Although conservation biology has become one of the most exciting research disciplines in the life sciences, it has barely begun to wield its potential power in political or high-level policy fora. As a mission-oriented discipline, conservation biology has been applied to a range of resource-management challenges from its inception. But there is a tremendous mismatch between the scale and scope of the problems that conservation science is now informing and those issues of huge significance that we are now uncovering and should be influencing.

Changes to global ecosystems are having massive impacts on biodiversity, and these impacts in turn are profoundly affecting human well-being and the planet's life-support systems. If we are to have real influence on the future of biodiversity, then we must bring the findings of our research to bear on decisions that influence the root causes of problems, not just their symptoms.

The issue of climate change provides a lesson in how this can be done. Fifteen years ago, as growing evidence suggested that human-caused greenhouse gas emissions were warming Earth's atmosphere, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (  IPCC  ) was created to assess research on climate change. Having now published three assessments (each consisting of three 800-page volumes) and multiple syntheses and special reports, the IPCC is widely recognized for its invaluable role in bringing the “state of knowledge” concerning climate science to bear on the needs of decision-makers worldwide. Journalists can always find a naysayer to quote, but news articles now typically note what “the IPCC, involving the majority of the world's leading climate scientists,” has concluded.

Every 4 years, the IPCC conducts a new assessment geared to meet the needs of decision-makers in the Framework Convention on Climate Change. Similarly, every 4 years another assessment—the Scientific Effects of Ozone Depletion—is released for the use of the signatories to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. Both of these assessments are far more than just useful scientific references; they have become “drivers” of policy change. The Kyoto Protocol to limit greenhouse gas emissions would never have been signed had not the IPCC, just prior to the Kyoto negotiations, released its memorable finding that “the balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernable human influence on global climate.” These assessments have not only elevated the significance of climate change at governmental and intergovernmental levels, but through their regular global coverage by the media they have also significantly increased public awareness of the issues of climate change and ozone depletion.

So where is the IPCC for Biodiversity or the IPCC for Nitrogen/Phosphorous Cycles? They simply don't exist. This is not to say that we lack high-quality assessments and studies on these topics; examples abound, such as the United Nations Environment Programme's Global Environmental Outlook, the World Resources Institute/United Nations Environment Programme/World Bank/United Nations Development Programme's World Resources series, the World Conservation Monitoring Centre's Global Biodiversity, and the World Wildlife Fund's Living Planet Report. But none of these comes close to the policy influence of the IPCC, and indeed none of them was underpinned by anything like the scientific consensus-building that characterizes the IPCC.

A new assessment closely modeled on the IPCC is now underway—the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (  MA  )—that will attempt to fill this gap in the area of ecosystems and biodiversity (  ). The MA provides members of the Society for Conservation Biology, and the SCB as a society, with a platform that can be used to increase the influence of conservation biology on decision-making at scales from local to global. If the MA proves its utility to decision-makers, it is anticipated that an integrated ecosystem assessment process modeled on the MA will be repeated every 5 to 10 years.

What makes a process like the IPCC succeed in bringing cutting-edge science to bear on decision-making? The Harvard Global Environmental Assessment Project concluded that three factors underlie successful global scientific assessments.

First, the successful assessment is scientifically credible. The IPCC involves thousands of scientists (  indeed, a very large fraction of the world's leading climate scientists  ) as coordinating lead authors, lead authors, contributing authors, chapter review editors, and expert reviewers. All of the IPCC assessment reports undergo two rounds of peer review involving hundreds of reviewers per chapter. The IPCC focuses on what is known with certainty by the scientific community and what remains uncertain. The IPCC is now the gold standard of scientific opinion on the issue, and areas of broad scientific agreement are no longer lost in a fog of disagreements among scientists over minor issues—previously a problem for climate change scientists and certainly an issue now for biodiversity scientists.

Second, the assessment is politically legitimate. It is relatively easy for the government of Germany to ignore a report done by experts in Brazil or for a chief executive officer to ignore the findings of a report by a nongovernmental organization. What possible leverage would such a report have, no matter how good the science it contained? Thousands of assessments and studies are published every year. What gives the IPCC more weight with decision-makers than others? Partly it is the authoritative status of the IPCC. But, equally important, the users of the assessment—in this case, national governments—have fully “bought in” to the process. Governments authorized the IPCC and ultimately approve its findings line by line. Scientists from more than 100 countries are involved as authors. Decision-makers cannot ignore the final product because they have been fully involved in its development.

Third, the assessment is salient: it responds to decision-makers' needs. This is not to say that scientists do not have an opportunity to introduce new issues and findings that decision-makers need to be aware of; they do. But the priority for the assessment is to inform decisions that are being faced or soon will be faced by decision-makers

There has been one previous attempt to create an IPCC for biodiversity: the Global Biodiversity Assessment (GBA), published in 1995. This impressive 1100-page report prepared by leading biodiversity scientists readily meets the criterion of credibility and is still used as a reference by many scientists. It fell far short, however, on the criteria of political legitimacy and saliency. The GBA was intended to serve as an IPCC-like assessment for the Convention on Biodiversity, but the parties to the convention rejected the report before the work even began and in the end refused to receive or use its findings. Partly because the report was prepared in the absence of any consultation with its intended users, it focused more heavily on scientific debates than on debates with policy implications. In addition, the GBA lacked internal consistency and synthesis, which critically limited the likelihood that any of the relevant data and information it contained might become the focus of continuing monitoring or repeated measures.

How does the MA rate against these criteria? On the issue of credibility, the assessment will follow procedures for preparation and review almost identical to those used by the IPCC. A team of globally known social and natural scientists jointly chair the scientific working groups, and leading scientists are being invited from around the world as coordinating lead authors and lead authors. An independent peer review board has been established to oversee the review process. In the end, more than 2000 authors and expert reviewers are likely to be involved in the preparation of the MA.

Establishing the legitimacy of the process was the major focus of the 4 years of preparation for the launch of the MA. Four international conventions (  biodiversity, desertification, migratory species, and wetlands ) have now authorized the MA as a source of their assessment input. Like the IPCC, all the working groups are jointly chaired by experts in developed and developing countries and will involve a geographically balanced group of authors. The Secretary General of the United Nations has stated that “The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment is an outstanding example of the sort of international scientific and political cooperation that is needed to further the cause of sustainable development.”

Saliency is being achieved through consultations with the users and through several iterations of review of the draft assessment outlines by the international conventions and other intended users in the private sector and civil society. In addition, conventions such as the Convention on Biodiversity have made formal requests for specific types of assessment input.

The MA focuses on the consequences of changes to ecosystems for human well-being. It pays particular attention to ecosystem “services” and such issues as changes in biodiversity, land cover, and biogeochemical cycles. It will not attempt to duplicate sectoral assessments like the IPCC or forest or agriculture assessments but will focus extensively on integration across these assessments. Too often, scientists provide information on specific sectors when decisions actually will affect multiple sectors. What good is an assessment that tells decision-makers that we can produce enough crops to feed the world 30 years from now if we cannot also tell them the consequences of that increased production for biodiversity, freshwater quality, and coastal fisheries?

The MA chose this broad, integrated focus after consultation with its audiences. Therefore, the findings of the assessment will be relevant not only to a minister of the environment but also to decision-makers who typically have far more influence on the fate of ecosystems, including people in the private sector and in ministries of finance, planning and trade.

Biodiversity issues are central to all three of the global MA working group reports and to the MA subglobal assessments. Within the Condition Working Group, one chapter will focus on biodiversity and one on biological regulation. These chapters will assess the state of knowledge about numbers of species, their distribution, their historical extinction rates, the current endangerment of species, and the role of biodiversity in ecosystem functioning. Within the Scenarios Working Group, one team is now developing “biodiversity scenarios”: given plausible future changes in the forces driving ecological change, what will be the consequences for rates of species extinction, the resilience of ecological communities and processes, the goods and services produced by ecosystems, and human health? And, within the Responses Working Group, one chapter will be devoted to case-study experiences with efforts to slow the loss of biodiversity. Another chapter will examine the state of knowledge about the development of indicators and approaches to priority setting for ecosystems and biodiversity. Yet another will examine integrated approaches to the maintenance of biodiversity and ecosystem services.

Good science does not always result in good decisions. But we will not arrive at good decisions unless authoritative and useful scientific information is presented to decision-makers through a process they cannot ignore. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment needs to be based on the very best conservation biology. Members of the Society for Conservation Biology, in turn, now have an opportunity to participate in and contribute to a process modeled on the IPCC that can greatly increase the visibility of the findings of conservation biology and their impact on both global and local decision-making.

Walter V. Reid Georgina M. Mace

Literature Cited

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  2. Literature Cited
  • Heywood, V. H. (ed.) 1995. Global biodiversity assessment. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, U.K.