By Lily Shymanska, Corporate Communications Officer at the British Science Association.

The giant panda. Very cute, but aside from that they also represent a beacon of biodiversity optimism. Since becoming an iconic symbol for the conservation movement in the 1980s, pandas were moved off the endangered species list by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (ICUN), and now they’re no longer classified as endangered in the wild. But success stories like these are far and few between.

Biodiversity loss numbers are stark, whichever way you look at them. The world has seen a 68% plunge in mammal, bird, fish, reptile, and amphibian populations since 1970, according to the Living Planet Report. And with around 1,000,000 species currently threatened with extinction, biodiversity is declining at rates unprecedented in human history.

Back in October 2021, all eyes were on the 26th annual United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26). It brought together over 120 countries to discuss how to achieve the goals set out in the Paris Agreement and keep global warming below 1.5 degrees.

That same month, the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP 15) also took place. Slipping under the radar for most, the conference looked to agree on a new set of goals to address global biodiversity loss (think Paris Agreement-style).

As with the climate crisis, global biodiversity loss – and the urgent need for worldwide action to stop it – is growing every day. So why has biodiversity loss been overlooked?

Getting the facts straight

Prior to 2021, the last time the UN Convention on Biological Diversity came together was in 2010. The parties produced a set of 20 targets known as the Aichi targets.

Fast forward a decade - none of the targets were achieved (only six of them were partly achieved). These targets failed because they were difficult to measure and countries did not need to report what they were doing to achieve them. Take Target 12 for instance, “By 2020 the extinction of known threatened species has been prevented and their conservation status, particularly of those most in decline, has been improved and sustained.”

It’s tricky to measure extinction rates, particularly on a global scale. The number of species out there – let alone how many of those are going extinct – isn’t known. And these rates vary massively between different groups of species. A worldwide threshold for biodiversity loss (in the way global warming below 1.5 degrees is to climate change) remains undetermined.

Not having a simple metric to go off makes it all the more difficult to get more people to take action. And so, in the case of biodiversity, efforts have largely failed.

Of course, if we are to learn anything from the climate crisis, it’s that having a target to hit is only the start of the battle. In both cases, the solutions are equally as complicated. But communicating why biodiversity loss matters, could be part of the answer to reversing it. Governments, educators, scientists, and the media - to name a few - all play a crucial part in communicating messages that accurately reflect the urgency of the biodiversity crisis, and how all of our lives are being affected.

As we approach the International Day for Biological Diversity (22 May), we’ve detailed some take-home messages from the climate crisis – and how these techniques can be used when communicating about biodiversity loss.

Hitting home

Promoting an understanding of biodiversity begins at your doorstep. Biodiversity conservation at a global scale can be overwhelming and difficult to grasp.

Concepts and terms often used when communicating about biodiversity, like ‘the web of life’ aim to emphasise the interrelatedness of living systems. But in reality, these terms don’t always immediately lend themselves to why we should be worried about declining numbers of insects over the other side of the globe, for example.

Instead, choosing to frame biodiversity in a local context, where relevant, helps it to seem less abstract and far removed from our day-to-day lives. One of the BSA’s Honorary Fellows, Dr. Friederike Otto (Senior Lecturer in Climate Science at Imperial College London) told The Washington Post about how witnessing local conservation efforts, had an immense impact on her and her work:

I grew up in the middle of nowhere. I do not mean lush forests and pretty countryside, but the nothingness of spruce monocultures and pesticide-drunk grains of Northern Germany. Of course, there was some wildlife — crows and mice are pretty sturdy. But wilderness was something out of books, where mythical creatures such as cormorants and wolves roamed alongside dragons and unicorns. The cormorant, a bird of wisdom and magic in a story I particularly liked, was my hero. I was vaguely aware that the birds were actual creatures of the past, but they had been hunted close to national extinction. So to me, a cormorant seemed as real as a unicorn.

“Not anymore. Decades of conservation programs have not only saved cormorants from extinction but allowed them to thrive again. Where I now live in the United Kingdom, even in London, they are a daily sight. Still, when they sit on a crane, or some debris poking out of the waters of the Thames, drying their wings in the sun, they look like dragons to me and remind me that magic is real. We just need to remember that we have the agency to change things — if we dare to do it.”

Look on the bright side

Taking a leaf out of the climate crisis communications playbook, it’s well documented that using ‘awe and scare’ tactics to shock people into action doesn’t usually do the trick.

According to Greenbiz, videos that positively depict nature’s beauty and climate change solutions got over 50 times more views than negative framing (or even a combination of positive and negative).

This was backed up by another study concluding that hopelessness dissuades people from making environmentally friendly changes. Although strong emotional reactions were recorded, people generally still had limited efficacy beliefs – especially if there weren’t enough recommendations on how to address the situation at hand. One participant said, “The information is empowering, but I’m disempowered in that, what can I do about it? I rent an apartment so I can’t go out and get solar”.

The moral of the story – if you don’t see how you’re going to make a difference in the biodiversity crisis, you’re unlikely to try.

One piece of the puzzle

Of course, there are discrepancies between awareness and action. Knowledge is just one small step in changing behaviour, especially in the long term. But as the biodiversity crisis exacerbates and is increasingly dubbed as the Earth’s sixth mass extinction event – it’s a step we need to take.  


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