Climate change is here to stay. But will media attention drift away?

Earlier this year, more than 100 European researchers and policy experts convened at the University of Copenhagen to discuss an issue that used to be in the headlines regularly — biodiversity.

The University issued a press release after the meeting titled, “The biodiversity crisis: Worse than climate change.”

The statement that followed was not so unequivocal, but still made its point: “The challenges of conserving the world’s species are perhaps even larger than mitigating the negative effects of global climate change.”

Conservation biologists can attest that stemming the loss of biodiversity has proved just as vexing a problem as climate change. Indeed, both issues share many similarities, from the globally diffused nature of the problem and the elusive solutions, to the galvanized response of scientists and activists. Bear in mind too that once upon a time, in the not too distant past, spotted owls and the Amazon Rainforest were flashpoints in environmental debates. That we don’t hear much about endangered species and deforestation any more suggests the media have moved on. That might be a bad omen for climate campaigners.

How so? Recall that environmental journalists, until recently had been busy chronicling “the sixth extinction.” Stories over the past few decades have centered on the nascent conservation biology discipline and studies it has generated on threats to individual species and biodiversity.  This research, in turn, became fodder in the tug of war over the U.S.  Endangered Species Act (ESA), the long-contentious lever for preserving habitat of imperiled plants and wildlife. Sound familiar?

Now ask yourself this: When was the last time you saw biodiversity in the headlines? Is it no longer a worrisome issue, or have reporters gotten bored writing about rainforests and habitat destruction? What happened?

This is a question that biologist-turned-journalist Brendan Borell wrestled with in a 2009 Slate piece. He wrote:

The magazines, newspapers, and websites that pay my salary have little to say about habitat loss these days. Now, being green is all about greenhouse gases: Neighborhood moms are more apt to fret over food miles than felled forests; organic cattle farmers are more interested in offsetting the methane coming from cow burps than pondering squished tadpoles in hoof prints. Even scientists have grown bored with the question of habitat loss, tweaking their grant proposals to emphasize the climate angle no matter how tenuous the connection. Saving the Amazon is so 1980s.

At the time, some critics of Borrell’s Slate essay argued that he was downplaying the threat of climate change to wildlife. Science writer Carl Zimmer wrote an excellent rebuttal along these lines (which Borrell responded to).

In the three years since that Slate piece appeared, it seems fair to say that climate change has come to dominate environmental discourse. And not everyone who works on environmental issues is pleased about this. For example, Chris Clarke, a conservationist and green-minded writer, noted in a recent article:

Look at the websites of major environmental organizations and you might be persuaded that climate change is the only real environmental issue we face. A majority of American environmentalists have adopted climate change as their main cause, and it’s easy to understand why: when scientists agree that our planet is likely to be 5° to 10° F hotter by year 2100, that’ll get your attention.

Clarke agrees that climate change “is a serious issue,” but he hammers home the importance of biodiversity, and recent research (see here and here) indicating that it is an integral component of vibrant ecosystems. (This notion has been around for some time.) He also writes:

Over the last few years an increasing number of scientists have suggested that the planet’s collapsing biological diversity may well be the largest and most intractable environmental problem we face.

On that score, there is some competition. A couple of years ago, the University of Minnesota’s Jon Foley also lamented the “collective fixation on global warming as the mother of all environmental problems.” Foleys’ big concern is ecological degradation on a global landscape level. Thus, we should be equally worried, he argued, about “the rise of infectious disease, the collapse of fisheries, the ongoing loss of forests and biodiversity, and the depletion of global water supplies.”

Hmm, if society has lost interest in biodiversity, which not that long ago was a top-level environmental calling card, it’s probably a stretch to think we can throw even more items into the public’s worry box.

But climate change campaigners might well reflect on the disappearance of biodiversity from the national conversation, and consider the possibility that in ten or fifteen years, global warming may be where biodiversity is today — largely ignored by the media and relegated to the sidelines by environmentalists.

Not that climate change will go away (if anything, it’s likely to be much more pressing), any more than threats to wildlife have. But let’s face it: all mass media stories have a finite shelf life, and the public too often has a short attention span. Let’s keep checking back over the next decade or so.

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