One for all or all for one?

© Barth Bailey | Unsplash
7 November 2018

By Carolina Soto-Navarro, postdoctoral scientist, Luc Hoffmann Institute and UNEP-WCMC Science Programme

In today’s world, as environmental scientists we are facing a daunting challenge: how do we communicate with policymakers when we appear to live in two separate worlds governed by different rules and customs? We are aiming to start conversations with different players about globally important issues, but the people we want to talk to might not want to listen, or we simply don’t understand each other enough to have a conversation.

This semantic dissonance is not the exclusive preserve of scientists and policymakers — it can be seen across other sectors, too, from media and business to advocacy and education. Can we all learn to speak the same language, to bend the curve of biodiversity loss?

Sitting in the comfortable conservation hub of my office in Cambridge doesn’t help me understand why the government of Argentina would halt a multi-million-dollar investment to construct a dam just to safeguard the future of a bird living in remote Patagonian lagoons. On a different scale, neither does it help me understand what would compel corporations and governments to sign a Global Deal for Nature to preserve Half Earth. How do we catalyse a ‘Paris moment’ for nature where nations get together and commit to change?

As scientists, we are concerned with reliability, replicability and accuracy — whereas politicians are interested in the broader picture. What is changing? Why is it changing? Why is it important? And what can I do about it? We are still far from successful at answering these questions with digestible messages. Understanding the sociopolitical dynamics behind conversation problems and bringing scientific evidence to the attention of the most influential politicians is our only chance to prepare the ground for change. It is still a struggle though. And we must admit: data is not a panacea, even though it remains a fundamental ingredient of democracy in today’s world.

There are other sectors we might learn from. Socioeconomics, for example, has been able to establish a common language with politicians, where those concerned with biodiversity have failed. The success in socioeconomics is not, in my opinion, because economies are less complex systems than biodiversity to describe and assess. Their success is due to language. The word ‘biodiversity’ means different things to different people, and related concepts — such as ecological integrity, functional diversity, ecosystem health or resilience — only widen the communication gap between ecologists and policymakers.

In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in how to measure and communicate multidimensional phenomena across scientific disciplines. It is now generally agreed that a number of socioeconomic concepts cannot be measured by single descriptive indicators and that, instead, they should be represented with multiple dimensions. The measurement of broad concepts including development, poverty and well-being requires a combination of different dimensions to be considered together. Although the methodological details vary in these examples, typically multiple dimensions are combined to create a single composite index. The strength of a single composite index is that it is easier to communicate in a quick and ‘snappy’ way, making it media- and policy-friendly at the same time. Everybody recognises the power of a single number.

Biodiversity is a complex and abstract concept too, with multiple and different facets — it is itself a multidimensional concept. Biodiversity can be measured on many different levels using a variety of metrics (for example at the level of genes, species or ecosystems); it has different spatial scales (local, regional, global), and there is no general agreement on baselines and assessment principles. However, policymakers urgently require information now in order to set targets and measures. No policy is also policy.

But, is creating a single index for biodiversity even possible? Let’s put it this way: it’s not impossible. Despite scepticism about the idea, we all agree and understand the strong policy pull for such an index. Today, we produce lots of data on a number of different components of biodiversity and clearly, it does not make sense to communicate these individually to policymakers, or to anyone else. Similarly, the minister of economic affairs is not very interested in individual companies as they are seen as being in sectors that contribute to Gross Domestic Product. After all, policymakers are not running a company but a country.

At the Luc Hoffmann Institute, in collaboration with the United Nations Environment-World Conservation Monitoring Centre, we have been igniting the idea of a multidimensional biodiversity index to close the gap between environmental scientists and policymakers. This lack of understanding can’t go on — and it is time for a consolidated response. We must aim higher to bend the curve of biodiversity loss and play a leadership role in managing by vision — not by accident.

We used to think that revolutions are the cause of change. Actually, it is the other way around: change prepares the ground for revolution. So, let’s see if we can go for one that it is agreed by all?

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