Expect more Extinction Denial

Jun 19

Expect more Extinction Denial

Science denial has a long and inglorious history. In 1615 Galileo Galilei was condemned to house arrest for defending Copernicus’ theory that the earth travelled around the sun and not vice versa. In the 1960s, Rachel Carson, an aquatic biologist working for the US Bureau of Fisheries, came under ferocious attack from the chemical industry following the publication of ‘Silent Spring’ in 1962 and her evidence of the harm of chemical sprays.

Denial of the realities of climate change followed in this vein with a range of tactics employed by the fossil fuel industry and other interest groups, employing the full spectrum of obfuscation from outright conspiracy theories (it was invented by the Chinese) to doubt, delay and distraction. Anything to avoid confronting reality head on and taking action.

Few of these voices now employ outright denial, knowing that even the media have more-or-less stopped using false balance to present the ‘alternative facts’ but the other tactics are alive and well among what US author and scientist Michael Mann refers to as the ‘climate inactivists’. But what we haven’t seen much of, until recently, is denial of the extinction crisis. But this is likely to change as biodiversity receives more attention. In fact, it is already emerging in Ireland and seems to be following an identical trajectory to previous efforts to deny the science.

Addressing biodiversity loss at first may not seem to be a direct threat to big business interests, being diffuse and multi-faceted, unlike climate action which directly threatens oil companies and animal agriculture. Until recently, extinction and ecosystem collapse had been largely ignored in the media (not that it gets that much notice now, but still… it’s better than it was) and so is less understood. One farmer I spoke to recently said that the sector was suffering what he described as ‘whiplash’ with what seemed to him like the sudden focus on biodiversity.

Extinction denial went largely unnoticed until May 2019 when the UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) hit the headlines warning that up to a million species could be at risk of extinction. Right wing news outlets (what else) in the UK and the US at the time sought to undermine the findings and had a go at the authors. In 2020, a paper in the scientific journal Nature Ecology and Evolution warned that extinction denial was on the rise and urged scientists to confront the phenomenon with the “cold hard scientific facts”.

This week, IPBES teamed up with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to emphasise that “biodiversity loss and climate change are both driven by human economic activities and mutually reinforce each other. Neither will be successfully resolved unless both are tackled together”. Restoring biodiversity directly threatens a number of sectoral interests – notably in agriculture and fishing but also forestry and peat mining. And so, as the challenge falls into sharper focus we can expect to see more extinction denial in Ireland.

It’s always going to be hard to get people to accept we have a problem in a particular area when doing so implicitly requires a response that challenges the status quo. But I had not encountered outright denial that we have a biodiversity problem until last summer and an article in the Irish Independent farming supplement by dairy farmer Peter Hynes. In it he said that “biodiversity seems to be the buzz word in agriculture for 2020” and found himself “looking at the farm over the last few months questioning myself whether we lack biodiversity or not”. He looked around and saw mature trees, hedgerows and stone walls buzzing with insects. He has fenced off his stream to protect it from cattle and enjoys watching kestrels which sometimes fly over his farm. “In closing” he concluded, “I would ask does the picture painted of our farm depict a biodiversity crisis? I don’t think so”. No need to read any of the scientific literature or reports on the issue, no need to talk to an ecologist – just look around, and if what you see pleases you, then then all those facts and data simply fall away.

Later that year Conor Skehan (a planning lecturer who has demonstrated a reluctance to acknowledge climate science) wrote for the Sunday Independent warning of the dangers of the EU’s Biodiversity Strategy, bemoaning that “many of [its] targets are based on abstract idealism that is blinkered to the realities of economics or agriculture”. He questioned the point of taking action on biodiversity noting that “calls for greater protection of nature overlook the fact that, despite continued population growth, the world has already achieved the idealistic Aichi Biodiversity Targets that were set back in 2010”. In fact, not a single once of these targets had been met.

Two swallows does not a summer make. But then there is the continued denial from other quarters, such as the fishing industry, which routinely challenges the veracity of the science. In September last year, in an article about a mooted cull of seals, head of the Irish South and West Fish Producers Organisation, Patrick Murphy, challenged the Irish Wildlife Trust view (supported by science) that our seas are overfished. “If they [IWT] are saying that the fish stocks are decimated? [sic] How is it that the seal population is growing, what are they eating? It doesn’t add up”.

Then, on Tuesday just past, the Irish Independent farming supplement ran a story by agricultural consultant Mike Brady that went all out. He wanted to address a number of ‘misconceptions’, including that global heating was not a greenhouse gas problem but that human population growth was the issue, and that that methane (a greenhouse gas with a warming effect 86 times that of carbon dioxide) has a “cooling effect”. There’s no such thing as intensive agriculture in Ireland, he revealed, nor is there factory farming (there are nearly 1.7 million pigs[1] and up to 80 million chickens[2] in Ireland, the vast majority of which are held indoors).

Meanwhile “indices of biodiversity (water and air quality) in Ireland are excellent” and “our water and air quality are among the cleanest on the planet”. In fact, “if there was an Olympics for dairy, Irish farmers would be top of the medal table, whatever metric you choose — physical, financial or environmental.”

So there’s no issue. All those people working at the Environmental Protection Agency or the National Parks and Wildlife Service, never mind the hysteria from the NGOs… we’re all just making it up because…? Well, Mike doesn’t tell us why we’d all be devoting our careers to the study of mythology and folklore.

It’s not just that Brady based an entire article addressing ‘misconceptions’ by simply pulling his own facts from thin air. It’s incredible that the editor of one of our national newspapers read this and made a decision to knowingly publish such misinformation.

As the realisation of the scale of our climate and biodiversity challenge dawns, the resistance to change will increase and, sadly, we can expect more of this denialist rubbish. While some will find it soothing to be assured that no such challenge exists, the facts have an annoying habit of not caring how we feel.

[1] Central Statistics Office

[2] An Bord Bia