The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) recently released its Global Assessment, the summary of which was approved by the more than 130 member Governments (See here for key messages). Broadly, the report finds that nature (marine, aquatic, and terrestrial systems) is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history. Nature provides essential services to people and these services are at risk with these declining trends. This report advances on previous global assessments of biodiversity, such as the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, by building in innovative ways to evaluate evidence, including indigenous and local knowledge. While the trends are currently downward for nature, future scenarios based on policy choices outlined in the Global Assessment provide a potential path forward. There are many opportunities at the governmental, business, and even individual level to act and change that trajectory (See here for some recommendations from Michelle Lim, a co-author of the report).
The report was compiled by 145 expert authors from 50 countries over the past three years, with input from another 310 contributing authors. It includes a systematic review of approximately 15,000 scientific and government sources as well as indigenous and local knowledge. Needless to say, it has been a massive undertaking and, personally, an amazing learning opportunity. I was privileged to participate in the Global Assessment as part of the author team and through the Fellowship Programme. After three years of work, sitting in on the IPBES plenary proceedings where the assessment was approved as an IPBES expert was somewhat surreal. It was fascinating to see how three years of scientific exercise is synthesized, summarized, and negotiated through an intergovernmental process.
Work at the science-policy interface
As scientists, we often talk about wanting to work at the science-policy interface. I cannot think of a better example than this – scientific experts presented their findings to member governments and the results were translated into a document negotiated and signed by government delegates with the explicit understanding that they would take these back to their departments and ministries to implement in national policy. I was sincerely impressed with how scientifically well-read the government delegates were and by the constructive mode of discourse throughout the proceedings. Yes; there were long nights and sometimes it took over an hour to move past one sentence but, in general, it was clear that everyone participating in the discussion had the same goals and vision to collectively create the most precise, representative, scientifically-based document possible. It was inspiring to see the science-policy interface at work and in such a productive manner.
It’s also been fascinating to see how this report is taken up by mass media (just a smattering include: NPR, National Geographic, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Guardian). The Global Assessment has uniformly been misquoted as a “UN report” – when it is that of an intergovernmental body outside of the United Nations (UN) system, similar to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In fact, IPBES is often described as the “IPCC for biodiversity and ecosystem services.” This misrepresentation is likely harmless enough in that most of the public doesn’t really distinguish between the UN and other intergovernmental groups.
“One million species face extinction.”
Likewise, the sound byte that has been universally shared is that up to one million species are at risk of extinction. The report is much more than just this stripped down statistic. But, this is the zinger, the headline, and the “click bait.” Like above, I think this misrepresentation is likely harmless if it drives readers to dive deeper into the findings of the report. The Global Assessment identifies the state of nature, drivers of its change, and outlines potential paths towards a more sustainable future. Nature may be in decline, but, as this report makes clear, humans depend on nature for essential services like food, livelihoods, and clean water, so it is in the broader societal best interest to consider approaches to maintain and conserve it. Now, if only someone could figure out a way to convey that message to these folks that Jimmy Kimmel interviewed…