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Policy for the Masses: Thoughts from a Day with IPBES

Bill Sutherland was one of two keynote speakers in last week’s seminar on biodiversity and ecosystem services (Image Credit: Øystein Kielland, CC BY 2.0)

I’ve been on a bit of a policy trip lately. The latest Norwegian Ecological Society conference was heavily policy based, so much so that it inspired me to get in touch and set up a meeting with local freshwater managers in a country in which I do not speak the local language. So when the CBD hosted a one-day seminar on the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (mercifully usually referred to only as IPBES) rolled into town, I was right on board.

What is IPBES?

I had no previous experience with IPBES, so it was surprising to learn that there existed a UN-supported organisation^ dedicated to converting scientific knowledge into policy. A large part of the organisation is dedicated to producing reports for all sorts of end users, from government bodies to local conservationists. The regional assessment report for Central Asia and Europe was a product of more than one hundred international experts, and took into account information from over 4,000 scientific, governmental and indigenous/local publications. They are then vetted extensively, with some receiving over 10,000 comments from hundreds of reviewers, all of which need to be taken into account.

This concept sounds laborious, but it produces a tool which is invaluable to managers. My favourite quote of the day came from former EcoMass interviewee Bill Sutherland, who summarised the value of there reports as follows:

“If you go to your doctor and say I’ve got ebola, you don’t want him to say I’m sorry to hear that, I’ll review the literature and come back to you in a year’s time.”

The Relevance of Uncertainty

This is a topic which I’ve explored a lot lately, after some thought-provoking dialogue with Sandra Hamel at UiT. It was interesting to see that while uncertainty is sometimes glossed over in scientific summaries (which we are sometimes guilty of in our Paper of the Week section), that quantifying uncertainty is absolutely crucial in these assessments. It was encouraging to see, and I would be interested to know more about the responses of bodies who directly implement policy based on these reports. Is the uncertainty noted? Appreciated? Does it frustrate? Late last year my country’s government treated the IPCC Climate Change report with scorn, would less uncertainty have changed this?*

Regardless of the impact of uncertainty, the theme’s prevalence throughout the day was striking. As my own PhD has advanced, I’ve identified more and more with Aristotle’s words – “the more you know, the more you know you don’t know”. This theme played a central role in both keynote talks, with both Carsten Rahbek and Bill Sutherland touching on the knowledge gaps that need to be solved, particularly with regards to modelling. The most striking example shown was that of the red-backed shrike, which ecological models suggested would be flourishing by 1990, and ended up facing significant habitat loss and range restriction. I’ll be interviewing modelling wiz Bob O’Hara on some of the challenges in ecological modelling that need to be solved later in the week.

The last thing I’ll say with regards to uncertainty is something I’ve touched on before. Ecologists often end up in arguments against people from a certain economic or political bent, who are not afraid to make bold statements about things they can’t be any more sure of than we are. So it was nice to see Bill Sutherland provide some quantification for this in referencing Phillip E. Tetlock’s Expert Political Judgement. The book includes a study which shows that when asked to make political forecasts, 284 people who made a living from “commenting or offering advice on political or economic trends”, they were right less than 50% of the time, making them less useful than a coin flip.

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Around 60% of the world’s biodiversity loss is due to land clearance for meat-based diets (Image Credit: Jami Dwyer)

Where should our priorities lie?

Carsten Rahbek’s talk was particularly interesting, as he kicked off with some shocking statistics related to human land use. I was blissfully unaware that only 4% of the earth’s land mammal biomass was taken up by wild animals, with 36% being humans and the remaining 60% cattle. Carsten also encouraged more focus on land use, suggesting the threats presented by habitat destruction and fragmentation are a more pressing threat than climate change, whilst also mentioning that 60% of global biodiversity loss is a product of land clearance for meat-based diets. He also wagered that the polar bear is unlikely to go extinct due to climate change, despite the media’s constant use of the lone bear as an emotive appeal for more attention to climate change.

Final Thoughts

This wasn’t a conference that was linguistically inaccessible to students or the public, so it was a shame that the audience wasn’t wider. There was relevant ecological information at hand here, which everyone from Bachelors students to farmers could have benefited from, and I hope that next time the forum is a little more open.

Last but certainly not least, it was disappointing to see eight male speakers and only one female speaker for the day. Ecology is still a male-dominated field once you get past PhD level, and it’s not helped by the lack of visibility of female role models. Whilst I understand that the pool of senior female researchers is smaller¨, even bringing in junior researchers can make an enormous difference. Hopefully this will be taken into account in the future.

Interviews with both Carsten Rahbek and Bill Sutherland will be up in the coming month.

^IPBES operates under the auspices of 4 UN partners (FAO, UNDP, UNEP, UNESCO).

*Probably not, but hope is a nice thing.

¨Though I doubt the ratio is 1:8.