Titans of biodiversity science call for united, authoritative voice to inform decision-makers

Warn earth 'on verge of major crisis'

Warning that Earth is on the verge of "a major biodiversity crisis," 19 of the field's most distinguished scientists and policy experts today called for a new global coordinating mechanism to provide a united, authoritative scientific voice to inform government decision-making internationally.

And they called upon the wider scientific community and stakeholders to lend active support to a newly established consultation process designed to create just such an international organizing and unifying mechanism for science advice on biodiversity.

Published in the UK journal Nature (July 20 edition), leading experts from 13 nations – Canada, Chile, China, France, Germany, Ghana, India, Mexico, The Netherlands, Norway, South Africa, the USA and the UK – signed a blunt declaration saying the gap between biodiversity science and public policy must be closed urgently and that the world's science community must be far more strongly organized and integrated.

According to the group: "Virtually all aspects of biodiversity are in steep decline and a large number of populations and species are likely to become extinct in the present century. Despite this evidence, biodiversity is still consistently undervalued and given inadequate weight in both private and public decisions. There is an urgent need to bridge the gap between science and policy to take action."

That gap, they say, has closed with respect to climate change – policy making is informed by the world's science community speaking with a single authoritative voice through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The experts signing today's statement call for the urgent creation of an inter-governmental mechanism akin to the IPCC to likewise speak for the biodiversity science world.

Signatories include Robert Watson, Chief Scientist at the World Bank, who chairs or has chaired several global scientific collaborations including the IPCC, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and the Ozone Assessment Panel.

Others among the signatories are two former chairs of the Subsidiary Body for Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice of the Montreal-based Convention on Biological Diversity, Alfred Oteng-Yeboah of Ghana and Peter Schei of Norway, as well as:

  • Mary Kalin Arroyo, Institute of Ecology and Biodiversity, University of Chile
  • Didier Babin, Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (CIRAD), France
  • Robert Barbault, Ecology and Biodiversity Management Department, National Museum of Natural History, France
  • Michael Donoghue, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Yale University, USA
  • Madhav Gadgil, Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, India
  • Christoph Häuser, Staatliches Museum für Naturkunde, Germany
  • Carlo Heip, Centre for Estuarine and Marine Ecology, Netherlands Institute of Ecology
  • Anne Larigauderie, DIVERSITAS Secretariat, Paris, France
  • Michel Loreau of McGill University, Canada, Chair of the Board of DIVERSITAS, the international programme on biodiversity;
  • Keping Ma, Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing
  • Georgina Mace, UK Institute of Zoology;
  • H.A. Mooney, Department of Biological Sciences, Stanford University, USA
  • Charles Perrings, Global Institute of Sustainability, Arizona State University, USA, Vice-Chair, DIVERSITAS
  • Peter Raven, Missouri Botanical Garden, USA;
  • Jose Sarukhan, Instituto de Ecología, National University of Mexico, UNAM, Mexico; and
  • Robert J. Scholes, Natural Resources and Environment, CSIR, South Africa.

The scientists say biodiversity is "intrinsically more complex than issues such as the stratospheric ozone hole or even global climate change…it spans several levels of biological organization (genes, species, ecosystems); it cannot be measured by simple, universal indicators such as temperature and atmospheric CO2 concentration; and its distribution and management are more local in nature."

Existing organizations such as the Convention of Biological Diversity "do not have the structural means to mobilize the expertise of a large scientific community that spans a wide range of disciplines," according to the declaration signatories.

"For the sake of the planet, the biodiversity science community has to create a way to get organized, to co-ordinate its work across disciplines, and together with one clear voice advise governments on steps to halt the potentially catastrophic loss of species already occurring," says Dr. Watson.

"The climate change panel, the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology, the Ozone Assessment Panel and other scientific collaborations today provide worthy examples of the sort of device needed. Each model has strengths and weaknesses but essentially they all serve as a reliable source of information and advice for the public, their governments and decision-makers, who then chose what to do."

Says lead author Michel Loreau: "We need diversity of opinions and approaches but we also need unity behind this collective effort, to speak with one voice globally when it comes to recognizing key issues and how they can best be addressed."

"Biodiversity provides ecosystem services such as disease and climate regulation, storm protection and habitat for useful species. The loss of biodiversity imposes real economic costs on society, and we need to develop clear science guidance for policy options accordingly," says signatory Charles Perrings of Arizona State University, USA and Vice-Chair of DIVERSITAS.

With the explicit support of French President Jacques Chirac, international consultations funded by the government of France (the Consultative Process Towards an International Mechanism of Scientific Expertise on Biodiversity, www.imoseb.net) are expected to produce recommendations for such a panel within 18 months. The consultations will determine what kind of biodiversity information is needed by decision-makers in many fields with an influence on biodiversity – including industry, fisheries, transportation, and parks management – in order to design a panel that addresses those requirements. An electronic forum has been set up to collect opinions on the consultative process and its evolution (http://www.imoseb.net or contact executive-secretariat@imoseb.net). The declaration signatories recommend that such a panel:

  • like other similar intergovernmental scientific panels, have a formal link to, and be funded by, governments to help ensure that the information will lead to action nationally and globally;

  • be objective and independent, with broad participation, including governments, the private sector and non-governmental organizations as well as scientists;

  • be transparent and representative in terms of opinions, disciplines and geographical regions, with a strict peer review process;

  • generate clear, readily accessible information about the status and trends of biodiversity, projections of future changes and options for conservation and loss mitigation, which will allow decision-makers to set clear targets for action; and

  • build synergy with existing international organizations.

The full text of the statement follows.

Diversity without representation

For policymakers biodiversity can present more complex challenges than even climate change argue Michel Loreau, Alfred Oteng-Yeboah and co-authors. So why isn't there an international panel of experts for biodiversity?

Ever since the 1992 United Nations 'Earth Summit' conference in Rio de Janeiro, biodiversity has received increasing attention from scientists, governments and the public worldwide. There is growing recognition that the diversity of life on Earth, including the variety of genes, species and ecosystems, is an irreplaceable natural heritage crucial to human well-being and sustainable development. There is also clear scientific evidence that we are today on the verge of a major biodiversity crisis. Virtually all aspects of biodiversity are in steep decline and a large number of populations and species are likely to become extinct in this century. Despite this evidence, biodiversity is still consistently undervalued and given inadequate weight in both private and public decisions. There is an urgent need to bridge the gap between science and policy by creating an international body of biodiversity experts, which would operate on similar lines to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Although protected areas have slightly increased during the past few decades, collectively they contain only a small fraction of the world's terrestrial species and ecosystems, and the situation in the oceans is even worse (1). The forces that push towards biodiversity loss globally are much stronger than the conservation gains. Habitat destruction (notably in tropical forests, inland waters and coastlines), introduction of invasive species, overexploitation of biological resources, such as overfishing in the seas, pollution, and now clear signs of global climate change are major threats to biodiversity and continue unabated, driven by unsustainable growth of the world's population, production, consumption and trade.

As a result of these forces, biodiversity loss is accelerating globally. Some 12% of all bird species, 23% of mammals, 25% of conifers, 32% of amphibians and 52% of cycads are currently threatened with extinction (2), and climate change alone might commit an additional 15 to 37% of extant species to premature extinction within the next 50 years (3). Since biodiversity loss is essentially irreversible, it poses serious threats to sustainable development and the quality of life of future generations. According to the 2005 Millennium Ecosystem Assessment two-thirds of the evaluated benefits to society from ecosystems, defined as ecosystem services, are currently being degraded or used unsustainably (4).

Given the magnitude and urgency of the biodiversity crisis, why has the societal response been so slow and inadequate? A lack of awareness of the role of biodiversity in enabling the delivery of ecosystem goods and services, the failure of markets to signal its values, and the fact that biodiversity is a public good are key factors. They underlie the perceived conflict between biodiversity conservation and economic development, which exists only insofar as development is not sustainable. Biodiversity is also intrinsically more complex than other environmental concerns, such as the stratospheric ozone hole or even global climate change. By definition, biodiversity is diverse: it spans several levels of biological organization (genes, species, ecosystems); it cannot be measured by simple universal indicators such as temperature and atmospheric CO2 concentration; and its distribution and management are more local in nature.

But another factor, which is within our power to change very rapidly, also limits our current ability to tackle the biodiversity crisis. An interesting parallel can be drawn between two of the important multilateral agreements that resulted from the Earth Summit in Rio, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and the Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC). The FCCC built on a strongly organized scientific community and the existing Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to inform subsequent political negotiations over climate change. In contrast, the CBD and the other international agreements concerned with biodiversity do not have the structural means to mobilize the expertise of a large scientific community to inform governments. Consequently, the scientific community as a whole often does not feel involved in the global political process, which tends to exacerbate the disconnect between science and policy and a general attitude of powerlessness and fatalism.

Biodiversity science itself needs to evolve, and is evolving, towards greater unity and integration (5). What is currently lacking in our view, however, is a mechanism akin to the IPCC able to bring together the expertise of the scientific community to provide, on a regular basis, validated and independent scientific information relating to biodiversity and ecosystem services to governments, policy makers, international conventions, non-governmental organizations, and the wider public.

The four-year process that led to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA) was a first attempt at filling the gap between science and policy. Its successes, in providing a much-needed conceptual framework and a synthesis of existing data, give us hope that the task is achievable, but it also has shortcomings for addressing biodiversity loss in the long term. First, it was a one-off effort (6). Various projects are following up on aspects of the MEA, often at the level of a single country or region, but there is currently no mechanism for making this type of assessment global, systematic and sustained. Such a mechanism should ideally be intergovernmental, rather than non-governmental, if it is to have credibility and clout. Second, the MEA explored the consequences of ecosystem change for human well-being, but was not specifically focused on biodiversity.

The idea of establishing an international panel on biodiversity fulfilling a role similar to the IPCC has floated around for some years without ever taking off. But the situation is now favourable to developing and achieving it. In January 2005 the idea received political support from the French President Jacques Chirac during the international conference "Biodiversity Science and Governance" held in Paris. It also received broad support from the 2,000 scientists, non-governmental and policy representatives from 100 countries that attended this conference, and was later enthusiastically endorsed by the 600 scientists assembled in the First DIVERSITAS Open Science Conference held in Oaxaca, Mexico, in November 2005. The French government is currently funding a consultation process to assess the need, scope and possible models for an international mechanism of scientific expertise on biodiversity.

What shape would an international panel on biodiversity take? Although clearly its contours must emerge from the ongoing consultation process, a number of features seem critical for its success. First, like the IPCC, it should ideally have a formal link to, and be funded by, governments. This feature, which distinguishes it from previous initiatives in the field of biodiversity, would ensure that negotiations within various international biodiversity conventions are based on validated scientific information and lead to action at national and global levels. However, the proposed panel should also involve other stakeholders, such as non-governmental organizations, intergovernmental agencies, the CBD and other biodiversity-related conventions, and DIVERSITAS, the international program of biodiversity science.

Second, it must be objective and independent; it should include the world's leading scientists, and its goal should be to provide rigorous, updated scientific information in support of policy decisions and actions at all levels of civil society. Just as in the IPCC, the involvement of governments and non-governmental organizations should in no way constrain the content and quality of the scientific information delivered. Third, it should be transparent and representative, in terms of opinions, disciplines and geographical regions. A strict peer review process is required to meet these conditions.

Finally, it should strive to generate clear, readily accessible information about the status and trends of biodiversity, projections of future changes in biodiversity and the ecosystem services that depend on it, and options to conserve biodiversity, maintain ecosystem services and mitigate adverse impacts of biodiversity changes. This information should allow governments, international conventions and society at large to define clear targets for action. Lastly, it should build synergy with existing mechanisms and organizations. It has a unique scientific role to play, and should not attempt to duplicate efforts that can be made more efficiently by other means.

Building an initiative like this one requires careful examination of needs and existing mechanisms. The consultation process, supervised by an International Steering Committee, will last 18 months and proceed in two phases. During the first phase, a number of studies will define the need for, and goals of, an international panel on biodiversity. These studies will examine the global decision-making landscape concerned with biodiversity, analyze successes and failures of biodiversity conservation efforts at different scales, and assess existing international mechanisms that deliver scientific expertise. In a second phase, this information will be used to articulate a set of recommendations for an international panel on biodiversity, which will be presented at a set of regional meetings to seek input from all sectors of society and all regions of the world.

These consultations should be seized as a unique opportunity to move biodiversity science and governance forward, to fill the gap between science and policy, and to find new ways of resolving the biodiversity crisis. We call upon all scientists interested in biodiversity science to get involved, and seek the participation of their government, in these consultations.

###

Michel Loreau is in the Department of Biology, McGill University, Montreal, Canada. Alfred Oteng-Yeboah is at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, Accra, Ghana. This commentary is co-signed by

Signed by:

M. T. K. Arroyo, Institute of Ecology and Biodiversity, University of Chile, Santiago
D. Babin, CIRAD, Montpellier, France
R. Barbault, Pierre and Marie Curie University, Paris, France
M. Donoghue, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Yale University, USA
M. Gadgil, Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, India
C. Häuser, Staatliches Museum für Naturkunde, Germany
C. Heip, Centre for Estuarine and Marine Ecology, Netherlands Institute of Ecology
A. Larigauderie, DIVERSITAS Secretariat, Paris, France
K. Ma, Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing
G. Mace, Institute of Zoology, UK
H. A. Mooney, Department of Biological Sciences, Stanford University, USA
C. Perrings, Global Institute of Sustainability, Arizona State University, USA
P. Raven, Missouri Botanical Garden, USA
J. Sarukhan, Instituto de Ecología, UNAM, México
P. Schei, Fridtjof Nansen Institute, Norway
R. J. Scholes, Natural Resources and Environment, CSIR, South Africa
R. T. Watson, Environment Department, World Bank, USA

For additional information, e-mail to executive-secretariat@imoseb.net or consult http://www.imoseb.net.

Footnotes:
1. Hendricks, I. E., Duarte, C. M & Heip, C. H. R. Science 312, 1715 (2006).
2. R. Dirzo and M. Loreau, Science 310, 943 (2005).
3. J. E. M. Baillie, C. Hilton-Taylor and S. N. Stuart (Eds), 2004 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: A Global Species Assessment. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland (2004).
4. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, Ecosystems and Human Well-Being: Synthesis, Island press, Washington D.C. (2005).
5. C. D. Thomas et al., Nature 427, 145 (2004).
6. Mooney, H., Cropper, A. & Reid, W. Nature 434,561-562 (2005).



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