When the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a standstill in 2020, it stalled two global conferences relating to the environment: COP26 and COP15. COP26, the UN’s premier climate change conference, took place a year late in November 2021. But COP15, the UN’s Biological Diversity Conference, an event that could—no exaggeration—decide the future of life on Earth, still has not happened.
The disparity between these two conferences illustrates that, although the climate and biodiversity crises are equally important and entirely interconnected, global authorities treat the latter like a poor cousin. According to the experts we spoke to, it’s clear that news media does too.
Political leaders have, to some extent, “got the message on climate change,” says conservationist and co-founder of Rebalance Earth, Ian Redmond, but the “existential crisis of biodiversity loss” continues to be “not so well understood.” Redmond, who has decades of experience working in conservation, told Sentient Media that “there seems to be an attitude to nature that it is nice if we can get around to it, rather than seeing it as the life-support system of the planet on which we all depend.”
The extinction crisis “receives far less media attention than it deserves” too, according to executive director of the Earth Journalism Network (EJN), James Fahn. He says this could be because its impacts, such as its influence on food systems, can be relatively “obscure.” The Center for Biological Diversity’s senior scientist, Tierra Curry, who leads its Saving Life on Earth campaign to end human-induced extinction, agrees. She told Sentient Media that the crisis is “absolutely not receiving the amount of attention, action, or funding” it needs in the U.S. or globally.
She argued that there’s no shortage of “bleak global indices” that show the severity of the situation we’re in. In 2019, a UN report found that one million plant and animal species were threatened with extinction. The findings from the Living Planet Index (LPI), a tool that was first developed by research scientists in 1998, point to the urgent need for action. The project assesses the population sizes of vertebrates, namely mammals, fish, birds, reptiles, and amphibians. Its latest report indicated that populations of vertebrates declined on average by 68 percent between 1970 and 2016. In short, we’re losing species–and fast.
Curry says the loss is also evident in everyday life. “People can just look around and notice that common species like bumblebees, butterflies, frogs, bats, and birds are not as numerous as they were even a decade ago,” she says.
But for others, small changes in their environment may not be as clear. A paper recently published by the British Ecological Society found that people perceive the biological reality they’re living through as normal with each new generation. The phenomenon, known as Shifting Baseline Syndrome, may be part of the reason why the media doesn’t document species decline as extensively as it could.
Both Curry and Redmond believe that in the current media landscape, population decreases in wild animals tend to be underreported. This is true of giraffes and elephants, Curry said, who are both “experiencing extreme population declines.”
Redmond also points out the media’s failure to link the climate and biodiversity crises. “When have you seen the decline in whale or elephant populations reported as a climate issue?” The subject is close to the conservationist’s heart. His organization, Rebalance Earth, focuses on the connection between the two crises, highlighting the “ecosystem services,” such as carbon sequestration, that species like whales and elephants provide.
According to Curry, the media also tends to gravitate “toward charismatic species,” which means the less appreciated ones, such as certain types of plants and mollusks, get little to no coverage despite being “incredibly endangered.”
A 2021 study suggested the same may be true for insects. Among other analyses, the probe looked at media coverage in two U.S. national newspapers and four global news wires between 2007 and 2019. It found that reporting on pollinator decline amounted to just 0.007 percent of the 10 million stories inspected.
Luckily for Redmond, the species he has studied—apes and elephants—are considered charismatic. Raising funds and attracting high-profile support for their conservation has been “relatively easy,” he says. He also says that protecting charismatic species can, in certain circumstances, help “smaller, less charismatic” ones. The gorilla parasites that he has studied, for example, benefit from the conservation of their hosts, as do the trees whose seeds the gorillas disperse.
Reflecting on how media reporting on biodiversity has changed through the years, Redmond said that “we’ve moved on a bit” from broadcasters only featuring “comical or bizarre” wildlife stories. But he argued that the pursuit of audience ratings continues to drive them away from difficult topics, which led him to get involved with more progressive media initiatives like the nonprofit TV channel and streaming service Ecoflix.
Some of the topics media coverage tends to avoid are overconsumption and global inequity, Curry says. Wealthy nations are overwhelmingly “driving the collapse of ecosystems and livelihoods around the world,” she says, with those least responsible for climate change “bearing the biggest brunt.”
Reimagining the status quo
Eliminating the biggest threats to biodiversity globally will require an overhaul of the status quo. This means that factory farming, the wildlife trade, and the fishing industry are all in need of urgent reform.
The media has a role to play in this transformation, and giving the extinction crisis the airtime it deserves is one part of this. Fahn emphasizes that when journalists cover specific issues about wildlife or other animals, it’s important they include context on the broader biodiversity crisis too.
The way stories are framed is also important, Curry says. She argues that some reporters “frame issues exactly backwards from a biological perspective,” meaning that they talk about the impact of non-human species on people, rather than the other way round. She suggests that “the long-term economic and wellbeing benefits of maintaining living, intact ecosystems” should be a central component of all environmental reporting.
Redmond also believes that the news media has a responsibility to highlight the links between the climate and biodiversity crises noting that “climate change will certainly exacerbate biodiversity loss, and vice versa.” The two crises even share many of the same solutions.
Ultimately, to Redmond, conservation is an act of “enlightened self-interest.” That’s because humans benefit from the “daily work” other species do “in the life-support system we all enjoy,” he says, referring to the impact they have on the wider ecosystems that we rely on.
Take insects as an example. In his book Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse, biology professor Dave Goulson discusses the myriad of things insects do: pollinating crops and wildflowers, maintaining healthy soils, being a meal for other animals, and much more. “As insects become more scarce, our world will slowly grind to a halt, for it cannot function without them,” he writes.
To avoid the living world grinding to a halt, Curry says “everyone needs to push for national policies to address extinction” and take action in their daily lives. Media outlets can play their part, she added, by saving space for stories about “the beings we share the planet with and depend on for our own survival.”
Tracy is an environmental journalist based near London, UK. Her background is in creative writing, and she's currently a staff writer at The Canary and freelances elsewhere.