Host Daniel Raimi talks with Dr. Sue Lieberman, vice president for International Policy at the Wildlife Conservation Society. They discuss a major new report that synthesizes the literature on the global state of biodiversity. The report warns about a variety of risks, including species extinction, habitat degradation, food insecurity, and much more. Sue describes the scale of some of these risks, and shares her views on how policymakers can respond to prevent them.
Top of the Stack
References and recommendations made during the podcast:
- IPBES Summary
- The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells
- "Why the Guardian is Changing the Language it Uses about the Environment," The Guardian
The Full Transcript
Daniel Raimi: Hello, and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I'm your host, Daniel Raimi. This week, we talk with Dr. Sue Lieberman, Vice President for International Policy at the Wildlife Conservation Society. We'll talk with Sue about a major new report that synthesizes the literature on the global state of biodiversity. The report warns about a variety of risks, including species extinction, habitat degradation, food insecurity, and much more. Sue will help us understand the scale of some of these risks, and share her views on how policymakers can respond to prevent them. Stay with us. Sue Lieberman, thank you so much for joining us today on Resources Radio. It's really great to have you.
Sue Lieberman: My pleasure.
Daniel Raimi: Sue, we're going to talk about issues of biodiversity today, and talk about a recent report in particular that talks about biodiversity challenges around the world. But before we get into detail on those issues, we always ask our guests how they got interested in environmental policy and for you, how did you get interested in biodiversity in particular?
Sue Lieberman: Well, I was always interested in biology, ecology, animals, but was never interested in staying indoors in a lab. I did my PhD on reptiles and amphibians in Costa Rica and I did a postdoc on tortoises in Mexico. And then after my postdoc, I got a job in Washington working on endangered species and policy and I was hooked. I really enjoy trying to influence, get governments to do what they're supposed to do, basically.
Daniel Raimi: Right. So I imagine you're inside most of the time. Do you miss being out in the field?
Sue Lieberman: I get in the field whenever I can. Fortunately, I work for the Wildlife Conservation Society, there's a lot of field work, so I try to get out as much as I can. I try to make sure there's enough left out there for everyone else to work on as well.
Daniel Raimi: Right. Wonderful. Okay, great. So as I mentioned early on, we're going to talk about biodiversity. So, one helpful thing for our audience and for me, who doesn't have much of a background on this topic, it'd be really helpful if you could kind of define that term, biodiversity, and how we're going to talk about it today. And also just give us a really broad sense about why and how biodiversity is important for humanity.
Sue Lieberman: Sure. I mean, biodiversity sounds complicated. It's just a short version of biological diversity. It means the variety of life on Earth. It means all the species on Earth and their habitats, where they live, whether it's forests, or the ocean, or coral reefs, or grasslands are deserts. It's everything. It's the variability of life on planet Earth, including the oceans and the land. You can get more complicated than that and talk about habitats and talk about ecosystems, et cetera. It's everything. If you go into a forest, it's the animals that are there, it's the trees, it's the soil, it's the whole functioning of the ecosystem. It's critical. It's critical to life on Earth and it's critical to our life as humans, as human beings. We're dependent on nature. As much as we think we aren't, we are.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah. So can you elaborate on that a little bit, maybe just give us a couple examples of where these relationships come into play and how they are most important. I imagine we can all think of some examples, but what are some of that come to your mind?
Sue Lieberman: What comes to mind, if you think of all the oxygen on Earth, it comes from photosynthesis by plants. All the oxygen comes from the ocean. The water that we need for agriculture and for life to stay alive. The water comes from the water cycle, which comes from the ocean. There has to be functioning ecosystems on Earth for human life. Now, if humans disappeared tomorrow, the planet would be fine, but we need a healthy planet. For clean air, for clean water, for agriculture, for fisheries, for everything. But even if we don't need it, there also is intrinsic value to wild species, to wildlife, to wild places, to wilderness, et cetera.
It's our planet. There's no other way to put that. You can get technical and talk about food security, people need land to grow crops and land is used ... Could be used in far more sustainable ways. But we need the ocean for fisheries because people use the animal protein in large amounts to survive.
Daniel Raimi: Right. There's all sorts of work and economics. I'm trying to value some of these issues. Ecosystem services is the obvious one, but there's existence values and things like that, that are maybe harder to quantify, but we certainly know that they are important. So one thing that strikes me about biodiversity and the press coverage of this topic is that there's often a lot of attention paid to iconic species, sometimes called charismatic megafauna, which is probably my favorite term in the environmental world. So we think about, like polar bears or elephants or tigers, amazing, wonderful animals. But they attract a lot of attention.
But aside from those sort of charismatic animals, in general, my sense is that biodiversity and topics around biodiversity don't always get as much attention as other environmental issues like maybe climate change. Of course, the two are interrelated. But do you have any sense ... Do you agree with that characterization? And do you have any sense of why it might be so?
Sue Lieberman: Well, for one thing, climate change is more tangible to people. They see the temperatures changing, they see the variability, they see storms, sea level rise, et cetera. So that becomes tangible and they're aware of something changing. They don't tend to see species extinctions. You look at the ocean, it looks vast, it looks endless, and they don't realize that probably 90 percent of all the fish in the ocean are overfished. So it's those that are used by people. I think also people understand species. They think, well, polar bears or elephants or tigers or parrots, these are things I can see. But they don't really see that they're declining or they're disappearing.
When something's gone, you don't notice that it has disappeared. But I think it's also, we need to get to what people can relate to. People understand species, they understand natural habitats. They know when they go to a national park, that looks and functions differently than their city. So I think it's also a matter of explaining this to people in ways they can relate to. The term biodiversity sounds very technical and wonky; it's not technical and wonky. It's just the species, and where they live, and how they function.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that makes sense. I wonder if urbanization of people, increased urbanization is related to that lack of understanding. Do you think that's the case? Or is that something you worry about?
Sue Lieberman: Yeah. I worry about it and I think it's both good and bad. I think it's a factor because people go to the supermarket and they buy food. People who live in a rural environment, understand where their food comes and understand their relationship with nature. People who are local communities or indigenous communities who are living directly dependent on healthy environments, often coastal communities or forest indigenous communities, they know all too well, and they know all too well, what's being destroyed. But at the same time, people in cities have a tremendous opportunity, in terms of their consumption, to make a difference on the natural world. So urbanization isn't necessarily bad. It's just something we have to deal with, in ways we haven't really grappled with sufficiently.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, that's an interesting perspective. So in early May, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, which is a mouthful, is called the IPBES. My understanding of the organization is that it functions a little bit similarly to the IPCC on the climate end of things. The report is certainly structured similar to the IPCC reports, but please correct me if I'm mistaken about that.
So the IPBES released a summary of its latest assessment of global biodiversity, sort of bringing results together from a variety of areas of research. And the results received a lot of attention, sort of front page in the New York Times kind of thing. The report covers tons of ground, so we absolutely won't be able to cover all of it today. But I'd like to touch on a few topics and hear from you first, what you think are some of the most important findings or messages that are coming out of the IPBES report?
Sue Lieberman: Sure. And yes, it is a horrible name and a horrible acronym. But basically, what's really ... In a way there's nothing new here, in that there is a new science. This is pulling together existing science information, scientific literature into one place. What's really interesting is this is from governments. The governments and scientific experts are part of this platform, if you will. But this is endorsed by and produced by governments. And this is governments and scientists globally coming together and saying, we have a problem. There are some really important findings. For example, I'm not going to list them all or will be here for three days.
But the terrestrial environment, the land on Earth, three-quarters of it has been severely altered by humans. That means we only have one-fourth left. That one-fourth that's left, a lot of it is incapable of being altered. The ocean has been altered, intact ecosystems, that sounds wonky, places that are working. Places that are intact and functioning the way they should, with their species and all the relationships in the ecosystem, they're disappearing fast, even the vast forests of the Northern forests of Canada and Russia, et cetera. The tropical forest of the Amazon, the Central Africa et cetera, they're disappearing. In terms of species, approximately a million species are in danger of extinction.
Now that's so many, you can't get your head around it. But basically a third of coral, sharks, marine mammals, they're all threatened with extinction. So this is I think ... I mean, the findings are significant. What's most significant by pulling it all together, it's a wake up call. It's a wake up call for citizens, for people, and also for governments. Do they just say, well, how sad. Let's just keep busy doing businesses usual? Or there's some real solutions. But what's significant about it, and yes, it's a very long report. They've only released the summary of the latest assessment, that the news is not good, but there are still places that we can conserve and protect and save.
Daniel Raimi: And can you speak a little bit to the reaction and reception of the report. I mean, I certainly noticed it because of the large amount of press coverage that it received. But do you think it's having the type of impact and reception that you had hoped for or would hope for, for a report of this type?
Sue Lieberman: Well, I hope so. It's getting a lot of press. But what often happens is there's a flash in the pan of a lot of press, and then people move on to the next big thing. So I think what's important is to highlight this with the key governments, if you will, and make sure that governments take decisions, policies, whether it's nationally or at international conventions or at the UN and do something about it. If everyone just takes this and goes, how sad. Well, that's great. We got something in the New York Times, how sad. Let's move on and business as usual and keep over-exploiting our planet as if it's limitless, then it won't make a difference.
But hopefully, people who really take this seriously will work to make a difference. I know there's going to be a hearing on Capitol Hill in the US. They're looking at it in Europe, they'll be looking at it at the UN, at the Convention on Biological Diversity. So that's where it's important to, if you will, keep up the drumbeat. Keep citing it and keep pushing and saying we can do something about this.
Daniel Raimi: Right. And certainly, that would be the role of advocates and organizations like yours, working on these topics.
Sue Lieberman: Absolutely. And that's what I meant by there's nothing new here. We know that, we've been working on this. But this way, everyone can pull together and it's not just ... Well, it's not our opinion, we're science-based. But the point is, this is a global consensus now. We have a problem. It's a serious problem. What do we do about it?
Daniel Raimi: Right. It reminds me of the sort of IPCC process and the relationship between IPCC reports and government action or lack thereof.
Sue Lieberman: Absolutely.
Daniel Raimi: Where we have these reports, they get a lot of attention and in the climate space, certainly there has been more action in the last 10, 15 years than we saw previously. But a lot of debate as to whether or not that action is sufficient or commensurate with the science that's coming out of the literature.
Sue Lieberman: Well, we are in midst of a climate emergency, but we're also in the midst of a biodiversity emergency. We can't wait and say, well, let's wait, give it a decade, 10, 20 years, and maybe we'll do something about it then. There's no choice. The action must be now.
Daniel Raimi: Well, let's dig into one topic in particular that sort of piqued my interest. And again, we could go so many directions on this report, but one of the areas that I found fascinating was the relationship between food security and biodiversity. So one stat that stuck out at me, according to the report is 75 percent of global crop types rely on some type of animal pollinator. But has received, I think a pretty good amount of press coverage, a lot of pollinator species are threatened. And according to the report, that puts between about 235 and $600 billion worth of crops at risk each year. So that's big money. Can you talk to us a little bit about why pollinators are in decline? And what might be done about it? In particular, what kind of agricultural practices or policy practices might make a difference on this topic?
Sue Lieberman: Yeah. It's a complicated issue and pollinators, people aren't aware, you think of bees, think of birds. Having healthy bee populations globally, are worth as you say, hundreds of billions of dollars a year to agriculture. Why are these pollinators really declining, and declining significantly? A lot of it is pesticides. A lot of it is, in the case of bird pollinators, it's hunting, but it's also habitat loss. If those pollinators, bees, et cetera, don't have habitat, their populations are going to decline. So it's when habitats are destroyed. It's not just that particular ecosystem that is destroyed. It's not that particular forest or that particular grassland, but it's the species that are there.
You mentioned iconic species earlier. It's not just the tigers and the elephants, it's the bees and beetles and other insects. And that's one of the key reasons that we're seeing these declines in pollinators, a combination of habitat loss, and the tremendous global use of pesticides. What can be done about it is agricultural practices need to change to ensure ... Including the use of pesticides, including the use of more organic crops, but also habitat loss, tearing down of forests, et cetera.
Infrastructure, building roads in intact forests, all that needs to change. And governments need to look at not just short-term economic benefit, who's going to pay them to do something, but the long-term impact, including on pollinators. But basically, it's about changing agricultural practices from this sort of agribusiness approach to a more small scale approach.
Daniel Raimi: So that sort of relates to the next question that I wanted to ask, which is also about food security and biodiversity. So one of the points highlighted in the IPBES report, is that the diversity of the plants and animals being raised by farmers has been declining. So just the different, the number of types of plants and animals raised by farmers is becoming less diverse, and that can make them more vulnerable to things like diseases or pests. So what I'm wondering is, not just could farmers raise more diverse crops and animals. Of course, they could. But they're making economic decisions to pursue the types of breeds that they're deciding on.
So can you talk a little bit about the short-term versus long-term economic trade-off that individual farmers and also policymakers need to think about when they're thinking about, what works economically today versus what is sustainable over the long-term.
Sue Lieberman: A lot of the decisions that farmers are making are based on government subsidies. Based on what governments say, we will pay you if you grow this. They're based on the market. So what needs to change is government subsidies, and market factors. Some of that is people's choices in terms of what they're consuming. People do eat a smaller variety of vegetables, say, and fruits, particularly in the West, than say in Asia or Africa, where people are used to greater food diversity, greater crop diversity. But it's also a big issue, again, with government subsidies, and I have to say, livestock practices.
So a tremendous amount of habitat loss is caused by the planting of soy, and the vast majority of soy that's planted is gone to livestock feed. So you have this monoculture of soy across the globe to feed livestock, not to feed people. So that is a decrease in crop diversity. But also, it's not doing much for global food security, if all that soy is going to feed cows and chickens. But also basically cattle production is very environmentally harmful, compared to say chicken or other species. Same with a lot of the fish that are fished, the small fish, for example. They do not go for human consumption, they go into animal feed for animal consumption, that's incredibly inefficient.
So I think we need to look at the whole global food system. I'm not saying everyone should be a vegetarian, it would be nice, it would save a tremendous amount of our planet. But people need to look at their choices and governments need to look at what they are artificially propping up through subsidies or price controls for farmers. That's just a subset of the solutions. But basically, it has to do a lot with these macro, these big economic factors and government subsidies.
Daniel Raimi: So on that meat consumption question, we've been wanting to do an episode on meat consumption for a while, and I think we will sometime soon. But can you talk a little bit more about that global trend of increased meat consumption? I mean, it's one of the things that I read about casually and get the sense that in general, as populations become wealthier, they tend to eat more and more meat. And that, of course, increases the intensity of farming practices that has to happen to supply those livestock with those inputs. So do you see is there a sustainable farming future where people continue to eat more and more meat? Or are those things sort of inherently at odds?
Sue Lieberman: On one hand, I think it's inherently at odds. On the other hand, I think it depends on the source of animal protein. If the source of animal protein is cattle, it doesn't appear that there is a sustainable option for the future. And yes, the consumption of beef is increasing as people move into the middle class. Consumption of animal protein such as some fish, not necessarily wild fish, but fish lower on the food chain or fish produced in aquaculture is much less environment ... Not always, but in many cases, less environmentally harmful, or chicken or other species that require or have a lighter footprint on the environment, say, than beef.
So I think even looking at the whole issue of animal protein needs to look at in terms of which species and how they're produced. Whether those livestock are grazing naturally or they're in an intensive agriculture where they're eating soy, or there is some feeding of fish even to plant eating livestock in order to have them grow faster. So I mean, this is a serious issue. But that's not so much food security, as it is, animal protein consumption and how to do it sustainably. We'll also need to look at the food security of coastal communities, poor people, the rural poor across the globe, who are not served well by some of these agricultural or fisheries practices. If you look at high seas fisheries, which are subsidized, they're depleting fish stocks and fish that would have gone to feed coastal people.
Daniel Raimi: So many fascinating issues talking about with food, we're going to have to get your recommendations for other people to talk to or maybe have you back.
Sue Lieberman: It's a big issue. Yes.
Daniel Raimi: Going back to sort of our main focus of biodiversity. As I was reading the summary of the IPBES report, I was thinking to myself, that some of the challenges outlined in the report would be occurring without climate change. And then some of them are exacerbated by climate change, and there's sort of a interesting mix of issues there. So looking forward, can you talk about any ... Or do you want to highlight an issue or two, where climate change might exacerbate or even maybe mitigate some of the challenges talked about in the report?
Sue Lieberman: Yeah. First of all, I think it is important not to really separate the two. I mean, how we mitigate climate change in terms of reducing carbon emissions is one thing. But if you look at the impacts of climate change, or how to adapt to climate change, it's really hard to separate the two and I think it's a mistake. A lot of people are looking now at the whole issue of how do healthy ecosystems deliver on adaptation to climate change, or mitigate the negative impacts of climate change.
There are certain ecosystems that are particularly resilient to climate change, such as intact forests. If you take intact boreal forest, forests in Canada or intact tropical forests, they're much more resilient to climate change than those that have been seriously already degraded by human activities, such as logging and hunting, et cetera. We need to prioritize those. We need to look at how governments work together to retain, to keep what we've got. Those intact forests and other ecosystems, we need to keep them, we need to not lose them, because they provide the resilience that our planet needs.
We can look as well at efforts to restore certain ecosystems. It's much cheaper to protect what we have than to destroy it, and then wonder, how do we restore that? How do we fix it? Because some ecosystems can't be fixed. Climate change as well, sort of managing for climate change needs to be part of how governments make decisions on where do they put parks and protected areas. How do they manage fisheries? Because the species are moving. You may have a park to protect something now, but the species are going to move because of climate change.
But also, when you hear a lot of talk about climate change, we need to have forests in order to take carbon out of the atmosphere. Well, those intact forests, those places, if you think about the tropical forests of Central Africa, the Congo Basin, that they're doing that now and we need to make sure that they're protected for the long-term. I think to deal with climate change, we need to protect the biodiversity, if you will, of those intact places on earth. As we look at the IPBES report, there aren't as many of those intact places left on earth as we'd like them to be.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, those connections are fascinating. Again, I know we're just scratching the surface on so many of these topics, but hopefully it piques people's interest and they can dive deeper. So last question before we go to our final top of the stack segment, is a policy question. So you've alluded to a few policy measures that policymakers could take to mitigate some of these risks, agricultural subsidies, other issues. Can you talk about maybe one or two more policy measures that you see as particularly important for balancing that need to sustain economic development in many parts of the world, but also promote long-term sustainability?
Sue Lieberman: Yeah. On the one hand, it's not really about better balance between short-term and long-term. I think governments need to look long-term. Period. I know many governments that are democracies just look at the next election cycle. They're not thinking 10 years, 20 years down the line, they're thinking what's happening next November. But I think there needs to be a policy effort. Globally, governments working together to look at the long-term, to look at the benefits to wider society, and less to those economic benefits from special interest. That's very easy to say and very hard to do, I recognize that.
So we need to work with governments on strengthening their legislation. So if someone comes into a government and offers them so many billions of dollars or millions of dollars to build, roads, dams, et cetera, governments have legislation that say, wait, we need to look at the environmental impact of that, not just economically, is someone going to benefit. Governments need to improve their abilities at enforcement and accountability of their own laws and rules.
But I think from a policy perspective, there are 194 governments in the world. We could work with each one individually or work globally. And that's where next year the Convention on Biological Diversity is going to come up with its new targets and commitments by governments for the next decade. We think that's the place where governments can take this information, and agree, we're going to do better, we're going to do A, B and C, and we're going to make a commitment to stop harmful subsidies, we're going to make a commitment to protect intact ecosystems, period. Forests, coral reefs, et cetera.
So I think the policy steps have to be at the national level, particularly with those countries causing the most environmental harm, as well as at the global level, through treaties and through the UN. It may seem like, well, you get a treaty to agree to something, what good is that? But if a treaty agrees to something, then you can hold government's feet to the fire. Wait, you agreed to that. For poor countries, then the funders, the donors, the foundations, et cetera, will fund some of the things they've committed to. So those are just some policy options. But another important option is not necessarily the government's making decisions, but public, if people live in a democracy, they can vote for people who will take action for the long-term environmental sustainability.
Daniel Raimi: So let's definitely put a pin in that and circle back in a year's time, after that conference, sort of get an update on those policy measures stand. That would be fascinating. So, again, as I said we're only scratching the surface on this stuff, but I encourage people to check out the IPBES report, or at least some of the media coverage on it. There's an enormous amount of information in there, and much of it doesn't always rise to the surface of press coverage. So yeah, check it out. And now we'll go to our last segment, which we call top of the stack.
So what's at the top of your literal or metaphorical reading stack. I will start us off by just mentioning a book that I'm about halfway through, which is related to the topic at hand. The book is called The Uninhabitable Earth. It's by David Wallace-Wells. It's a book about the projected impacts of climate change, including effects on species and habitats. I have to say the book is utterly terrifying. It's intentionally terrifying. What's interesting to me is that the book sort of takes some of the scariest parts of climate change, and, unfortunately, in my opinion, presents them as if they are facts, or inevitable somehow.
It sort of ignores the agency that we have about mitigating the risks of climate change and taking action to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. So I think the book is informative in some ways, but it really paints a bleaker picture than I think is necessary. And so it's unfortunate in that respect. But I know a lot of other people will be reading this book and having their own opinions. But that's sort of my really quick take on it after getting about halfway through it. So Sue Lieberman, how about you? What are you reading lately? Or what's on the top of your stack?
Sue Lieberman: I have a bunch of international meetings coming up, so I wish I could say I'm doing more reading than I am. But one thing I think I really enjoyed this new Our Planet series on Netflix. No, I don't work for Netflix. The new David Attenborough. I love these nature shows, I always have. I always yell at the screen because it's just the beautiful photos and it doesn't talk about the crisis. But this one finally does get to some of the issues around climate change, et cetera. So I would recommend that to people because it's still not as harsh as some of what I see out there, but it does get to the issues.
The other thing I thought that I've been reading a lot, and it's really interesting is the language that we use, really matters. So the Guardian newspaper in the UK, which is available online, of course, just announced that it will no longer say climate change. It will say climate emergency in everything. It will no longer say global warming, it will say global heating. I was reading that and thinking, that's true. We need to look at the language we're using, and say what's really going on and not try to speak in kinder terms so we don't upset people.
Let's call it a climate emergency, let's say global heating. It's not just warming, it's heating. So I think that's something that struck me and I'm going to look out for it in my own language as well, it'd be sure ... Say what's really going on. We have a species extinction emergency, a biodiversity emergency, and we need to deal with it accordingly.
Daniel Raimi: Yeah, I saw that too. It's really interesting. We had Senator Sheldon Whitehouse on the show a few weeks ago, and he actually recommended the same Netflix series. So two recommendations from two real experts. So Sue Lieberman, thank you so much for joining us on Resources Radio. We really appreciate you helping us understand more about biodiversity.
Sue Lieberman: My pleasure. Thank you very much.
Daniel Raimi: Thank you so much for joining us on Resources Radio. We'd love to hear what you think. So please rate us on iTunes or leave us a review. It helps us spread the word. Also, feel free to send us your suggestions for future episodes. Resources Radio is a podcast from Resources for the Future. RFF is an independent, nonprofit research institution in Washington DC. Our mission is to improve environmental, energy and natural resource decisions through impartial economic research and policy engagement. Learn more about us at rff.org.
The views expressed on this podcast are solely those of the participants. They do not necessarily represent the views of Resources for the Future, which does not take institutional positions on public policies. Resources Radio is produced by Kate Peterson, with music by Daniel Raimi. Join us next week for another episode.