The Tug of War Between Climate Change and Habitat Destruction with Professor Francesca Verones

Image Credit: cunningschrisw, CC BY-SA 4.0, Image Cropped

While climate change often dominates news headlines, the fact remains that currently the majority of damage being done to the world’s ecosystems is a product of the way we use land. Major examples of land use change such as deforestation and cattle grazing do have impacts on the world’s climate of course, but they have numerous other very severe and more short-term impacts on the world’s biodiversity, as well as on human health.

Yet despite the fact that most species’ population declines and extinctions come down to the rapid degradation of their habitats, climate change remains the more ubiquitous of the two threats. With that in mind, I spoke to Professor Francesca Verones of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology earlier this year. Francesca’s work involves projecting the impact of human activity on the planet’s biodiversity, and we discussed why communicating the problems with land use change can be a challenge, and why changing our habits is hard, but necessary.

Sam Perrin (SP): While talk of climate change is everywhere, many issues with how we use land go ignored by the wider public. What can people working on issues like this learn from the omnipresence of the climate change debate?

Professor Francesca Verones (FV): One thing is the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change, which is purely focussed on climate change. They are really omnipresent in the media. You have international agreements like the Paris Accord, with really big press around it. I’m not saying that extra attention is bad by any means, but it’s really dominating the conversation, and I’m of course fed up with this, because it’s not the only problem we have. Hopefully IPBES (the Inter-Governmental Science-Policy Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) can counteract that a little bit, but IPBES is not just looking at land use, it’s also looking at different species and ecosystems services, it doesn’t have this one big single issue stamped on it. There are of course nuances within the IPCC, but in the end we’re looking at climate change and that’s it. It’s a much simpler message than we have at the moment for land use.

People also really play a lot with emotions when they talk about climate change. I think because it’s a bit more intangible, it’s also a bit more scary. Yet when it comes to land use, look at where most of us are living. We’re living in a heavily changed landscape and we’re comfortable with it. We see birds flying around, we think things look fine. We shrug and say “well we need to grow our food somehow”, this kind of thing.

It’s also self-reinforcing. Research on land use might not make it to big journals like Science because it’s not as hot. So climate change gets more attention again, and the cycle continues. We have something to learn about how we communicate problems with land use. How we interact with the media to communicate effective, straightforward messages, and give it the importance it deserves.

SP: In Norway, as well as in many other countries, there’s a long tradition of having cattle of all sorts roaming free, which can be very detrimental to biodiversity, as well as a hindrance to the reintroduction of predators. These are century old practices which people are very attached to, so how do we communicate the message that these need to be changed?

FV: I think one thing maybe is looking at scale. Maybe they were traditional practices, but I suspect that there were fewer people when they were developed. Over time their impacts have accumulated, to the point where you can no longer say these practices are sustainable. Now we see their effects and have to change. When it comes to the predators, you could just do like they do in Italy, and continue to compensate the farmers for their losses, or start using sheep- or cattle-guarding dogs. At least in Switzerland, they’re trying to introduce that now. The sheep are still running freely, but the dog is running with them.

It’s a matter of trying to find new management practices, or adapting different ones from other countries. I mean there are countries where they’re still living with predators, so it’s just a matter of being a bit more open-minded, but also trying to take care of the concerns of farmers. We can’t just impose solutions that discard them, we need to offer inclusive solutions.

Free roaming cows are commonplace in much of Europe (Image Credit: Arne Nyaas, Pixabay licence)

SP: Moving to more recent ‘historical’ practices. Norway’s economy is obviously very strongly tied to oil now. It has almost become part of the national identity for some people, so will it be easy to move away from it?

FV: It’s a matter of the alternatives. Right now Norway is still dependent on oil, but if we move everything to aquaculture, the next big thing in Norway, this is also really not so sustainable or the best idea, so it would be nice if the next solution was a bit out of the box. Again, you could compare it to Switzerland, which is a small country in terms of population, with no resource extraction. Switzerland is such an innovative place, and I think that Norway would be a perfect country to lead new innovative industries.

SP: We’re often inundated these days by the impacts that industry and governments have on the environment, which can often make our personal efforts to be more sustainable feel a bit futile. But the individual’s fight is still important, right?

FV: I would say yes. There is still is a lot that an individual can do. One side of course is buying practices and lifestyle. But the other side is that many of the companies which produce these emissions have a reputation, and if we consumers make our voices heard, then it will lead to a change eventually. The power of the consumer can affect change.

I think it’s very cheap for people to say “I alone can’t make a difference”. Because it’s not true. In the end it’s also the people who decide the politics. Who are you voting for? That can lead to positive changes as well.

SP: There are some really horrifying feedback loops out there in the world, such as the albedo effect and permafrost being released. They’re really quite worrying, so how do we talk to the public about these issues without sounding like we’re tolling the doomsday bell?

FV: I don’t know if just stating the facts is so doomsday-esque, I mean it’s basically just explaining how the system works. I usually try to explain how these systems work, how reinforcing these loops work. That way it’s more educational and less horrifying (even though I do find it horrifying). Most importantly, it’s not something that people should not know. But we do have to be careful with messaging, watching how we bring it across to people so they don’t feel threatened or attacked by the mere numbers.

Dr. Sam Perrin is a freshwater ecologist who completed his PhD at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology and is currently working for Ducky, a climate solutions consultancy which specialises in enabling people to understand their carbon footprint and how a more sustainable lifestyle can help the planet. You can read more about his research and the rest of the Ecology for the Masses writers here, see more of his work at Ecology for the Masses here, or follow him on Twitter here.

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