Red line in Red List of Ecosystems

A week ago today a group of earth scientists published their paper on the Scientific Foundations for an IUCN Red List of Ecosystems. This important step towards competent management of our planet attracted little notice in the media.

Last week also saw the 400 parts per million landmark for atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide disappear into the rear view mirror. Having no more than symbolic significance, this event nevertheless prompted yards of commentary by all and sundry.

Groundwater dependent ecosystems support livelihoods in Vietnam ©IUCN Vietnam
Groundwater dependent ecosystems support livelihoods in Vietnam ©IUCN Vietnam

My initial reaction was to blame the IUCN communications people for missing such an obvious hook to promote their pet project. We’ve been warned constantly about the potentially terminal effect of rising temperature on vital ecosystems – notably the Amazon rainforest and the coral reefs.

Surely the looming 400ppm threshold could have been exploited to stress the urgency (and the need for funding) of the Red List initiative? By 2025 it aspires to classify the world’s threatened ecosystems – terrestrial, marine, large and small – as vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered, labels familiar from the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species.

This blind spot seemed to be just another example of silo thinking within our environmental advocacy establishment. Then I took a closer look at the 25-page scientific paper, the 45-slide presentation by Ed Barrow, Head of IUCN’s Global Ecosystem Management Programme, together with the latest media material and new website.

To my surprise, the impact of climate change is barely mentioned – just a fleeting reference to the role of stable ecosystems in creating resilience.

The scientists may argue that they have chosen to focus on biodiversity loss as the primary risk factor in ecosystem collapse, drawing a red line against broader ecological changes that might be linked more readily with global warming.

However, last week also saw the publication of new research led by the University of East Anglia which casts some doubt on the wisdom of the IUCN approach.

This research focused on the how the habitats of plants and animals will be affected by climate change. Dr Rachel Warren from the University of East Anglia told the BBC that “climate change will greatly reduce the diversity of even very common species found in most parts of the world.”

I can’t for a moment challenge the science of the IUCN paper. But I continue to be worried that two major UN Conventions – on climate change and on biological diversity – are beating their separate paths. It’s understandable that scientists and campaigners whose careers are inextricably linked with one tend to lose sight of the other. Perhaps those of us working in communications and education need to strive harder to make the connections.


New study shows importance of IUCN’s Red List of Ecosystems from IUCN

‘Dramatic decline’ warning for plants and animals from BBC

Climate Change and Biodiversity – Tread Softly briefing