The new Global Assessment report from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) released a couple of weeks ago, presents overwhelming evidence from a wide range of different fields of knowledge that nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history. Compiled by 145 expert authors from more than 50 countries, the report provides a comprehensive picture of the relationship between economic development pathways and their impacts on nature and offers possible scenarios for the coming decades.
On May 22, International Day for Biological Diversity, the IAI Interview Series welcomes the lead review editor for the IPBES Global Assessment and former member of the IAI Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC) Prof. Harold A. Mooney, to speak on the critical loss of biological resources and the consequences of this loss to our planet.
Prof. Mooney is an ecologist and emeritus professor in the Department of Biology at Stanford University, United States. Prof. Mooney helped pioneer the field of physiological ecology and is an internationally recognized expert on environmental sciences. Through his six-decade academic career, Prof. Mooney has demonstrated how plant species and groups of species respond to their environments and developed research methodologies for assessing how plants interact with their biotic environments. To date he has authored over 400 scientific books, papers and articles. His many accolades and awards include the 1990 ECI Prize in terrestrial ecology, the 1992 Max Planck Research Award in biosciences, the 1996 Eminent Ecologist Award from the Ecological Society of America, the 2000 Nevada Medal, the 2002 Blue Planet Prize, the 2007 Ramon Margalef Prize in Ecology, the 2008 Tyler Prize, the 2008 BBVA Foundation Award for Biodiversity Conservation, and the 2010 Volvo Environment Prize.
You are the review editor of the IPBES Global Assessment. We have seen unprecedented media coverage of this report. Why is the new evidence so important since the findings from the last global assessment you co-chaired in 2005, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment?
The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) addressed the services that nature provides to society. IPBES adds an additional dimension to this construct by determining the feedback of society in enhancing services in addition to those actions that diminish or even destroy these services.
With the ongoing global biodiversity losses and climate change, researchers are often skeptical about the future of our planet. What’s your hope for humanity and what are the most important steps to achieve sustainability?
Humans have met the challenges of crises in our past history. I think that a greater effort of humankind to understand the environmental consequences of all of their individual actions, for example the web of environmental impacts of their everyday lives, the food that they eat, the fresh water that they utilize, the packaging of consumer goods, the environmental costs along the supply change of the products they use, etc, their environmental footprint.
This year's theme for International Day of Biological Diversity is "Our Biodiversity, Our Food, Our Health". Today, most of the world's food comes from a small variety of crops, and it signals the potential for a serious food crisis in the near future. What is the first thing that needs to be done to prevent such food and possible health crisis?
There are many issues facing the agricultural production to feed the world. The human population continues to grow but the available arable land is finite. We depend on a small number of crop species. All plants are temperature sensitive and we are seeing raising temperatures already affecting the yield of some species at the edges of their historical productive temperature ranges. The global supply chain has unappreciated consequences locally and at faraway countries. So, what to do in response: learn more about the chain and how you can make it sustainable by individual decisions every day. Crop breeding is already addressing these issues and needs to be accelerated.
You have been a scientist your whole life, and I'm sure your retirement will not change the prism through which you view the world. What are your latest scientific interests?
I am focusing on the social dimensions of issues that are related to solving some of our environmental problems. I am working on looking at the evolution of interdisciplinary and international science focusing on the problems noted above.
And a follow-up to that question would be what will the most important issues over the coming decades in global environmental change research?
One issue is the apparent increasing trend toward the lessening of concerns of society on global issues with a rise of nationalism. In terms of the environment, there has to be more focus on the environmental consequences of the growth of cities and their impacts on the distant environments that support them. Society faces major challenges to the huge issues that pose threats including sea level change, melting glaciers, climate change, depletion of marine stocks, arable soil loss, and disposed plastics and toxic wastes as examples.
What words of advice would you give to your 18-year-old self?
Be concerned with the environment that supports your wellbeing, keep informed. Advance as far is possible in your education. Build and maintain social networks with those who share your values and aspirations. Share your knowledge with others. In terms of the environment, give more than you take.
What in science do you believe everyone should know about?
How our life support system operates and how it can be nurtured and maintained.
Because human activity has a major impact on biodiversity, and because biodiversity is not evenly distributed across the planet, rigorous science is important to guide the right policy decisions. Do you have an example of a success story where science has made a difference in the lives of people (that they may not be aware of)?
Probably the best example of success in recognition of the development of an environmental crisis due to human activity was the expansion of the “ozone hole” produced by industrial products. The crisis was identified and solutions were established to reduce this challenge (and a Nobel Prize awarded for the scientists involved in the solutions). Most other environmental problems are more complex in nature and simple solutions more difficult to achieve but nonetheless further work is vital in order to protect and maintain our life support system.