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When Does Plant and Animal Species Loss Become a Societal Crisis?

Insights + Opinion
When Does Plant and Animal Species Loss Become a Societal Crisis?
A mountain woodland caribou bull in the Muskwa-Kechika Wilderness area in northern British Columbia, Canada. John E Marriott / All Canada Photos / Getty Images

It's heartening, in the midst of the human-caused sixth mass extinction, to find good wildlife recovery news. As plant and animal species disappear faster than they have for millions of years, Russia's Siberian, or Amur, tigers are making a comeback. After falling to a low of just a few dozen in the mid-20th century, the tigers now number around 500, with close to 100 cubs — thanks to conservation measures that include habitat restoration and an illegal hunting crackdown.


It shows the value of sound policies and regulations to protect wildlife. But as an article in the journal Marine Policy states, "Evidence of an environmental conservation problem is often not considered sufficient by government to warrant a change in the way human activities are managed until the problem becomes a societal crisis." The article highlights the devastating deaths of North Atlantic right whales because of regulatory foot-dragging. Although the dire situation finally triggered protection measures for whales and their habitat, some worry it's too little, too late.

The authors recommend proactive, precautionary measures to protect at-risk species. These are rare in Canada. Even when species are pushed to the brink, governments continue to stall.

That's true for boreal woodland caribou — 37 of Canada's 51 boreal caribou herds have been deemed unlikely to survive under current forest-management practices. In 2012, after a federal science advisory panel examined how much caribou range must be kept undisturbed for the animals to survive, the federal government gave provinces and territories five years to develop range plans that afforded caribou a minimum 60 percent chance of survival. None did.

Not one province or territory with boreal caribou has implemented the risk-based threshold management approach. Throughout Canada, industrial activities continue to degrade caribou habitat in the absence of sufficient protection regimes. In the past year, two of BC's caribou populations died out.

To mask impacts from the lack of conservation efforts, provinces such as BC and Alberta are using half measures like predator control and permanent penning to keep remaining caribou populations alive.

With governments touting what they'll do in the future while perpetually dragging their feet, the David Suzuki Foundation has had to resort to legal recourse — as it did in 2010 on behalf of the right whale, using scientific evidence to show it needed a broader habitat definition.

The foundation has also worked for 15 years to protect and recover southern resident killer whales, or Salish Sea orcas, near Vancouver. We've gone to court four times to get government to define critical habitat, complete recovery plans and issue an emergency order to protect the whales. We even joined a U.S. case to protect them from underwater noise from naval exercises.

We won all cases except the one to force government to order immediate on-the-water changes to human behavior. That case became moot when federal fisheries and environment ministers recommended emergency protections only to have cabinet turn them down. At least we were able to get a multi-stakeholder advisory process to decide what changes to human activities will be made to help the whales. There's hope, but also concern that time is running out.

Earlier this year, the foundation partnered with two conservation organizations and two First Nations to ensure the federal environment and climate change minister fulfills her legal responsibility to protect five boreal caribou herds in Alberta. There's often room for sustainable economic development and species abundance, but sometimes tough decisions have to be made, and politicians will look to the public to gauge the extent to which we consider wildlife loss a crisis.

Many wildlife populations in Canada are in peril. Is this regarded as a societal crisis? If not — if faced with leaving a vastly diminished world for future generations and losing species like orca and caribou is not seen as an urgent matter — why not? What will it take to make wildlife crises our own? Is there a tipping point at which Canadians will create the political momentum for society to pivot from wildlife decline to supporting much overdue conservation actions? If so, have we not reached it?

With its iconic tigers, Russia has shown what can be accomplished with robust habitat and species conservation measures that prioritize at-risk wildlife. It's a lesson Canada needs to learn.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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