook food and agriculture. To help address this, the Global Alliance for the Future of Food is launching a programme to advise a diverse group of countries on how to better incorporate food systems in their actions under the Paris Agreement on climate change.

At the summit itself, Secretary-General Guterres will make a statement outlining priority ambitions to achieve by 2030, focusing on 15 areas for action the summit process has identified. The UN is also set to endorse a subset of the many coalitions proposed during the process, such as those on agroecology, food waste, resilience and school meals. Significantly, some 80 countries that have held dialogues are expected to announce pathways for transforming their food systems.

The summit will kickstart a process, during which member states – with support from UN agencies – will refine and implement their strategies for transforming food systems, individually and through coalitions. A stock-take in 2023 will assess progress and set ambition for full implementation by 2030.

For the summit to succeed, these pathways must be truly transformative. This means changing not only the parts of the food system that involve food itself, but also the regulatory, financial and administrative systems that underpin it. Countries and coalitions must resolve the tensions exposed over the past two years – addressing power imbalances between smallholders and big business, taking account of traditional knowledge alongside science in policy development, and ensuring transparency and accountability in decision-making and implementation.

The multi-stakeholder dialogues that some countries plan to continue after the summit must ensure marginalised groups can participate effectively. Genuine deliberation towards consensus among diverse interests means give and take on all sides. But so far there is little indication of what the corporations that dominate the food system, and have contributed much to its failings, are willing to concede.

With tensions high, summit insiders insist they are listening to their critics. They acknowledge that food is highly political and that not everyone is happy with every aspect of the summit, its participants and processes. They stress that nobody is excluded from taking part and urge the boycotters to reconsider engaging or risk further marginalisation. As the summit process shifts from generating ideas to implementing actions, its leaders should refocus on one of the principles they identified at the outset: “build trust”.

This article was first published by ChinaDialogue on 20 September 2021, and is reproduced here with permission under a Creative Commons licence. A Chinese translation is also available.

Photo credit: Felipe Werneck/Ibama (Wikimedia/Creative Commons)

From a fig tree of antiquity to hundreds of interconnected artworks created in a pandemic

On a quiet day in June 2020, a stranger on a distant shore contacted me and blew my mind. He asked me to keep a secret until this day.

The stranger was US-based artist Nathan Langston. He told me he had press-ganged some of my words into the service of an international art project called TELEPHONE. Nathan said that, at that moment, artists and poets and musicians all around the world were creating new work as a consequence.

As I said, he blew my mind. I’m still trying to wrap my head around what came next.

Today, Nathan unveiled the final exhibition (here). With work by more than 900 artists in 72 countries, it is one of the largest collections of interconnected original art works in history.

TELEPHONE operated like the children’s game in which a message is whispered from person to person, changing as it goes, until the final version is often unrecognisable from the original.

The TELEPHONE team whispered a message from art form to art form. A sculpture could become a painting, then music, then poetry, then dance. TELEPHONE whispered each finished work of art to multiple artists so the game branched out exponentially.

Halfway through the game, the process reversed. The team started assigning multiple artworks to a single artist. So, TELEPHONE began with one message, passed that message through more than 900 artists and then concluded with a single artwork.

The secret that I’ve been keeping for a year is that the message Nathan chose to start telephone was a four-sentence paragraph from my book about how fig trees have shaped our species and the world about us.

Nathan sent my paragraph to six artists. They created two sculptures, a song, a piece of writing, a painting, a film. Those six works inspired a further 16, and so on. By the time the message had passed through 950 artists it had travelled 7.7 million kilometres around the world.

This project is beautiful in many ways. It took place during a year of lockdown and isolation, yet it connected people all around the world. As the coronavirus spread around the world, so did the whispered message.

The text Nathan used to start TELEPHONE was about a kind of fig tree called a banyan that Alexander the Great encountered when he arrived in India in 326 BCE. These strangler figs send roots down from their branches that thicken into stout pillars that resemble tree trunks. A banyan can have thousands of them, so can look like a forest of trees.

TELEPHONE is like a banyan. It is at once a collection of hundreds of artworks, and also a single gigantic creation. The exhibition is now open for you to explore. Have a wander in that forest of art. There are many paths to follow.

I am so honoured to have played an unwitting part in this amazing project and I am in awe of the wave of creativity it has unleashed.

If you want to find out more, here’s a link to Nathan Langston’s essay about the genesis of TELEPHONE. And here’s a great article about TELEPHONE by Margo Vansynghel.

A prescription for our sick planet

© Photo by Joel Sartore/National Geographic Photo Ark. Two Golden snub-nosed monkeys, Rhinopithecus roxellana, at Ocean Park Hong Kong.

Year after year, report after report shows that life on Earth is dwindling under humanity’s pressure and that, if we don’t address this, we can expect dire consequences. Last week, for example, the WWF Living Planet Report showed that wildlife populations have fallen by more than two-thirds in less than 50 years.

And yesterday, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity’s Global Biodiversity Outlook 5 (GBO-5) showed that the world’s governments have failed to meet a single one of the 20 global ‘Aichi’ targets for addressing biodiversity loss. But there is still time to turn things around.

A few days ago, I spoke about these issues — and what to do about them — with Sir Robert Watson, the former chair of both the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

Harming biodiversity harms us

We talked first about last year’s IPBES Global Assessment, upon whose findings the GBO-5 draws. It said a million species were at some threat of extinction and that the ‘unprecedented’ rate of biodiversity loss threatened human wellbeing.

“The message to policymakers, to the public at large, to governments, to the private sector is: We are threatening a significant percentage of living species,” said Watson. “Twenty-five percent of animal and plant species are at some threat of extinction. We are also degrading loads of ecosystems — forests, coral reefs, mangroves. We’ve lost large percentage of populations of species. And we are losing essential ecosystem services, or what we call nature’s contributions to people.”

“I’m hoping we can get across to people that these are not just species or ecosystems,” he said. “We rely on nature for food, water, energy, et cetera. We need nature. And we are undermining the long-term sustainability upon which we depend. We are destroying nature. We are destroying natural assets.”

Watson highlighted the failure of governments to rise to the challenge despite making international commitments. “Unfortunately, we failed to meet all of the Aichi targets and we are not on course to meet the Paris climate goal — we are currently on a pathway to a 3C, or more, warmer world, not a 1.5-2C warmer world. We haven’t really decreased the drivers of change.”

“The underlying driver is that we’ve got more and more people and they’re becoming on average wealthier,” he said. “They demand more resources, quite naturally — more food, more water, more energy, et cetera.”

“So how do we meet those demands? Well, we cut more and more of our forests or our grasslands down for agriculture. We overexploit the land. We overexploit the oceans. We’ve got more air and water pollution — air pollution again from using energy; water pollution for a dozen-and-one reasons, including fertilisers, pesticides, et cetera. Climate change itself is a big threat. And we’re moving species, purposefully and accidently, from one part of the world to another part of the world. So, we’ve got invasive alien species.”

“These pressures are all going in one direction — up,” he said. “So, yes, we’ve got more awareness of biodiversity. We’re more aware that it has got value. We’re aware that we’re destroying it. But we have not got to grips with either the indirect or direct drivers that are causing the loss. I think that’s where governmentshave a real challenge.”

Transforming economies

To bridge the gap between words and action, Watson recommends that governments focus on finance and economics, to stimulate sustainability and undo policies with perverse outcomes. As GBO-5 points out, for example, governments pay out US$ 500 billion a year in subsidies to the fossil fuel industry and other sectors that damage our living environment.

“We have to get rid or significantly reduce these environmentally harmful subsidies in energy, agriculture and transportation,” said Watson. “We should incorporate the value of natural capital into decision-making. We should internalise our social and environmental costs in the market price of a substance. We should create a more circular economy where we look at sustainable production. And, with subsidies, we could actually stimulate more sustainable practices in the way many governments have subsidised renewable energy to get it to break into the market and to scale it up.”

These are some elements of what IPBES and others call ‘transformative change’, and Watson acknowledges that it will not be easy to overcome resistance to them. “There are a lot of vested interests that like the status quo, that like those subsidies,” he said. “They don’t care about the long term. They are looking for a short-term profit.”

Another shift Watson wants to see is greater coordination among government departments responsible for sectors that affect or are affected by nature. “They’ve got to work together,” he said. “No single one of these government departments can solve this alone.” He said the same applies to the Rio Conventions — the three international agreements on biodiversity, climate change and land degradation — and to UN agencies such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

“We really need to look at how climate change and biodiversity impact on each other, how they impact on agriculture, energy, water and human health — and how these all impact back on biodiversity and climate,” he said. “There is not a hope in hell of achieving any of the Sustainable Development Goals unless we simultaneously attack climate change, loss of biodiversity, land degradation, and air and water pollution.”

Nature actually matters

“I think we need polycentric governance structures where all of the key stakeholders are really involved,” Watson told me. “What that will require is a huge amount of trust. Government have to trust each other. Governments have to trust the private sector, and vice versa. Then of course you have to consider the role of us, as individuals. We can choose what we eat. We can choose what sort of energy we use. How we use our energy. How we use our water.

“We as individuals need to let government and the private sector know we care about these environmental issues,” he said. “Because while biodiversity loss and climate change are obviously environmental issues, they are also development issues, economic issues, security issues, social, moral and ethical issues. They threaten food security, water security, human health. They come at an economic cost.”

Ultimately, said Watson, much depends on people and businesses understanding that protecting nature is in their own interests.

“For year and years, we were all saying, ‘You shouldn’t destroy nature. We’re losing species’, but it didn’t have much effect in my opinion,” he said. “I’m not saying people don’t care about nature. I think they do, but in an abstract way. We have to convince people that nature actually matters. We’ve destroyed it in the past. We’ve now got to conserve and restore some of it for our own human wellbeing.”

Related posts:

Scientists warn of rising denial of extinction and biodiversity loss

Human wellbeing threatened by ‘unprecedented’ rate of biodiversity loss

Explainer: COP15, the biggest biodiversity conference in a decade

If we keep on biting the hand that feeds us, it will slap us in the face

Photo credit: Joel Sartore, National Geographic Photo Ark natgeophotoark.org — Two Golden snub-nosed monkeys, Rhinopithecus roxellana, at Ocean Park Hong Kong

Scientists warn of rising denial of extinction and biodiversity loss

Sea turtle drowned in fishing net

[Reposting my story for Mongabay.com]

Biodiversity scientists are being urged to “fight the creeping rise of extinction denial” which has spread from fringe blogs to influential media outlets and even into a US Congressional hearing. The call-to-arms came in a paper published in Nature Ecology & Evolution last month by Alexander Lees, senior lecturer in conservation biology at Manchester Metropolitan University, and colleagues.

“Many of the same individuals that routinely seek to downplay the impacts of climate change have written articles understating the biodiversity loss crisis,” says Lees. “Denialists have sought to obfuscate the magnitude of both extinctions and loss of bio-abundance.”

The paper describes and debunks three types of extinction denial. The first, ‘literal denial’, argues that extinction is largely a historical problem. Arguments like this, such as contained in this article claiming that “the onset of further wildlife extinctions seems far-fetched”, ignore the conservatism of biologists in declaring extinctions, as well as actual evidence of recent extinctions and of the widespread population declines that suggest many more future losses are on the way, the authors write.

They point out, for example, that denialists have long stated that the Atlantic Forest in Brazil has suffered no extinctions despite having shrunk in area by 90%. Yet two bird species were declared extinct there in 2019, and seven more are down to their last few individuals or have not been seen for a decade or longer.

“The problem is most of the losses are not the big ‘exciting’ species but smaller and less charismatic ones in areas that lost the big exciting things years ago,” says Lees. “We are now reaching critical loss of habitat for many species in the tropics in places like the Philippines and eastern Brazil. It is in these places that the next wave of extinctions is taking place.”

Lees and colleagues also discuss ‘interpretive denial’, which acknowledges the loss of biodiversity but argues that economic growth alone will fix it. One example is a 2019 Washington Examiner article ‘How capitalism will save endangered species.’

The third form of denial is ‘implicatory’, arguing for example that technological fixes and targeted conservation interventions — rather than comprehensive changes to socio-economic systems — will overcome extinction. The authors write that these two forms of denial may use evidence from temperate ecosystems to make inappropriate claims about reduced impacts in the tropics, where habitat loss is accelerating and species are far more sensitive to change.

“The land sparing and abandonment we have seen in the temperate zone has come about because we have outsourced environmental harm elsewhere,” says Lees. “These include countries lauded for their domestic environmental success. For example, Japan is still heavily forested but has plundered rainforests elsewhere for timber. Norway fuels forest loss in Amazonia for soybean to feed fish and cattle. Most people remain ignorant of these global teleconnections and their impacts on biodiversity.”

Atlantic Forest extinctions underway: Left to right — Cherry-throated tanager (critically-endangered; no more than five seen in recent years); Kinglet caplytpura (critically-endangered; last seen in 1996) and Alagoas curassow (extinct in the wild).

Dawn of denial

Extinction denial came to the fore in May last year, when the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) published its Global Assessment. The report said a million species were at risk of extinction, and it outlined steps for ‘transformative change’ to secure nature’s contributions to human wellbeing.

Commentators such as Toby Young in The Spectator disputed the findings or attacked the reputations and methods of the report’s authors, leading one of them, Andy Purvis of the Natural History Museum in London, to write a lengthy rebuttal.

More attacks came at the U.S. Congress in a hearing called by the House Natural Resources Committee to discuss the IPBES findings. Republican representatives and their invited witnesses — both climate change skeptics — were vitriolic in their scorn for the report and its authors.

Anne Larigauderie, executive secretary of IPBES, says the attacks did not come as a surprise, adding that the Global Assessment had itself stated that ‘transformative change can expect opposition from those with interests vested in the status quo.’

In an email interview, she told me, “Anyone who has followed the history of major science-policy issues, such as the smoking/tobacco/public health debates, and the more recent issues around human-induced climate change, is critically aware of the often well-funded and coordinated opposition to expert evidence that arises, especially from those who perceive that they stand to lose the most should policy be changed on the basis of such evidence.”

More denial likely

“Any attempts to take the global economy in a more sustainable direction will be undermined by some stakeholders seeking to maintain the status quo,” says Lees. “So, I would be surprised if we do not see attempts to undermine the work of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).”

On 15 September, the CBD will launch its Global Biodiversity Outlook 5 (GBO-5). The report is set to feed into intergovernmental negotiations towards a global biodiversity framework, to be agreed next year in China, reinforcing calls for transformative change.

Larigauderie says denialism in relation to the GBO-5 “seems likely”, as the report draws heavily on the IPBES findings. But she doubts denialists will derail ambition in the CBD negotiations towards a new global agreement.

“The actual traction of such denialism remains limited,” she says. “A much greater threat to ambition for the post-2020 biodiversity framework would be a failure to connect the loss of biodiversity to the other major global development challenges such as food security, human health, production and consumption patterns.”

Dealing with denial

Lees and his colleagues Simon Attwood, Jos Barlow and Ben Phalan say biodiversity scientists should be ready to rebut high-profile denialists. “Many scientists already respond to science denial when it appears in print or on social media from prominent individuals, and this should be encouraged,” says Lees. “We provide a roadmap in the paper that is underpinned by courteous engagement, the deconstruction of specious arguments and pseudoscience, and the presentation of cold hard scientific facts.”

“We thought the paper was an important contribution, and we agree with the concern regarding denialism,” says Thomas Brooks, chief scientist at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. “Responding to denialism — for any applied science — requires skills not just in the science, but also in science communication, stakeholder engagement, etc., which are perhaps less widely-taught through university courses. The paper’s recommendations on countering denialism will be particularly useful in this light.”

Sir Robert Watson, former chair of IPBES, is confident that the biodiversity community is up to the task. “While not all climate or biodiversity experts are politically savvy or able to deal with the skeptics, politicians or the media, there are more than enough who understand the science-policy interface and can counter unfounded accusations and the misuse of evidence,” he says.

“Overall, I am not worried by the deniers,” he says. “But I am worried that governments may not be able to deliver the actions that are required to conserve and restore biodiversity in a timely manner, in order for biodiversity to play its role in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. Unless climate change, land degradation and biodiversity are addressed together, we will fail.”

[First published by Mongabay.com on 14 September 2020]

Reference: Lees, A.C., Attwood, S., Barlow, J. & Phalan, B. 2020. Biodiversity scientists must fght the creeping rise of extinction denial. Nature Ecology & Evolution. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-020-01285-z [PDF]

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Picture credits:

Turtle in net (Salvatore Barbera – Flickr/Creative Commons); Cherry-throated tanager (Unknown/Wikimedia Commons); Kinglet caplytpura (William Swainson/Wikimedia Commons); Alagoas curassow (Nicolas Huet/Wikimedia Commons)

The coronavirus backlash against bats is a bad idea

Fruit bat in flight

In March 2020, hundreds of bats hung crowded in cages in a market in the Indonesian city of Surakata. They waited wide-eyed to be killed and sold as meat. But Covid-19 was spreading, and people in Indonesia and elsewhere were soon blaming bats. The city authorities decided the bats could not be sold and, rather than release them into the wild, they gassed them and threw them into a fire pit, cages and all. Continue reading