Ecology, politics and policy


John H. Lawton, Chairman, Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, Third Floor, 5–8 The Sanctuary, Westminster, London SW1P 3JS, UK (e-mail:


  • 1‘The British Ecological Society aims to promote the science of ecology through research and to use the findings of such research to educate the public and influence policy decisions which involve ecological matters.’ Yet, how successful have we been in influencing UK and EU environmental policy?
  • 2Many scientists hold to the ‘deficit model’ of turning science into policy, the view that if only politicians are told what the science reveals, ‘correct’ policies will automatically follow. Nothing could be further from the truth. Politicians have all kinds of reasons, some valid, some less valid, not to adopt what often seem to us to be common sense policies to protect the environment.
  • 3Here, I explore some of the successes and failures of ecologists to influence UK and European environmental policy, using acid deposition, the collapse of global marine fisheries, GM crops and climate change, carbon dioxide and ocean acidification as examples. I briefly review the extensive literature (largely ignored by natural scientists) on what social scientists have to say about evidence-based policy-making (or the lack of it) and why it often appears to be so difficult to persuade politicians to adopt sound environmental policies.
  • 4Synthesis and applications. Ecologists can, and do, influence government policy on the environment, but often via complex and iterative interactions that can be painfully slow, and may require fundamental changes in politicians’ belief systems, values and norms.


If you read the Council's Report in the Society's Annual Accounts (British Ecological Society 2006), it defines the goals and principal activities of the Society in these words: ‘The British Ecological Society aims to promote the science of ecology through research and to use the findings of such research to educate the public and influence policy decisions which involve ecological matters’ (my italics). How good are we individually and collectively at converting our science into sound environmental policy? Why does it sometimes, indeed all too often, seem so difficult to get politicians and policy-makers to adopt what to us are obvious steps to protect the natural environment?

In attempting to answer these questions, I have not stuck slavishly to just ecological examples (in the sense that ecology is the science that deals with the distribution and abundance of organisms and the dynamics of ecosystems). Rather, I have also drawn examples and insights from wider environmental issues. Nor have I made any attempt to analyse, in depth, the paths through which particular policies have, or have not, been adopted by government. Instead, I have chosen examples that illustrate the complexities of the policy-making process. My ultimate aim is simple: to make sure that when ecologists do enter the political arena they do so with their eyes open, expecting to be in it for the long haul in a process that is messy, complex and iterative, with many other legitimate players and some less legitimate vying for the attention of government.

An abbreviated history

Ecology as a science has a long history of influencing policy and ‘being useful’.

Among the many possible examples is the role played by Charles Elton and colleagues at the Bureau of Animal Population (established in 1932), particularly on the interactions between voles and forestry, and on wartime rodent control (Sheail 1987). Scientists that we now think of as pioneering ecologists (R. S. Adamson, B. Osborn, A. J. Nicholson, F. Ratcliffe and many others) made major contributions to water and land management, forestry, agriculture and pest control in the British Empire, not least in India, South Africa and Australia (Griffiths & Robin 1997). More recently, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) was established by the Science & Technology Act (1965), in which ‘the dissemination of knowledge ... (and) the provision of advice on matters relating to the Council's activities’ are explicit statutory powers (Sheail 1992).

Ecologists’ involvement in matters of current high environmental concern continues (Freckleton et al. 2005; Sutherland et al. 2006). However, and as we shall see, whether this ‘involvement’ in ecological issues such as the growth of genetically modified (GM) crops or the impacts of climate change on extinction rates translates into an impact on government policy is another matter entirely. (There are, of course, other ways in which science becomes ‘useful’; for instance by influencing good practice, or informing the thinking of other – non-governmental – bodies or interest-groups. I do not propose to explore these alternative routes for knowledge transfer here).

The British Ecological Society (BES) was remarkably slow at becoming involved in policy matters [all that follows is taken from Sheail (1987), where much more detailed information can be found]. The inaugural meeting of the Society was in April 1913, the year in which the first issue of the Journal of Ecology appeared. It was not until 50 years later in July 1963 that one of the Society's leading figures, Palmer Newbould, suggested that the BES establish a ‘public affairs committee’, apparently in response to just such a move by the Ecological Society of America. The BES was deeply divided on the issue, those arguing against more public involvement claiming that it would undermine the scientific integrity of the Society. (Such arguments have not gone away. They are currently being re-run by the Society for Conservation Biology in the United States – see Morris 2006).

Matters in the British Ecological Society came to a head in July 1966 when the then President, John Harper, and five other members of Council wrote to The Times newspaper opposing Cow Green Reservoir in Upper Teesdale, because of the threat it posed to the unique flora of the area. The first that the rest of Council knew of this action was when the letter appeared in The Times and words such as ‘a dangerous precedent’ captured their concerns, despite Council having agreed in January of that year that the President should sign a petition opposing the Bill to create the reservoir.

In the end, the views of members pushing for greater public and political engagement prevailed, and in January 1969 a subcommittee was set up to review the future role of the society, chaired by Palmer Newbould. Newbould drafted a paper drawing attention to ‘the growing impact of ecological thinking in society and public affairs’. If the Society wished to exploit this new situation it needed to develop an outward-looking and assertive approach to participating in public debate and controversy. The upshot was the creation of the Ecological Affairs Committee, as a subcommittee of Council, in April 1970. (Subcommittee status reflected ongoing anxiety about such a move among some members of Council. It did not become a full committee until 1974.)

The rest, as they say, is history. But slow history. One gets the sense that many members were, and still are, very concerned that the ‘ecological message’ is not getting through. For example, a 1-day discussion meeting organized by the Ecological Affairs Committee in December 1990, to explore whether ‘those who make UK [environmental] policy are as well briefed scientifically as their counterparts in the rest of the EEC?’, was sufficiently novel to justify a report in Trends in Ecology and Evolution (TREE) (Walton & Gray 1991). I sense in the purpose of this meeting an implicit assumption that UK policy-makers were not making the ‘right’ environmental decisions because they were not well briefed on the science. I will return to this issue in due course.

An example of success

Ecologists working at the science/policy interface do, of course, have their successes. ‘Acid rain’, more correctly termed ‘acid deposition’ as dry particulates and in rainwater and clouds, is a good example (Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution 1984; Critical Loads Advisory Group 1994; NEGTAP 2001). Long-range transport of air pollutants between the countries of Europe was identified as an important ecological and political issue during the 1960s, particularly in Germany and Sweden. These concerns were formalized by Sweden at the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (Sweden 1971). This early work focused strongly on SO2 (sulphur is the dominant acidifying anion) derived from coal-fired power-stations, and I will restrict my comments primarily to sulphur.

In this debate, ecological/environmental scientists played a key role in identifying the damage caused to terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, crops and buildings by acid deposition – in the United Kingdom not least Dick Southwood, a former BES President, in his capacity as Chairman of the RCEP (Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution 1984). Ecologists also applied and refined the concept of critical loads, defined as levels of a pollutant ‘below which significant harmful effects on sensitive elements of the environment do not occur according to present knowledge’ (Critical Loads Advisory Group 1994). The accumulating evidence of clear environmental damage led eventually to a series of progressively tighter international protocols (NEGTAP 2001) to drive down emissions by ‘scrubbing out’ SO2 from flue-gasses and a move to low-sulphur fuel (natural gas).

It has worked. Between 1970 and 1999 emissions in the United Kingdom (Mt-S) declined by 82%, and deposition of S declined by 50% (mainly from power stations). The full ecological benefits, however, have still to be realized. As NEGTAP (2001) points out, such reductions ‘may provide the conditions in which chemical and biological recovery can begin, but the time-scales are ... very long (decades) relative to the time-scales of reductions in emissions’. Thus, while some lichen populations are recovering, and there are signs of recovery in some freshwater communities in response to a reduction in the acidity of their habitat, with the exception of some upland soils there is no evidence for declines in soil acidity, and critical loads for acidification will still be exceeded in 47% of UK ecosystems by 2010 (by which time acidification from deposited nitrogen becomes the dominant issue).

Nor have the problems caused by sulphur been finally laid to rest. Reductions in sulphur deposition are smaller in the west and south of the United Kingdom than elsewhere (NEGTAP 2001; Fowler et al. 2005), and there is evidence that this is due to a substantial growth in shipping – currently roughly 3% a year for ships engaged in international trade in the seas surrounding Europe (Elvingson & Ågren 2004). Many ships burn very dirty bunker fuel, high in sulphur, and their wind-borne emissions are now reversing some of the gains made in terrestrial S-deposition over the last 20 years. Unlike emissions from Europe's power stations, this will not be resolved easily (see below).

The ‘acid rain’ saga is a substantial, if not yet complete, success story, in which ecological and environmental scientists played a key role. Without in any way wanting to diminish this role, the saga also has (or had) some features that helped to achieve success. There was clear political pressure on politicians from Europe's citizens, particularly environmentally conscious, articulate Germans and Scandinavians to ‘do something’ about sulphur emissions. The primary solutions required financial investment (scrubbers on power stations are not cheap) and a switch from coal to natural gas; both were technically straightforward, involved a limited number of sites, and did not threaten the public's cherished lifestyles. Power continued to flow from power stations. Had the circumstances been otherwise, acid deposition could have been politically much more difficult to deal with.

However, as we have seen, the problem of acid deposition has not gone away. It is re-emerging from two sources; the growth of international shipping and nitrogen deposition. The former will require global international agreements to resolve. The latter involves numerous sources of reduced N (NH3 and inline image), not least from intensive livestock rearing, and NOx from road transport, shipping and the power sector (NEGTAP 2001; Dalton & Brand-Hardy 2003; Fowler et al. 2005). Such diffuse pollution from many sources can be much more difficult to fix technically than point-source pollution from power stations. For example, while catalytic converters on vehicle exhausts have reduced European emissions of NOx, deposition of reduced N in the United Kingdom has not changed appreciably since 1986, despite efforts to do so. NEGTAP's prognosis is not encouraging: ‘projected growth in transport could reverse [the] trend’ in NOx emissions, and to do something about this issue threatens our car-dominated lifestyles; while down on the farm, ‘more stringent targets [for reduced N reduction] would require technical abatement programmes’ which (reading between the lines) agriculture may be reluctant to adopt, and politicians unwilling to enforce. Farmers are a powerful lobby-group.

But surely?

But surely, if we (ecologists) explain clearly the nature of the damage being wrought by these and many other sources of environmental degradation, rational policy-makers will act to reduce, halt or reverse the damage? Sometimes, yes; but often, no. Why?

There are many reasons why this state of affairs exists. The list that follows is based partly on the literature, and partly on personal experience. The reasons are not discrete. They overlap, or describe different aspects of the same problem and any, some or most may apply in a particular situation that we might regard as a ‘policy failure’ – failure to address a pressing environmental issue in the teeth of the scientific evidence. We have already encountered some of them.

  • 1The first reason is the default option, namely that we are to blame. We are simply not getting the message across clearly enough. This is often called the ‘deficit model’ (Rayner 2004; Owens 2005).
  • 2As a variant of 1, there is too much science out there anyway, and politicians do not know where to go for the best or most relevant information (Rayner 2002).
  • 3The science is ambiguous and there are no clear answers. Politicians use the uncertainty to avoid difficult decisions. Even with the best possible research, virtually all environmental issues are ineluctably clouded by uncertainty and variability (Walton & Gray 1991; Gray 2004; May 2005).
  • 4There is not sufficient public support for what ‘ought’ to be done, or politicians believe that there is insufficient electoral support, for example because the necessary action threatens voters’ cherished lifestyles.
  • 5Policy has to be formulated to take into account many other legitimate issues and constraints, not least the cost of various options.
  • 6Ecologists and policy-makers work to very different time-scales. The latter want simple short-term solutions, while ecologists tend to offer advice that is complex and long-term (Walton & Gray 1991).
  • 7Politicians are caught between the policy options that emerge from the science, and other powerful interest groups with different agendas – industry, campaigning charities and so on.
  • 8There is ‘institutional failure’ – we have the wrong decision making bodies, poor (or no) ‘joined-up’ government and contradictory policies in different parts of government (Walton & Gray 1991).
  • 9The solutions require international agreement, within Europe or globally. May (2005) has called this the ‘paradox of co-operation’, because unless all nations act together the virtuous may be economically disadvantaged, so no nation wants to be first off the blocks.
  • 10The scientific advice flies in the face of received political wisdom, dogma or other deeply entrenched beliefs (May 2005).
  • 11Some politicians are corrupt and out to make a fast buck.

I will discuss briefly the first and last of these arguments individually, before moving on to three case-histories that illustrate how this web of constraints operates in the real world.


I do not believe that corruption impairs the implementation of sound environmental policies in the United Kingdom. But elsewhere in the world it clearly can. Smith et al. (2003) calculated ‘governance scores’ (a measure of how well a nation is governed, from awful and corrupt to a model of democracy) across 126 developing nations. Correcting statistically for many potentially confounding variables the scores were correlated significantly with two indicators of sound environmental management, namely changes in total forest cover (positive with good governance, negative with bad) and population growth rates of elephants and black rhinos (1987–94) (again, positive with good governance, negative with bad). Depressingly, it is also worth noting that the countries richest in biodiversity had the lowest governance scores.

the deficit model

The deficit model takes several forms (Rayner 2004). At its simplest is the notion that politicians and policy-makers are ignorant, need educating, and then all will be well.

There is no doubt that many (but by no means all) politicians and policy-makers are profoundly ignorant about the state of the global environment and the problems wrought by the sheer scale of the human enterprise (Steffen et al. 2004). As Norman Myers puts it (personal communication) ‘many politicians are so ecologically illiterate they would think a food chain is a line of supermarkets’. Some headline examples of human impacts on the planet will suffice. Every year, human beings take for our own use between a quarter and a half of all terrestrial primary production for food, fibre, fuel, etc. (we then discard quite a lot, but we get first call); in the fertile upwelling regions of the world's oceans (from which we derive virtually all our wild-caught fish) between a quarter and a third of all primary production is required to support the fisheries; and we use about a sixth of the total global run-off of fresh water (and nearly 60% of the accessible run-off) (Pimm 2001). Meanwhile we continue to destroy 0·5–1·5% of ‘wild nature’ (remaining natural and seminatural habitats) annually, or roughly 15–30% in a human lifetime (Balmford et al. 2003). Clearly the capacity to expand the human enterprise indefinitely on a finite planet using existing technologies is severely limited, to put it mildly (see also May 2005).

There is an urgent need to hammer home these and many other points to politicians of all political shades. But it is all too easy to believe that a knowledge deficit is the main, or even a significant reason, why government policies so often fail conspicuously to address environmental issues, and it is all to easy to fall into the trap of believing that if only we could get the message across everything will be just fine.

We can see this belief articulated in Jane Lubchenco's powerfully argued and exceptionally important article on ‘A new social contract for science’ (Lubchenco 1998). ‘Science does not provide the solutions [to environmental problems], but it can help understand the consequences of different choices ... Some of the most pressing needs include communicating the certainties and uncertainties and seriousness of different environmental or social problems, providing alternatives to address them, and educating citizens about the issues.’

I agree. But that alone will not move the mountain. Susan Owens, drawing on work by Weiss (1975) and In't Veld & de Wit (2000), describes how research can often have noticeably little effect on policy (Owens 2005): ‘the problem of “little effect” has long been familiar, across different disciplines, to those engaged in policy-relevant research ... Even when research and analysis are explicitly designed to inform policies and decisions, those who look for manifest impacts may be disappointed ... [L]arge quantities of knowledge produced for the benefit of policy are never used in that policy making’, a view echoed by Sutherland et al. (2006). Owens argues that poor communication provides at best an incomplete explanation of the problem of little effect. Rayner (2002) makes exactly the same point. There is an extensive social-science literature on why this situation, that is typically ignored by many natural scientists (just as politicians often ignore our evidence!), pertains. In part the explanation rests on a faulty model in many of our minds of how science is translated into policy – the linear model, which is roughly:

identify problem → do science or review literature → formulate policy.

In reality it is much more complex than the linear model (Sarewitz 2000; Pielke & Rayner 2004). Policy formulation is actually a messy, iterative, untidy process. Different individuals have different legitimate interests and perspectives that they will naturally attempt to protect and promote (Sarewitz 2000). It also involves not only science, but economics, cultural values, tensions between institutions, different interpretations of what ‘the science’ actually tells us, the need to score political points and win political battles, vested interests, and so on and so forth – indeed, all the tensions and issues listed earlier, and more besides. Without being too cynical, ‘what politicians would really like from science are facts to bolster irrefutably their partisan positions’ (Sarewitz 2000), so that in the hurly-burly of political debate science becomes a surrogate for different belief systems and ideologies (Gray 2004). ‘Arguing about science is a relatively risk free business [for politicians] ... But talking openly about values is much more dangerous, because it reveals what is truly at stake’ (Sarewitz 2000).

It is hardly surprising that the deficit model is found to be seriously wanting in the real world. Much more realistically, science ‘creeps or is absorbed into policy via indirect, cumulative and diffuse processes’ (Radaelli 1995; cited in Owens 2005) so that even when it fails to have immediate impact, it may nevertheless perform an ‘enlightenment function’ (Weiss 1977) helping to slowly change received political wisdom.

Three examples

I want now to consider three examples of the interactions between science and environmental policy, to put some flesh on the bare bones of the argument. I could have picked many other examples, but these will suffice. They are:

  • (i) the collapse of global marine fisheries;
  • (ii) GM crops; and
  • (iii) climate change, carbon dioxide and ocean acidification.

The first two are ‘mature problems’ where policy options are currently hopelessly bogged down by events. Issues around the third involve emerging policy options.

the collapse of global marine fisheries

Population dynamics, a core part of ecological science, underpins fisheries management; but despite the sophistication of the science, global marine fisheries are in terrible shape (Ormerod 2003; Pauly et al. 2003; May 2005). Global landings are declining by about 500 000 metric tonnes a year from peak of 80–85 million tonnes in late 1980s. It is estimated that at least a quarter of all stocks are now over-harvested or depleted (Ormerod 2003), and in some areas total biomass of fish is less than one-tenth of stocks prior to the onset of fishing. Historical reconstructions of marine ecosystems prior to human exploitation make depressing reading (Jackson et al. 2001). For example, reconstruction of North Sea stocks using macro-ecological principles (Jennings & Blanchard 2004) suggests that the current biomass of large fish weighing 4–16 kg and 16–66 kg are 97·4% and 99·2% lower, respectively, than their pristine, prefishing state; the total biomass of all fish between 64 g and 66 kg is 38% lower than the biomass predicted in the absence of exploitation, and 70% less primary production is needed to sustain it. Even some deep-sea stocks are in serious decline (Devine et al. 2006), and illegal landings are rampant.

None of this is because fisheries scientists are incompetent. To quote Bob May (May 2005): ‘The fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly has notably remarked that the interplay between fisheries science (which, although there is still much to learn, would be adequate to manage fisheries sustainably) and fisheries management resembles a splendid well-equipped hospital, where patient's problems are diagnosed accurately, but where nobody receives treatment!’ We know how to manage fisheries sustainably. With a few exceptions we just do not do it.

The roadblocks include many of the reasons outlined above (not every reason applies to every fishery but one or more apply to most). Fishermen argue (wrongly) that the science is too uncertain to set stringent quotas (3); there is extensive over-capitalization and decommissioning over-capacity is expensive (5); stocks may take a long time to recover (6); fishermen have a peculiarly powerful hold over politicians (7); there is institutional failure (8), for example in ‘perverse subsidies’ (Myers & Kent 2001) which subsidize boat-building and other activities despite collapsing stocks; solutions outside territorial waters require international agreements to manage open access resources (9); and undoubtedly in many places there is corruption (11). Little wonder that ‘doing the right thing’ environmentally is so difficult.

Even within UK territorial waters, it is proving difficult to implement the radical policies that appear necessary to reverse the long-term decline of many stocks and to protect the wider marine environment. The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution (2004) recommended in its 25th report (paras 8·63 and 8·96) that a network adding up to 30% of UK waters should be no-take reserves in order to deliver the kind of recovery that is needed to protect the environment and make fish populations sustainable in the long term. Of course, there is uncertainty in the figure of 30% (see for example Sutherland et al. 2006), and government response has been lukewarm (Defra 2006). They agree that marine protected areas (MPAs) have a role to play as part of a framework for protecting the marine environment, but argue that ‘spatial management measures under the Common Fisheries Policy [already] cover 33% of UK territorial waters round England and Wales’. This is a nice bit of obfuscation. ‘Spatial management measures’ are not the same as MPAs. They then go on to say: ‘we are uncertain about the scientific basis for the Royal Commission's recommendation ...’ (even though the report makes quite clear what the basis is and what the uncertainties are) but (the good news) they then do accept the need for a controlled trial of MPAs.

I detect more than a hint of hidden cultural values here (which we might describe, not entirely tongue-in cheek, as ‘struggling, brave fishermen vs. unhelpful environmentalists’), hiding behind what is superficially a scientific argument. I also see the Royal Commission's report as working by attrition, creeping into the minds of reluctant policy-makers, so that even though it may have failed to have immediate impact, it may nevertheless slowly change received political wisdom (Owens 2005).

gm crops

Alan Gray, in the 12th BES Lecture, skilfully described the issues surrounding GM crops in the United Kingdom (Gray 2004) (see also Berringer 2000). ‘Release’ of GM organisms (i.e. planting crops) opens up a Pandora's Box of issues at the UK science–policy interface which is in itself remarkable, given that there is nothing, in principle, dangerous about GM crops and there are millions of acres growing elsewhere in the world. A safe policy is to evaluate each planned commercial use on a case-by-case basis (Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution 1989; Gray 2004).

Cited as an important example of the involvement of UK ecologists in ‘high-profile issues’ (Freckleton et al. 2005), the farm-scale evaluations of spring-sown genetically modified crops (Royal Society 2003) are important, but they are also a very small part of a much bigger canvas, involving the impacts of agriculture in general on the environment, concerns among the public about ‘Frankenstein food’ and health issues, and demagoguery among several actors. In consequence at the present time in the United Kingdom, and without in any way wishing to belittle the experiment (which was impressive both in its scale and execution), the impacts of the farm-scale evaluations on policy are currently miniscule (the ‘problem of little effect’ writ large). The results are clear enough. Simplifying horribly, GM beet and spring oilseed rape were ‘worse’ and GM maize was ‘better’ for wildlife (Royal Society 2003), differences that arise not because the crops were GM per se, but because GM crops give farmers new options for weed control.

It is not too difficult to see why the UK government, should it want to, appears unable to promote the widespread cultivation of GM crops: GM maize, for example (see Gray 2004 for a comprehensive analysis). Using our ‘check list’ (above): there is undoubted uncertainty in the science, and some of this uncertainty is probably irreducible (3); there is widespread public hostility to eating GM food, and to ‘genetic contamination’ of non-GM crops (4); there are major clashes between powerful, but ideologically opposed interest groups (‘Monsanto vs. the Greens’) (7); there are players whose opposition to GM has a quasi-religious fervour about it (10); and many members of the public are genuinely quite ignorant about the science (1). For example, Alan Gray cites a survey by T. J. Hoban in 1999 in 12 developed nations which found that 30% of those questioned believed that tomatoes did not contain genes until genetic engineers put them there (and a further 35% did not know one way or the other).

If you add to this a disgraceful lack of objectivity by many parts of the media, and recognize that in this debate there are fundamental clashes between different belief systems in which (once again) science is being used as a foil, it is little wonder that we have a situation that whatever the science says, policy on cultivation of GM crops in the United Kingdom will be very difficult (but not impossible) to change, at least until the second wave of products produces items of value to consumers rather than to agri-business. We may be seeing the first signs of change in recent government proposals on separation distances between GM and non-GM maize and oilseed rape, designed to minimize ‘genetic contamination’ of non-GM crops (Anonymous 2006). However, this is in the teeth of opposition from the Soil Association and others – on what basis I am unclear because, as Alan Gray points out, physical separation would never be advocated as a strategy to contain genes for which there was any evidence of harm, to people or the environment.

In the end this policy nightmare will, I believe, resolve itself, as the rest of the world increasingly adopts GM crops that are shown to be safe both to people and the environment, and beneficial in any number of ways. The United Kingdom is unlikely to be able to stop the tide coming in.

carbon dioxide, climate change and ocean acidification

I am not going to talk about policies to mitigate climate change by controlling CO2 emissions as such; Dave King does this admirably in the 13th BES Lecture (King 2005). Rather, I am going to focus on two issues: (i) policy issues at the EU level on the effects of climate change on species and ecosystems; and (ii) the direct effects of CO2 on ocean acidification and its ecological consequences.

Proposed EU policies to protect species and ecosystems from climate change

Sometimes, policies can run ahead of the science. This is certainly the case with EU proposals on mitigating the impacts of climate change on European biodiversity. We know (Lawton 2000) that as the climate changes, in the short- to medium-term trophic interactions will be disrupted because phenologies will shift differentially in different species. As habitats become less and less suitable, species ranges will have to shift to stay within their ‘climatic envelope’. In the longer term, species unable to migrate far enough or fast enough, and species whose habitat shrinks or disappears entirely face local or global extinction (Thomas et al. 2004). In brief, communities (assemblages of species) will be torn apart, and new ones formed, probably with impoverished diversity. Much of this is already happening (Parmesan & Yohe 2003; Both et al. 2006; Pounds et al. 2006; many others).

The EU response to these serious threats is intriguing. The background is as follows.

In May 2004 a joint conference of the Irish Presidency and the European Commission in Malahide identified objectives and targets to halt the loss of biodiversity at a European level by 2010. (Notice that the word is ‘halt’, not ‘slow down’ or ‘reduce’.) Proposals to deliver this startlingly bold aim were published on 22 May 2006, when the European Commission adopted a key paper (‘Halting the Loss of Biodiversity by 2010 –and Beyond. Sustaining Ecosystem Services for Human Well-Being’) (Commission of the European Communities 2006), which is now before the EU Council and Parliament for consideration.

This paper provides an impressive list of actions and targets in four key policy areas, with 10 priority objectives. Policy Area 3 deals with Biodiversity and Climate Change, and within this, Objective 9 seeks ‘to support biodiversity adaptation to climate change’. A key piece of explanatory text then says: ‘Policies will ... be needed to help biodiversity adapt to changing temperatures and water regimes. This requires in particular securing coherence of the Natura 2000 network’; to which I would simply add: ‘How, and does it?’.

Here is a proposed policy that runs far ahead of the science. Not only is much of our existing knowledge ambiguous, providing no clear answers, in my view a great deal of the science we might need to know has not yet been conducted. It is not even clear that delivering these objectives can be achieved at all. But contrary to my earlier generalizations, this ambiguity has not been used as an excuse by a group of enlightened policy-makers to avoid putting forward difficult proposals: quite the reverse.

Of course, we do have some simple guiding principles to help deliver Objective 9. The obvious one is to attack the causes of climate change (Pacala & Socolow 2004; King 2005). However, given that this is proving difficult (to put it mildly), what should ecologists recommend? (I absolutely do not subscribe to the perverse view that we should not offer any advice – see Morris 2006.) We should: make protected areas as large as possible to allow for local changes in distribution; create chains of ‘stepping-stone’ reserves and ‘corridors for life’ for species that are not yet there; and make the non-reserve matrix as benign as possible to further facilitate the dispersal and migration of species (e.g. Hulme 2005; Lovejoy 2006); but these are qualitative, very general notions hedged about by great uncertainty. In the horse-trading that will go on within and among Member States to turn the Commission's proposed policies into reality, I predict that these scientific uncertainties will be used by those ideologically opposed to anything that might put a brake on economic growth, not least a greatly expanded network of protected areas and linking corridors, to torpedo the whole thing. I hope I am wrong.

The direct effects of CO2 on ocean acidification and its ecological consequences

As atmospheric CO2 concentrations rise, the oceans absorb some of it and as a result sea-water becomes more acidic (Caldeira & Wickett 2003). The problem is well summarized by the Royal Society (2005). In the last 200 years the world's oceans have absorbed about half of anthropogenically derived CO2, resulting in an increase in the pH of surface waters of 0·1 pH units (a 30% increase in H+ ion concentrations). Under ‘business as usual’ trends in the consumption of fossil fuels, the pH of our oceans could fall by 0·5 units by 2100 (a threefold increase in H+ ion concentrations). This projected pH would be the lowest for the last 300 million years, with a predicted rate of change that is about 100 times higher than any time over this period. The increasing acidity reduces the availability of carbonate ions (which is bad for biology) and reduces the ability of the sea to absorb further CO2 (which is bad for climate change).

Those are the bare bones. The detailed ecological impacts of these changes are very uncertain but are unlikely to be benign (Ruttimann 2006). As the Royal Society report makes clear, and despite the uncertainties, there is already convincing evidence that acidification will impair calcification in animals with CaCO3 shells and skeletons. Corals (tropical and deep, cold-water) may be particularly badly affected, but also molluscs, echinoderms and components of the phyto- and zooplankton with calcified bodies, for example foraminifera and coccolithophores, that form the bases of many marine food chains. Impacts may be greatest in the cold Southern Ocean, which appears to be particularly sensitive to changes in saturation levels of aragonite – one of two key forms of CaCO3. But beyond these ‘high-level’ predictions, as the report goes on to say: ‘... the lack of a clear understanding of the mechanisms of calcification and its metabolic or structural function [in most marine organisms] means that it is difficult ... to reliably predict the full consequences of CO2-induced ocean acidification . . .’ (see also Sutherland et al. 2006).

What are the policy options? First, this is clearly a situation where there is real ignorance among policy-makers of the threats to both marine ecosystems and to climate. We have to address the knowledge deficit, and urgently. The optimist in me says that the threats from ocean acidification are so great that they might just galvanize policy-makers into concerted global action, as happened with depletion of the ozone layer and the ‘Montreal Protocol’ (Steffen et al. 2004). The pessimist in me says that it may be all too easy to use the uncertainties as an excuse for doing nothing, because realistically the only option is to reduce CO2 emissions – we cannot titrate the ocean, and we all know that the urgent need to reduce CO2 emissions significantly to combat climate change is currently proving to be a step too far for the global community, for all the reasons that by now should be painfully familiar.

Concluding remarks

Despite these rather gloomy views, it is not all bad, but we do have one last awkward fact to face. In these and so many similar issues it is easy for people who do not want to change to see environmental scientists or ecologists as the bearers of bad tidings – the purveyors of problems, not the providers of solutions. We cannot allow ourselves to be tarred with this particular brush. If we identify problems we must also suggest solutions.

However, we also need to recognize that more often than not the solutions (slowing, halting or reversing environmental damage) do not lie solely or primarily within our spheres of expertise. They lie in engineering, chemistry, physics, socio-economics, the law, international diplomacy, etc. To reduce acid deposition we had to engineer power stations and switch from coal to natural gas to reduce emissions. We identified the problem, and laid out what needed to be done (reduce SO2 emissions) to fix it. But delivery of this solution required cooperation with many other players. Technologies (satellite tracking systems for boats, changes in fishing gear) and changes in the Law of the Sea, rather than more biology, will be needed to restore many fisheries, and so on. In all such matters we can be part of the solution, but rarely the whole solution. This means collaboration. Ecology alone is not the answer.

So what is ‘the answer’, and if it is all so difficult, why bother? What is the point of a body such as the BES trying to influence policy? To which I would reply –for broadly the same reasons (but obviously with less political ‘clout’) that we have Chief Scientific Advisers across government and a plethora of Advisory Committees and Specialists Groups (bodies such as the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, the Sustainable Development Commission, the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, and many others) offering scientific advice to politicians and policy-makers. As I have tried to explain, the process of influencing policy is messy, iterative and involves many players, different belief- and value-systems, powerful vested interests and so on. If we do not become involved this Tower of Babel has one less voice, and there will be even less chance for the ecological arguments to be heard. Unlike economists and lawyers, most bodies of UK government –with important exceptions (Bob May as Chief Scientific Adviser, John Krebs at the Foods Standards Agency, Gordon Conway at the Department for International Development) – typically have not had, and still do not have, ecologists on their payroll. So there is a role for the BES to argue the ecological corner.

What might we hope to achieve? Scientific advice to government can take several forms and fulfil several roles. A body such as the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, for example (see Owens & Rayner 1999; Lawton et al. 2006), provides an independent, authoritative, in-depth analysis of environmental issues, and acts as a knowledge broker between primary researchers and policy-makers. That is, it helps to address problems caused both by knowledge deficits and too much information. This would also seem to be ‘natural’ BES territory. The RCEP can also help resolve disputes between government and other groups (not a role for a learned scientific society), and act as a ‘policy entrepreneur’ by taking novel approaches to difficult problems, which the BES might also attempt from time to time, bearing in mind my comments about the need for partnerships in finding solutions to difficult environmental problems. Last, but by no means least, the RCEP has what Weiss (1977) calls an ‘enlightenment function’, working to change the framework of the debate and seeking ultimately to alter belief systems and deeply entrenched values. We know this takes time, but again there is a role here for the BES, provided that we recognize that we are in this for the long haul, and that the linear model simply does not work.

To repeat partly some of the earlier quotations, we must never forget ‘the irreducible messiness of the political process. People have legitimately different interests and perspectives that they will naturally attempt to protect and promote. Democratic politics gives them a forum for so doing ... Technocracy – rule by technical expertise –is not a viable alternative. As the history of the Soviet Union demonstrates ...’ (Sarewitz 2000). And, ‘[i]f we look for “direct hits” and short-term action ... we must not always but often conclude that our efforts bear little fruit. If, on the other hand, we acknowledge the potential for subtle effects ... [that] knowledge “creeps” into policy, and that what is thinkable begins to change ... [then we] can indeed “make a difference” ... in the longer term’ (Owens 2005).

My deepest worry is that as the fabric of the planet continues to unravel we just do not have that much time.


David Fowler and two colleagues on the Royal Commission for Environmental Pollution, Susan Owens and Steve Rayner, were generous with their advice and help, as well as commenting on the manuscript. Kitty Southern corrected some mistakes in my interpretation of the ‘Cow Green affair’. Bob May, David Walton and an anonymous referee made helpful comments on the manuscript. I am very grateful to them all.