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As biodiversity declines, so does public attention

There are two environmental crises right now: climate change and biodiversity loss. Why are people, particularly journalists, only paying attention to one of them?
February 28, 2018

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There are two environmental crises right now: climate change and biodiversity loss. Why are people, particularly journalists, only paying attention to one of them?

That disconcerting question is raised by a new analysis of research funding, scientific publications and press coverage over the past quarter-century. In that time, academic interest in both climate and biodiversity have swelled — but in the mainstream press, biodiversity is an also-ran, receiving no more attention now than in 1992.

What we ought to make of that trend isn’t immediately evident. It certainly isn’t a call for climate change to receive less attention, says Pierre Legagneux, a biologist at the University of Quebec in Rimouski and lead author of the analysis, which was published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution. But in a time of mounting species extinctions, extirpations and population declines, it’s worrisome.

“The science, the challenges and the problems associated with biodiversity issues are not likely reaching the public,” write Legagneux and colleagues, who call this shortfall a “biodiversity communication deficit.”

The researchers found that climate change received 3.3 times more coverage than biodiversity between 1992 and 2016, with interest diverging sharply after 2006; in 2016, newspapers mentioned climate eight times for ever mention of biodiversity. While their analysis — which focused on English-language scientific press, funders in the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States, and 12 prominent online newspapers — was not exhaustive, it appears emblematic.

In 2012, some 126 nations joined the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, a biodiversity-focused effort coordinated by the United Nations and patterned after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Member nations have been slow to pay their dues; the IPBES cut its budget by one-third for 2018, postponed its planned reports, and scrapped essential capacity-building and policy-support funding. Meanwhile a recent analysis of Google searches found declining interest biodiversity — something those researchers attributed to biodiversity being too wonky and complicated a concept to resonate with most people.

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That’s quite possible, say Legagneux and colleagues, who think biodiversity’s proponents ought to improve their messaging — rather than “biodiversity decline,” think “the burning library of life” — and make more explicit its links to food production, human health, and other things people care about. Perhaps climate change receives more attention because it’s perceived as more urgent, but the urgency of biodiversity loss is being neglected.

Legagneux’s team didn’t look at social media or online-only news, so it’s possible that biodiversity receives more attention there than in traditional outlets. They also didn’t analyze trends for keywords like “nature” or “environment,” which overlap with biodiversity and might well receive more attention. Should that be the case, it would underscore biodiversity’s messaging problems.

Whatever is responsible, time is running short. “Our house is burning down and we’re blind to it,” said French president Jacques Chirac in 2002. Now, say Legagneux’s team, “our house is still burning and we only have one eye on it.”

Source: Legagneux et al. “Our House Is Burning: Discrepancy in Climate Change vs. Biodiversity Coverage in the Media as Compared to Scientific Literature.Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, 2018.

About the author: Brandon Keim is a freelance journalist specializing in animals, nature and science, and the author of The Eye of the Sandpiper: Stories From the Living World. Connect with him on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

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