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We’ve Got Trouble! All in Agreement Say… Uh Oh

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Rhino closeup

Flickr/Lip Kee

If you turn on the news, you’re likely to be inundated with depressing pictures: Oceans are rising, species are dying, pollution is spreading. But how bad do most scientists think it really is? Are these doom-and-gloom projections the real deal, or just the lamentations of a few pessimists?

Sadly, at least for conservation biology, the glum outlook is pretty unanimous. In a paper published November 9 in the journal Conservation Biology, environmental biologist Murray Rudd of the University of York in the U.K. reports on a survey he conducted on the outlook for biodiversity. He asked 583 conservation scientists how likely it is that a serious loss of biological diversity was currently underway. Nearly all of them, 99.5 percent, answered with likely, very likely or virtually certain.

And researchers in some regions are more pessimistic than others. Far more from Southeast Asia (90.9 percent) thought that serious loss was very likely or virtually certain than those in western Europe (72.8 percent). That could be because the former area has seen more recent declines in species richness, and is home to some of the most charismatic animals like tigers and rhinos. Just this month Vietnam’s Javan Rhino  went extinct.

The impetus for this study, according to the authors, it to avoid one of the battles in which climate scientists find themselves. Climate-change deniers often claim that the consensus is not nearly as strong as studies  repeatedly show. As biodiversity becomes more vulnerable, and the solutions become more draconian and expensive, the authors predict that scrutiny of conservation work will become even more intense. Establishing consensus now, they hope, will save them time proving it later.

Beyond the pessimistic consensus, another point of agreement was the need for some kind of conservation triage. Respondents acknowledged that we just can’t save everything, so picking what to conserve and what to abandon will be key. When it comes to specific criteria for solutions, however, the consensus fades away. Respondents were split on things such as how to value conservation action, whether all species have a right to exist, and where conservation should happen first. Should the panda, for example, get millions in funding, whereas  other less glamorous species garner just a few dollars? Like most big problems, the solutions are complicated, expensive and not always popular.

So although we might all know that biodiversity is in trouble, the results of this survey are both alarming and illuminating. They’re sure that things are bad—really bad, but they’re not entirely sure what to do about it.





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