Canada has just gone through an election, the USA will next year, and elections are a recurring news item everywhere. In our Canadian election we were spared any news on the state of the environment, and the dominant theme of the election was jobs, the economy, oil, gas, and a bit on climate change. The simplest theme was climate change, and yes, we are all in favour of stopping it so long as we do not need to do anything about it that would cost money or change our lifestyles. Meanwhile the fires of California and Australia and elsewhere carry on, generating another news cycle of crazy comments about the state of the environment.
Is there a better way? How can we get governments of the world to consider that the environment is worthy of some discussion? There is, and New Zealand has led the way in one direction. New Zealand has a Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, an independent Officer of Parliament, whose job it is to provide Members of Parliament with independent advice on matters that may have impacts on the environment. The Office is independent of the government of the day and the Prime Minister, and consequently can “tell it like it is”. A few quotations for the 2019 report give the flavour of this recent New Zealand report:
“If there is one thing that stands out from [our] reports, it is the extent of what we don’t know about what’s going on with our environment.
“…the blind spots in our environmental reporting system don’t represent conscious choices to collect data or undertake research in some fields rather than others. Rather, they represent the unplanned consequences of a myriad choices over decades. Ours has been a passive system that has harvested whatever data is there and done the best it can to navigate what’s missing.
“In some ways, the most important recommendations in this report are those that relate to the prioritising and gathering of data in a consistent way. Despite attempts over more than two decades, no agreement has ever been reached on a set of core environmental indicators. This has to happen. Consistent and authoritative time series coupled with improved spatial coverage are essential if we are to detect trends. Only then will we be able to judge confidently whether we are making progress or going backwards – and get a handle on whether costly interventions are having an effect.
This report is full of ecological wisdom and would be a useful starting point for many countries. Canada has (to my knowledge) no Environmental Commissioner and although various provinces and cities provide State of the Environment Reports, they are largely based on inadequate data. In some cases, like commercial fisheries, Parliaments or Congress have mandated annual reports, provided the secure funding, and retained independence of the relevant director and staff. In many cases there is far too much bickering between jurisdictions, use of inadequate methods of data collecting, long time periods between sampling, and no indication that the national interest has been taken into account.
Most Western countries have National Academies or Royal Societies which provide some scientific advice, sometimes requested, sometimes not. But these scientific publications are typically on very specific topics like smoking and lung cancer, vaccine protection, or automobile safety requirements. We can see this problem most clearly in the current climate emergency. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of the United Nations provides excellent reports on the climate emergency but no government is required to listen to their recommendations or to implement them. So, we have local problems, regional problems and global problems, and we need the political structures to address environmental problems at all these levels. New Zealand has provided a way forward, and here is another quote from the 2019 report that ecologists should echo:
Given that many of the environmental problems we face have been decades in the making and that for nearly 30 years we have [made] specific reference to cumulative effects that arise over time…it is astonishing that we have so little data on trends over time.
….it takes time to assemble time series. If we start collecting data today, it may be a decade or more before we can confidently judge whether the issue being monitored is getting better or worse. Every year that we delay the collection of data in an area identified as a significant gap, we commit New Zealand to flying blind in that area. …..A lack of time series in respect of some environmental pressure points could be costing us dearly in terms of poorly designed policies or irreversible damage.
One example may be enough. Caribou herds in southern Canada are threatened with extinction (Hebblewhite 2017, DeMars et al. 2019). Here is one example of counts on one caribou herd in southern Canada:
2009 = 2093 caribou
2012 = 1003
2019 = 185
It would be difficult to manage the conservation of any species of animal or plant that has such limited monitoring data. We can and must do better. We can start by dragging state of the environment reports out of the control of political parties by demanding to have in every country Commissioners of the Environment that are fully funded but independent of political influence. As long as the vision of elected governments is limited to 3 years, environmental decay will continue, out of sight, out of mind.
There is of course no reason that elected governments need follow the advice of any independent commission, so this recommendation is not a panacea for environmental issues. If citizens have independent information however, they can choose to use it and demand action.
DeMars, C.A.et al. (2019). Moose, caribou, and fire: have we got it right yet? Canadian Journal of Zoology 97, 866-879. doi: 10.1139/cjz-2018-0319.
Hebblewhite, M. (2017). Billion dollar boreal woodland caribou and the biodiversity impacts of the global oil and gas industry. Biological Conservation 206, 102-111. doi: 10.1016/j.biocon.2016.12.014.