Saturday, 25 May 2013

Confronting the need for good news

Channel 4 News recently ran a series of snappy items on the impacts of a changing climate, loosely hung around the not so snappily titled ‘Terrestrial Biodiversity Climate Change Impacts Report Card’. This ‘card’, which provides an overview of how climate change is affecting UK biodiversity, is based on the latest scientific evidence and is drawn from a wide range of organisations. Channel 4 News should be rightly praised for giving this work some high profile air time, as all too often the environment and its wildlife are pigeonholed into bite-sized snippets, largely centred on creatures that are either large and cuddly or which cut across our economic activities.

Rather sadly, Channel 4 News fell into the trap of wanting to balance or soften the bad news – a changing climate is negatively impacting much of our wildlife – with happy ending. They managed to do this by first suggesting that we should be planting exotic trees, or exotically-sourced forms of native trees, so that we will have woods and forests better suited to the climate we are likely to face by the time they mature. Such plantings are already taking place. The Forestry Commission has already started down this road by planting Californian redwoods in Wales, hopeful that their better drought tolerance will make them more commercially viable under a changing climate. And there’s the rub – missed by Channel 4 News ­– these trees are being grown as a crop, looking for economic returns and irrespective of wildlife benefit.

One of the items broadcast by the news team went on to champion how we can reintroduce creatures that have been lost, implying (at least to those in Government keen to hear such a message) that if we stuff things up then we can always reintroduce the species that are lost. While it is true that there have been some very successful, very high profile reintroductions here in the UK, it is important to note that reintroduction only works under very precise circumstances. Specifically, it requires you to know what has caused the loss of the species in the first place and to have fixed it so that it is no longer a problem. This is why species like white-tailed eagle and red kite have been so readily reintroduced. These are species that were persecuted to extinction across much of their UK range; by removing the persecution we have been able to bring them back. The impacts of a changing climate are unlikely to be so readily reversed, making reintroduction a less suitable tool.

The problem with the media’s need for a happy ending is that it suggests that things are easily fixed, which they’re not. It is time to be more honest about what climate change actually means. 

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