Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The News Is Not Good

By David Salt

This year’s global update on the state of biodiversity tells us that the world has failed to meet all of the international targets set in 2002. But is news bad enough for any country to do anything about it?

“The news is not good,” says the Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity in a press release announcing the findings of the third edition of the Global Biodiversity Outlook (GBO-3).

“We continue to lose biodiversity at a rate never before seen in history – extinction rates may be up to 1,000 times higher than the historical background rate.

“The assessment of the state of the world’s biodiversity in 2010, as contained in GBO-3 based on the latest indicators, over 110 national reports submitted to the Convention Secretariat, and scenarios for the 21st Century should serve as a wake-up call for humanity. Business-as-usual is no longer an option if we are to avoid irreversible damage to the life-support systems of our planet.”

Well, that definitely doesn’t sound like good news, especially in the International Year of Biodiversity – the year in which countries that signed up to the Convention of Biological Diversity (including Australia) were supposed to demonstrate “a significant reduction of the current rate [in 2002] of biodiversity loss at the global, regional and national level”. But rather than a reduction, the GBO-3 notes that extinction rates are increasing.

• Species that have been assessed for extinction risk are on average moving closer to extinction.

• Natural habitats in most parts of the world continue to decline in extent and integrity.

• The five principal pressures directly driving biodiversity loss – habitat change, overexploitation, pollution, invasive alien species and climate change – are either constant or increasing in intensity.

• Projections of the impact of global change on biodiversity show continuing and often accelerating species extinctions and loss of natural habitat.

• Earlier assessments have underestimated the potential severity of biodiversity loss

Has humanity heard the “wake-up call”? Have our leaders acknowledged that “business as usual is no longer an option”? Not as far as I can tell. Hardly a word was spared for biodiversity during the recent federal election campaign. We’re much more worried about a few boat people slipping through than a growing tranche of our unique biodiversity slipping under.

We’ll throw a bucket of cash onto a crisis situation like the vanishing (or vanished) microbats of Christmas Island rather than consider what other interventions we might take to prevent other species from getting to this point. And we’ll invest so little in reducing our rate of species loss that we can’t even measure the progress of our failure.

So it seems little has changed. This is business as usual. In the International Year of Biodiversity – when the world’s focus is supposed to be on the parlous state of our precious biodiversity – it’s simply isn’t good enough.

The International Year of Biodiversity is a time to celebrate life’s wondrous diversity, but that celebration should not distract us from the bigger looming problem of accelerating declines in biodiversity. While the government has sponsored programs that are discovering amazing new species, both in the bush and the sea, what about our national and regional responses to our growing failure to prevent declines in biodiversity? It’s not a topic you’ll find much discussion on.

Every couple of days we read about some species in trouble (be it Tasmanian devils, koalas, micro-pipistrelles, red ground crabs or orange-bellied parrots) but there’s no direct connection to our own little patches. So we feel a little sadder but it doesn’t change anything we do. Extinction rates may be up to 1000 times higher than the historical background rate, but what does that actually mean? Very little to the price of bread in a marginal electorate.

Many readers of Australasian Science are students and researchers in the area of conservation biology (and most of the rest of its readers are environmentally literate). You, more than most, know what all this means. Maybe we all need to more effectively craft our communication in a way that better cuts through the myopic and often ignorant debate that flows around the topic of biodiversity decline. I’m sure I could lift my game too.

When all is said and done, the news is not good, but it’s never perceived to be so bad as to get us to honestly reassess “business-as-usual”.

David Salt is Knowledge Broker for the Applied Environmental Decision Analysis centre at the Australian National University.