Vjekoslav Matic writes: Everybody has heard about climate change, but how many people have heard about biodiversity, or know exactly what biodiversity is? What about the important UN conference on biodiversity that starts today in Nagoya, Japan?

According to a recent poll by the UK’s Natural History Museum only 12% of those surveyed know what the UN Convention on Biological Diversity’s (CBD) 10th Conference of the Parties (COP 10) is about, which shows an alarmingly small amount of public awareness.

The Conference, which is being held in Nagoya, Japan from today until October 29, will be attended by representatives from 193 nations. The conference represents, for international efforts to set and reach targets to safeguard biodiversity, what Kyoto was for climate change back in 1998. The issue of biodiversity is, however, arguably as important as climate change, with a similar degree of urgency.

“For the future generations to inherit the benefits of nature, it is imperative that we specifically indicate collective actions over the next 10 years,” said Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara when he travelled to New York to present a resolution for adoption ahead of the conference. At the same high-level meeting, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon compared the issue of biodiversity conservation to the global financial crisis, saying “the biodiversity crisis is no different. We are bankrupting our natural economy. We need to fashion a rescue package before it is too late”. Previous targets for “significant reduction in the current rate of biodiversity loss” were not met, and in debates in the European parliament ahead of the conference have voiced “deep concern” that not enough is being done.

It is interesting then, that while climate change was a pivotal issue in our last election here in Australia, that the issue of biodiversity appears to be so under represented by media and in politics.

What does it say when the Australian environmental minister, Tony Bourke, is not planning to attend?

Why is biodiversity so under represented in politics, the media, and in our own minds? While it is great that global warming has received the media attention it deserves and raised public awareness, why has this not spilled over to other environmental causes which are just as urgent and important?

I had a chat with ecological geneticist, Professor Ari Hoffman from the Centre of Environmental Stress and Adaptation research at the University of Melbourne, about the possible reasons why this might be the case.

He suggests that one reason may be that what needs to be done for biodiversity is not as straight forward as climate change. In the case of climate change we need to reduce the amounts of carbon in the atmosphere below a particular threshold, b­­­­ut what are the important processes threatening biodiversity? Professor Hoffmann explains that it will only be possible to slow down biodiversity loss through reduced expansion of agricultural land, controlling invasive species, and mitigating climate change. The complexity in understanding the crucial ‘tipping points’ for ecosystems arise when we consider species adaptation abilities. These include changes in behaviour, plasticity and evolution. Using these adaptation methods, species and consequently ecosystems, have been able to previously survive the threats of species invasion or land clearing.

However, with these threats increasing, and the added pressure of climate change, ecologists are concerned that tipping points will be reached. This would lead to ecosystem collapse. He states that “the public and policy makers will need to make the connection between these main elements” which govern threats to biodiversity, before we can seriously address the problems. Perhaps the public is not ready to digest this level of complexity, which is possibly a factor in keeping biodiversity under represented in the public domain.

We depend on biodiversity to sustain our life. We need treed catchments to filter our water and keep dry land salinity at bay. We need river vegetation to provide nutrients and natural pest control for our food production regions. Without trees, we change the micro-climate and we lose rain and hence food. The list goes on, but each example is another illustration of how dependant we are on biodiversity, and also how intricate and complex the connections and processes are. For a lot of people conservation means saving pandas and other endangered species, notes Professor Hoffmann, and they don’t understand the multitude of ways that we all depend on biodiversity.

Another possible reason for the relative under-representation of biodiversity is that “an ecologist will tell you we are running on an economic model, not an ecological one”, explains Professor Hoffmann, which now with trading schemes in place and other economic constraints. He provides the example of no current regulations on standards for sustainable food imports to illustrate this point that there are little economic constraints or incentives for consumers to consider biodiversity (though there are some examples of this occurring –Melbourne Water actually charges you for revegetation of its catchments in your water bill).

Climate change has bought to the mainstream an introduction to the complexity of environmental processes and an introduction to the challenges in trying to get countries working together to solve long term problems. Hopefully it will serve as a good stepping stone for us to be able to tackle more abstract and complex issues, like those surrounding biodiversity conservation.

Vjekoslav Matic is a PhD student in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Melbourne.

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