World Leaders, Media Ignore Biodiversity Report Detailing Mass Extinction Event Now Underway
By Julia Conley
Scientists at the United Nations' intergovernmental body focusing on biodiversity sounded alarms earlier this month with its report on the looming potential extinction of one million species — but few heard their calls, according to a German newspaper report.
Deutsche Welle reported Thursday that partially because the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) released its report on what it called nature's "unprecedented" decline on the same day that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex had their first child, news reports on the study's grave implications were few and far between.
While some international and progressive outlets — including Common Dreams — published high-profile stories on the report when it was released, just two of Britain's national newspapers included any reporting about biodiversity on their front pages on May 7, the day after the royal baby was born to Meghan Markle and Prince Harry.
ABC, NBC, and MSNBC did not air a single prime-time mention of the major new U.N. biodiversity report warning of ecosystem collapse. The new royal baby got airtime, though. By @theodorejay. https://t.co/EQPe2qnNJx #CoverClimate #CoveringClimate #ClimateCoverage #EndClimateSilence— Lisa Hymas (@lisahymas) May 8, 2019
Deutsche Welle's report was mirrored by revelations in a Media Matters report published earlier this week which showed that ABC News devoted more time to covering the royal baby's birth in the week after the child was born than it had to stories about the climate crisis in all of 2018 — even as organizers like 16-year-old Greta Thunberg led worldwide climate strikes.
"Where [is] the breaking news?" tweeted Thunberg the day after IPBES released its report. "The extra news broadcasts? The front pages? Where are the emergency meetings? The crisis summits? What could be more important?"
Where are the breaking news?— Greta Thunberg (@GretaThunberg) May 7, 2019
The extra news broadcasts?
The front pages?
Where are the emergency meetings?
The crisis summits?
What could be more important?
We are failing but we have not yet failed.
We can still fix this.
But not if we continue like today.
Not a chance. https://t.co/qzeAJpJHei
IPBES's report detailed how "The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever," the panel's chairman, Sir Robert Watson said in a statement.
By rapidly expanding livestock and crop production, degrading land, concentrating activity in urban areas at more than double the rate than two decades ago, and increasing pollution by tenfold since 1980, humans are "eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide," Watson said.
In addition to the potential loss of one million species, the biodiversity crisis carries substantial risks for world economies, food security and the spread of disease, scientists warn.
The report calls on policymakers to take immediate concrete action to protect nature by promoting sustainable agricultural practices, inclusive and equitable water management, renewable energy sources and other reforms.
On Wednesday, Democrats in the U.S. House attempted to call attention to the ecological crisis which is causing the rapid loss of life among millions of species, with a House Natural Resources Subcommittee holding a hearing on the issue, including testimony from Watson and other IPBES officials.
Biodiversity, Watson told the subcommittee, "is the substance behind food security, water security, it does control our climate in part, it does control pollination, it does control storm surges. These are things that affect everyday Americans. If we continue to lose biodiversity, if we continue to fragment our ecosystems, then human well-being will indeed suffer."
"This is something the average American should care about," he added.
But as The Guardian reported, lawmakers at the hearing also heard from climate science deniers who had been invited to testify by Republican committee members, diluting the urgency of IPBES's message.
Scientists have published more than 20,000 articles in 45 languages on the subject of biodiversity loss in recent years, Deutsche Welle reported.
Without the media reporting on and lawmakers expressing the urgency of the biodiversity crisis, the public has found little reason to become interested in the issue. The same day most news outlets devoted their coverage to the royal baby, Google searches for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle outnumbered those for biodiversity by 14 and 31 to one, respectively.
Deutsche Welle reported that while politicians and the news media have slightly increased the attention they've given to the climate crisis recently, under pressure from campaigners, the same consideration has not been given to biodiversity.
"Nature's unprecedented decline, which has quietly sped up, is, in isolation, less dramatic than extreme weather events brought by global warming — such as flash floods and wildfires. Its contributions to humans are also hard to grasp," reported Ajit Niranjan in the newspaper. "An obscure earthworm may form part of an ecosystem that keeps soil fertile and helps put food on our plates. But its death rarely stirs hearts the way a polar bear on melting ice does."
With its latest report, IPBES aimed to change that perception.
"One of the great things about the report is that it highlights ... the different ways we value nature," environmental scientist Kathryn Williams told the outlet. "Not just tangible ways like food and clear air, but also the ways that we relate on a more emotional level."
ABC, NBC and MSNBC Prime-Time Shows Ignored Landmark UN Report on Biodiversity: https://t.co/0fPefBbW99— Extinction Symbol (@extinctsymbol) May 9, 2019
Reposted with permission from our media associate Common Dreams.
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Kevin T. Smiley
When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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