Stress Success

Are prophecies of conservation doom self-fulfilling? That's the intriguing argument put forward in a new paper in Trends in Ecology and Evolution by Australian researchers Stephen T. Garnett and David B. Lindenmayer.

In "Conservation science must engender hope to succeed," the authors suggest that relentless communication of an impending mass extinction is failing to motivate politicians, policy makers, or the public, and is likely to be counterproductive:

Researchers need to provide the science not only for the campaigns lamenting environmental loss, but also, most importantly, for those celebrating the effectiveness of conservation. 

The authors acknowledge the immense challenges facing global biodiversity. Yet they remind us of enormous achievements of the past 50 years:

  • South Korea, almost denuded after the Korean War, now boasts forest cover across more than 63 percent of the country.
  • In Namibia, wildlife populations are increasing.
  • South Africa has completed a major expansion of Kruger National Park.
  • Iraqi engineers have reflooded the Tigris–Euphrates marshes.
  • Pioneering legislation has slowed species loss around the world, including the Bird Directive of the EU, the Habitats Directive of the EU, and the US Endangered Species Act of 1973.
  • In Australia, large-scale land clearing has been halted and most of the rainforest in the country is now contained within World Heritage sites.
  • The largest marine protected area in the world was recently enacted by one of the poorest nations on Earth, Kiribati.
  • The Antarctic Treaty has conserved more than 14 percent of our global land area—18 million square kilometers/6.5 million square miles—for longer than 50 years.

Garnett and Lindenmayer propose that scientists and communicators stress success via three actions:

  1. Hold a series of international conferences with published proceedings devoted entirely to describing successful conservation programs that have led to positive outcomes.
  2. Instigate journal editorial policies that promote the publication of papers highlighting successful conservation actions. Instigate special issues highlighting positive policy changes and achievements. Such journal policies are required because—the authors suspect—there's a bias towards citations of doomsaying papers.
  3. Complete interdisciplinary scientific research on the factors underpinning effective, successful, and sustained conservation. Do this in multiple settings at multiple scales, and use this research to boost future conservation effectiveness.

The paper:

  • Stephen T. Garnett and David B. Lindenmayer. Conservation science must engender hope to succeed. Trends in Ecology and Evolution. December 2010. DOI:10.1016/j.tree.2010.11.009.

The new Congress kicks off on Wednesday, and Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), the incoming chair of the energy and commerce committee, has promised to put regulation of climate-changing emissions on the top of the docket—blocking it, that is. And he's indicated that he may use an obscure tactic to thwart the new EPA rules governing emissions from major sources of greenhouse gas pollution.

Upton recently suggested that he may seek to employ the rarely-used "resolution of disapproval" to block the EPA's regulations. "We are not going let this administration regulate what they have been unable to legislate," Upton said on Fox News Sunday (via The Hill), referring to the fact that the Senate did not pass a climate law last year. Upton told Fox a disapproval resolution might be one way they could block the EPA's carbon rules, which officially began phasing in on January 2.

The disapproval resolution was authorized by the Congressional Review Act of 1996 as part of Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America," and it allows Congress to overturn regulations from the executive branch within 60 days of their publication in the Federal Register. It is rarely invoked and even more rarely successful. Republicans did succeed in using it in 2001 to block new ergonomics rules from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration under the Clinton administration, but it hasn't been successfully employed since. (If Congress does succeed in blocking an administrative rule, the agency that issued it is also barred from creating any future rule that is substantially similar to the blocked one.)

With Republicans in control of the House and the majority of the caucus openly dismissive of the science on global warming, a disapproval resolution would probably pass in that chamber with ease. Of course, a disapproval resolution would likely be vetoed by the president, as Upton noted on Sunday. But as he also mentioned, there are a number of Democrats in favor of axing the EPA's new emissions rules. Six Senate Democrats voted for a disapproval resolution that Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) put forward last June that would have blocked the EPA's finding that greenhouse gases pose a threat to human health, a finding that led to the new regulations. Four of those Democrats will return to the Senate this year, and at least one freshman Democrat, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, has also pledged to shoot down EPA regulations. Because a disapproval resolution requires just 51 votes in the Senate—rather than the 60-vote hurdle most legislation needs to clear these days—it could actually go somewhere.