Biogeosciences News

Congress Hears Biodiversity Warning During a Charged Hearing

At a testy congressional hearing, leading experts confronted attacks on the science.

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Some of the world’s leading scientific experts in biodiversity delivered to Congress the message of a damning new report that up to 1 million species face extinction.

They delivered that message despite efforts by several Republican members of Congress and their witnesses to belittle, dismiss, and drown out those findings at a 22 May congressional hearing.

“The evidence is unequivocal: Biodiversity, which is important in its own right and essential for human well-being, is being destroyed by human activities at a rate unprecedented in human history,” Robert Watson, immediate past chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), testified before the House Committee on Natural Resources’ Subcommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife.

In a recent report, IPBES found that the global rate of extinction “is already at least tens to hundreds of times higher than the average rate over the past 10 million years and is accelerating.”

“The loss of biodiversity is not only an environmental issue, but an economic, development, social, security, moral, and ethical issue,” Watson testified.

The report found that many species could become extinct within decades, largely because of human activities. The report states that “goals for conserving and sustainably using nature and achieving sustainability cannot be met by current trajectories, and goals for 2030 and beyond may only be achieved through transformative changes across economic, social, political and technological factors.”

IPBES released a summary of its peer-reviewed report on 6 May and plans to release the full report soon.

Responding to Charges of “Exaggerated Claims”

Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), the ranking Republican member of the subcommittee, characterized the IPBES report as “the latest contribution to apocalyptic predictions.”

Patrick Moore, chairman of the board of the CO2 Coalition and a witness at the hearing, testified that “the highly exaggerated claims of the IPBES are not so much out of concern for endangered species as they are a front for a radical political, social, and economic ‘transformation’ of our entire civilization.”

The nonprofit CO2 Coalition promotes positive contributions of carbon dioxide and pushed for the United States to withdraw from the Paris climate accord.

However, Watson sharply disputed the charge, saying that the numbers in the IPBES document are drawn from two distinct lines of evidence, including an independent analysis and a straight extrapolation of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Watson added that IUCN has endorsed the IPBES analysis.

Moore, who is an ecologist and a policy adviser to The Heartland Institute, a free market think tank based in Arlington Heights, Ill., also stated in his testimony, “As with the manufactured ‘climate crisis,’ they are using the specter of mass extinction as a fear tactic to scare the public into compliance. The IPBES itself is an existential threat to sensible policy on biodiversity conservation.”

Marc Morano, editor of ClimateDepot.com and a prominent climate change denier, according to the DeSmog blog, criticized Watson, whom he sat next to at the witness table. “[Watson] says it’s our last chance to save the planet. These are the words of a salesman, a science bureaucrat, not a disinterested…” Morano never finished that sentence because subcommittee chair Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) interrupted and told Morano to direct testimony to him.

Later in the hearing, Huffman castigated Morano, saying, “I don’t know what inspires someone to make a career of trolling scientists or monetizing contrarian ideology on the YouTube and Ted Talk circuit. But it’s just a very different kind of conversation than the science-based conversation I think many of us would like to try to have.”

“Shadowy Stuff”

Huffman criticized Republicans for choosing Morano and Moore as their witnesses.

“There’s a narrative around here [in Congress] that Republicans are coming around on science and climate. Look no further than the witnesses they continue to dredge out of the fever swamp for these subcommittee hearings, and you’ll see that they’ve got a long way to evolve,” Huffman told Eos in an interview. “This is shadowy stuff, and we see it week after week: instead of scientists, people from these junior varsity think tanks that they keep dredging up. Apparently, witnesses from QAnon and Infowars”—a conspiracy theory group and website, respectively—”were unavailable, and so this is what we get.”

Morano “brought a provocative, almost like a World Wrestling type of ethos to his testimony. There were very few facts and certainly no science. He admitted that, at the outset, he’s a political science guy, and he’s a former staffer to Jim Inhofe,” Huffman told Eos, referring to the Oklahoman senator who authored a book entitled The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future. “[Morano] is here to throw bombs. It’s just a choice that the Republicans keep making in these hearings. Instead of serious policy conversations, serious science conversations, they want to do politics.”

Huffman said the way to counter the attacks on science is to present expert witnesses. “Well, look, we just presented you with four of the world’s leading scientists, for God’s sake. That’s probably where you start in countering that,” he said. “Then people can weigh for themselves: Do they want to consider the overwhelming weight of the world’s best scientists or the shadowy junior varsity think tank from people that used to work for Jim Inhofe?”

“Today, We Are That Asteroid.”

After the hearing, another witness said he was disappointed in the “antiscience view” expressed by Morano and Moore. “It’s hype. It’s bombast. It’s all of this stuff that is not based in reality,” Jacob Malcom, director of the Center for Conservation Innovation for Defenders of Wildlife, a Washington, D.C.–based conservation group, told Eos. “I don’t think it will ever go away. But as long as it stays marginalized, I think more and more people will see it for what it is.”

Malcom, at the hearing, said that the last time there was a mass extinction “it happened because an asteroid hit the planet. Today, we are that asteroid.”

Watson, who chaired the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change from 1997 to 2002, told Eos that perhaps Republicans chose Morano and Moore as their witnesses “because we have said”—in the IPBES report—“that climate change and biodiversity must be dealt with together.”

“I would have hoped that the Republicans would have chosen two very good scientists who could have debated the merits of the IPBES report rather than clearly someone who’s just a straight climate denier,” Watson said, referring to Morano.

Why People Should Care About Biodiversity Loss

Watson told Eos that “the evidence is strongly behind this report” and that it is “the most heavily peer-reviewed document you could imagine.” The report, which assessed about 15,000 articles and responded to about 15,000 comments, was prepared by 145 expert authors and is the most comprehensive document ever prepared about biodiversity.

Watson said that the American public should care about the IPBES report for several reasons. “First, we shouldn’t destroy nature. Every religion in the world says we shouldn’t destroy nature. Nature is important,” he told Eos. “But more important than that, you could argue, is it is the substance behind food security, water security, it does control our climate in part, it does control pollination, it does control storm surges. These are things that affect everyday Americans. If we continue to lose biodiversity, if we continue to fragment our ecosystems, then human well-being will indeed suffer. This is something the average American should care about.”

Trump Administration “Going in the Opposite Direction”

At the hearing, Huffman said that “scientists have been ringing the alarm bell for years” about threats to biodiversity. However, Huffman criticized what he said are efforts by the Trump administration to increase the risk to species, including the administration’s attempts to weaken the federal Endangered Species Act, its efforts to expand oil and gas activities in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and elsewhere, and its plan to withdraw from the Paris climate accord.

“Despite overwhelming evidence that we have an extinction crisis on our hands, the Trump administration is going in the opposite direction to appease special interests and big donors,” he said.

The IPBES report states that the direct drivers of change in nature that have the largest global impact currently are, in order, changes in land and sea use, exploitation of organisms, climate change—with the report warning that future impacts of climate change on biodiversity and ecosystem functioning are projected to become more pronounced over the coming decades—pollution, and the invasion of alien species.

“All of these are things we can do something about, but we are not yet on track to slow the extinction crisis,” Huffman said. “We need to do more.”

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2019), Congress hears biodiversity warning during a charged hearing, Eos, 100, https://doi.org/10.1029/. Published on 23 May 2019.
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