Not Dealing With Climate Change Is Dumb, Not Dealing With Biodiversity Loss Is Even Dumber. 

In watching the run up to CoP26, what has been very apparent is the pressure put on world leaders to attend. Together with the host, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the other world leaders confirmed as going include Prime Minister Mario Draghi (Italy), President Joe Biden (United States), First Minister Nicola Sturgeon (Scotland), Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Canada), President Emmanuel Macron (France), President Nana Akufo-Addo (Ghana), President Alberto Fernandez (Argentina), Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (Israel), President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Turkey), Prime Minister Stefan Löfven (Sweden), President Guy Parmelin (Switzerland), President Muhammadu Buhari (Nigeria), President Ivan Duque (Colombia), Prime Minister Scott Morrison (Australia).

Notable by their absence will be Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has said he will not be making the trip, and Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who is citing Covid-19 fears for his lack of attendance.

In addition to these political leaders, more than 30,000 people are expected to be in Glasgow, from NGOs and businesses, to journalists, lobbyists, negotiators and protesters. All there to discuss the solutions needed to halt and reverse human induced global warming, through polluting industries and carbon-intensive, consuming lifestyles. And after too many years of the media trying to give all sides of the global warming debate space to air their views, one recent article in The Guardian compared climate change deniers to the late 18th-century opponents of abolishing the slave trade. 

In stark contrast is the lack of pressure, on these same world leaders, to deal with the loss of biosphere integrity, namely biodiversity loss and extinction. The May 2019 IPBES report into the global extinction crisis confirmed that direct exploitation for trade is the most important driver of decline and extinction risk for marine species and the second most important driver for terrestrial and freshwater species. Yet, I didn’t see these world leaders at CITES CoP18 or read anything in the media about the expectation that they would attend.

What makes the contrast between the public’s expectation of world leaders to deal with climate change compared to tackling the loss of biodiversity integrity even more strange is how little people understand about our dependence on biodiversity integrity for the lifestyles we crave. From a risk perspective, human civilisation is under much larger, imminent threat of exceeding the planetary boundaries for biosphere integrity and phosphate and nitrate flows than climate change.

Planetary Boundary Tipping Points

With climate change, the world is assessed by this model as being in the Zone of Uncertainty (increasing risk).

By contrast, the loss of biosphere integrity (biodiversity loss and extinction) is assessed as having gone beyond the high-risk point; we are Beyond the Zone of Uncertainty (high risk).

Maybe this has flown under the radar because too many people think this is JUST about the extinction of animals and plants, so they don’t really care.

What they don’t realise is that biosphere integrity plays a significant role in food security, water security and managing air pollution. It is frankly foolish to be worried about climate change, but not be thinking about biodiversity loss.

If you believe the model, the result is we need even greater action to reverse biodiversity loss than we currently do in dealing with climate change. Yet this is rarely discussed and there is barely a blip on the radar when governments reduce the investment in tackling this issue; for example, the Australian Federal Governments proposal to scrap recovery plans for 200 endangered species and habitats.

Swiss Re Sustainability Index & Report

The stupidity of this lack of action on biodiversity loss was highlighted in a 2020 report by Swiss Re, the world’s second-largest re-insurer, which confirmed a fifth of countries worldwide are at risk from ecosystem collapse as biodiversity declines. Of the G20 countries, Australia is ranked in second (worst) place, after South Africa, for failing and fragile ecosystems.

The Swiss Re report and corresponding index has been created to analyse Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (BES) and the risks associated with BES collapse. It includes the ecosystem services necessary for food provision, water security and the regulation of air quality, all of which are considered vital to maintaining the health and stability of communities and economies.

The increasing risk associated with not tackling biodiversity loss will undoubtedly be considered by investors and insurers as a part of their future decisions. Why else would a company such as Swiss Re be creating such a monitoring tool? A growing number of investors will walk away from industries, in countries where their investments may not be realised or provide them the returns they want because of fragile and failing ecosystems. This is a major threat for countries, such as Australia, who rely too heavily on agriculture.

Given Australia’s environment is assessed as failing, to the point that the country is ranked in second (worst) place for fragility, and, with the resulting negative impact on the economy, it appears strange that so few Australians are pressuring any political party to take action to reverse biodiversity loss. And while many of the emerging Independent MPs are focused on climate change, biodiversity loss doesn’t seem part of their playbook.

Signs of Catastrophic Biodiversity Loss

Most people in Australia and around the world are now paying attention to climate change. Undoubtedly this is because the planet is more visibly unstable, and this is affecting not only people living in developing countries but also those living carbon intensive lifestyles in developed countries. Sadly, the lifestyles of the wealthy needed to be impacted before they took notice, but at least now governments and industry are feeling more pressure to deal with climate change.

So, what would need to happen for biodiversity loss to get noticed?

  1. A wholesale collapse in fisheries leading to a drastic reduction in catch levels? (Already happening)
  2. Rapid increases in food prices due to water shortages and the decline in pollinating insects? (Already happening)
  3. Crop failures due to salination and soil exhaustion? (Already happening)

All of these things are already happening, just not at a scale where we are prepared to take notice and not in places that we really care about.

If you think this sounds a little déjà vu, lets remember the decades scientists have been aware of the need to tackle climate change. But it has taken until now, when the planet is more visibly unstable before people are pressuring leaders to act. If public awareness was driven by science, this would have started in the 1970s, when it became clear that carbon emissions would drastically warm the planet if not curtailed.

But that’s not what happened. Our vanishingly small ability to pay attention to anything that isn’t ‘here and now’ will likely mean that we will always miss the tipping points. In Australia, to name just a few examples, we have ignored:

  1. Some farmers are known to overstock by 440%, without fear of repercussions, for decades.
  2. Only 4% of Australia’s land mass has been set aside for National Parks; meaning only 4% of land mass is given the maximum protection from logging and shooting.
  3. A total of 44.87% of Australia’s land mass is used for ‘grazing native vegetation’.

Given the planetary boundaries model assess biodiversity uncertainty as high-risk, who knows how close this tipping point is, it may not be too far away. The current trajectory means that the most likely outcome is that we humans will be left to rue the implications of ignoring this crisis, when it is too late to fix it.

Ecosystems will recover, but to what extend human, industrial civilisation will be able to survive ecosystem collapse is very much an open question.

Signs Of Hope?

During this most recent lockdown, I watched an Amazon production, Clarkson’s Farm. Hope that people will finally understand the implications of biodiversity loss came in the very strange disguise of Jeremy Clarkson, the world’s best known petrol head, during one of the episodes, titled, Wilding. He acknowledged the speed and implication of the loss of insects.

To help mitigate insect decline caused by turning meadows into monoculture fields, he decided to sacrifice some of his crop area to create insect superhighways, which not only helps insects’ cross huge fields to eat all the bugs damaging crops, but by having insects eat the pests you can reduce the need for pesticides.

The thing is, if Jeremy Clarkson can realise that the fields on his 1000-acre farm are too big for insects to cross (eating all the bugs that destroy crops on their travels) how can they cross Australia’s megafarms?

And how about the agri businesses such as Macquarie, the Australian millionaire factory, who has in the last decade become one of Australia’s largest diversified farmers and a major investor in Brazilian agriculture. Would they plant native grasses and wildlflower strips throughout the 480 properties and 4.7 million hectares of farmland across 32 countries they own?

Whilst it is great to see that even the world’s least likely farmer can learn that insects matter and that there are simple solutions that any farmer could adopt, why isn’t it happening? It seems to me that we need Jeremy and the team to do a Wilding Grand Tour and Australia would certainly be a good location!

Instead of James May and Richard Hammond my suggestion for The Grand Tour – (Re)Wilding would be:

  1. Kevin McCloud (Grand Designs – [Re]Wilding). No more getting status from fixing up the historic pile of bricks in the middle of a paddock, fix the paddock!!
  2. Chris Packham, the conservationist who recently experienced an arson attack on his home, a serious escalation, after years of dead birds, badgers and foxes being left hanging, or thrown, outside his home by the people upset that he is challenging the need to change old mindsets about country practice, and provide more space for wildlife.

Given it took Jeff Bazos to fly into space to give him a greater appreciation of earth’s fragility, saying “this tiny little fragile thing, and we’re damaging it”, then maybe it can be another amazon production!

Deal With Climate Change AND Biodiversity Loss

The urgency of dealing with climate change is apparent to most. The even greater urgency of tackling biodiversity loss is not yet on the public radar. It has taken the unmistakable increase in adverse weather events and wildfires, and for these events to be ever closer to home, for the public to take notice of climate change. Yet this process cannot be repeated with biodiversity loss.

Highly developed countries have been ‘segregated’, into cities, farmland and ‘wild spaces’, for many decades and centuries in some cases. Urbanisation rates are huge and still rising. City dwellers neither visit nor really notice farms, on their outings to ‘wild spaces’. The decline in insects and birds is not directly observable to 99% of people. Few people have any inkling of fish stocks in lakes or oceans and are unlikely to ever have any direct experience that would create an ‘aha’ moment in relation to the staggering losses of biodiversity that have already happened since the 1970s (and well before, but we have little record of this earlier period).

Since we don’t pay attention to science, and 99% of people are not going to have a direct experience of biodiversity loss until food prices go through the roof, how are we going to get the momentum to deal with the imminent risks from our destructive land use and farming methods, and the trade in species?

This is a ‘wicked’ problem and instead of collecting more data and yet more scientific proof that we are in deep shit, when will scientists turn their attention to the question on HOW to get public awareness and policy action?

Would a collaboration between Jeremy, Kevin and Chris get the need for (re)wilding into more people’s homes? Now wouldn’t that be grand!