Biogeosciences News

House Hearing Focuses on Why Biodiversity Matters

In the wake of a dire report on global threats to biodiversity, experts explain why the issue is so urgent, not just to the environment and to threatened species but also to people.

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A recent grim report about the fate of biodiversity worldwide states that about 1 million species are threatened with extinction, many within decades. It also found that the global rate of species extinction “is already at least tens to hundreds of times higher than the average rate over the past 10 million years and is accelerating” due to factors including changes in land and sea use, pollution, and climate change.

But at a 4 June congressional hearing, Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.) wanted to know how he could explain to his constituents why this report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) is, as he put it, “incredibly important.”

At the hearing, conducted by the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, committee member Bera asked the expert witnesses to give it their best shot.

“From the very food we eat to the way we define ourselves and our sense of place, nature is an incredibly integral part of all of our lives. And when we destroy nature, we really undermine all of those life-support systems on which we depend,” responded Kate Brauman, coordinating lead author for the IPBES Global Assessment and lead scientist with the Global Water Initiative at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment.

“Biodiversity fundamentally is not just an environmental issue,” IPBES immediate past chair Robert Watson weighed in. “Nature has economic value which we should take account of in our accounting systems. It also has development value: food, water, energy, security, human health. It is also a moral issue: We shouldn’t destroy nature. And it’s a social issue, as you’ve heard that the most disadvantaged people, poor people, are most adversely affected. So there are multiple reasons we should care about both climate change and biodiversity.”

“Totally Day and Night”

For Watson, the difference between this hearing and an earlier, divisive 22 May hearing conducted by the House Committee on Natural Resources was “totally day and night.”

The 4 June hearing was “incredibly constructive,” Watson told Eos, “where people are truly trying to understand what are the issues associated with the loss of biodiversity [and] what are some of the solutions. I would hope that all hearings would be like this one.”

The earlier hearing, Watson noted, “was very destructive. It was not a good conversation about facts and knowledge and evidence.”

“You have to bear in mind that there are different cultures on different committees,” Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), the ranking member on the science committee, told Eos. He said that the science and agriculture committees “have a more collegial perspective, generally. There are other committees—government oversight, judiciary—where they like to make lots of noise. [Natural] resources falls somewhere in the middle.”

Lucas added that the science committee hearing was an example of where he and committee chair Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) want the committee to go.

“This was very thoughtful. You had a diversity of perspectives focused on how to make a difference. The members were engaged. This is the way hearings are supposed to work,” he said.

Findings “Too Stark to Ignore”

Johnson, in her opening statement, called the IPBES findings “too stark to ignore.”

“Much of the reporting on the Global Assessment has focused on the devastating finding that almost 1 million species could potentially go extinct in the next few decades,” she continued. “But we would be remiss if we did not discuss what else this report lays out, especially its recommendations for potential solutions and pathways to addressing biodiversity loss.”

Johnson told Eos that she expects that the committee will continue to look into the report “and see what, if any, legislative approaches we can achieve” to reduce the threats to biodiversity.

Some of the most urgent threats to biodiversity are taking place in coral reefs, testified James Porter, professor emeritus of ecology at the University of Georgia’s Odum School of Ecology. Porter said that climate change is the key driver of diversity loss in the oceans.

“Of the warming heat that has been generated in the last 50 years, only 7% of that is in the air. The remaining 93% of the heat is in the oceans,” Porter said. “The oceans have absorbed this heat. We know this because we have indeed measured it. If the oceans had not been the Earth’s punching bag to take this heat, then the average temperature outside this room today would be 122°F. That is the physics of what we are dealing with.”

Porter added that if coral reefs are destroyed, people who depend on them as a source of income, protein, and livelihood may become climate refugees.

Not All Gloom and Doom

Porter and other witnesses also stressed the need to look for solutions.

The IPBES report essentially confirms what we have long known: Humans have made things very tough for nature,” testified Steven Monfort, director of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. However, he added, “if we just bombard the public with messages of gloom and doom, absent any focus on solutions, we risk fostering a sense that nothing anyone does is going to make a difference.”

Jeff Goodwin, conservation stewardship lead and agricultural consultant with the Noble Research Institute in Ardmore, Okla., was the sole Republican witness at the hearing. He noted one potential solution: a movement in the agricultural industry that he said is returning biodiversity to the land. Goodwin said that the movement “was not borne out of legislation or regulatory requirement. It was borne out of the recognition by innovative producers who understood [that] the adoption of ecologically and economically sustainable principles would enable them to remain on the land producing the food and fiber needed for an ever expanding population.”

Brauman testified that humanity’s “transformation of nature has been critical for both human nutrition and livelihoods. But we also must be clear-eyed about the impact. We have transformed the globe.”

Despite that transformation, however, she said that there are pathways forward.

“The headlines are dire, but the report is actually not that dire,” Brauman told Eos. “What we see is that there are many futures where there is lots of possibility. We will need to make change, but it’s absolutely doable.”

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2019), House hearing focuses on why biodiversity matters, Eos, 100, https://doi.org/10.1029/2019EO125877. Published on 05 June 2019.
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