From Science to Action: #IPBES7 Q & A with Kate Brauman and Steve Polasky

By Sarah Cafasso| June 3, 2019

IPBES Global Assessment experts (including Polasky and Brauman) at IPBES 7. Photo courtesy of Kate Brauman.

Kate Brauman and Steve Polasky are coordinating lead authors on the Global Assessment on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Brauman and Polasky coordinated the portion of the report focused on nature’s contributions to people.

Question: Would you please give a brief explanation of the purpose of this global assessment?

Kate Brauman: This was the first comprehensive assessment of nature–what’s going on with it and particularly how it affects people–in about 15 years. The idea was to take stock of the status and trends of nature and its contributions to people, then look forward into those trends in the near and further term. Basically, what are the prospects for nature’s help in meeting the Convention on Biodiversity targets and the Sustainable Development Goal targets. And then even looking further into the future and saying, “What does the future look like, how do we get there?” That’s where a lot of emphasis on what kinds of governance, institution, and policy goals are needed. We’re reviewing all of those things: from status and trends of nature, all the way up to what are the purposes, and what’s the research?

Steve Polasky: The IPBES assessment is to biodiversity what the IPCC does for climate change. This is really the summary of “what do we know,” “where are we headed,” and “what can we do about it?”

Q: Along those lines, how will the IPCC reports and IPBES reports be used? Are they entirely separate, or is there some sort of collaboration between the two going forward?

SP: Well, they’re largely separate. These are under different U.N. processes. So the IPCC is under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. IPBES is not a UN body, but what it really informs is the UN Convention on Biodiversity. Climate change affects what happens to our diversity and ecosystem services, and what we do with the biosphere affects our climate. So there’s a lot of overlap, but these are largely independent processes that play out. The IPCC will have their next report in a few years. If all goes accordingly, IPBES will have its next global assessment five or six years down the road from now. And then these will be ongoing processes.

KB: One thing will happen with both of them together, though: the next conference of the parties under the Convention on Biological Diversity in 2020. This global assessment will feed into that as the science background for that Conference of the Parties. And I think they’ll take the most recent IPCC reports as science background as they move into those negotiations.

SP: The cool thing is that these are endorsed by governments. This isn’t just a bunch of scientists saying, “Hey, here’s what we think this is.” That’s where it started, but the governments had to approve this. So it has more weight to it than just some report that a group of scientists put together.

KB: It really started and ended with the governments. Governments came together and approved a mandate for the assessment that said there’s going to be six chapters, “X” will be in chapter one, et cetera.  We started with that document, where the governments said “this is what we want to know,” and then they didn’t meddle in the science at all. We came back and said, “Here’s the summary of our findings.” There were elements of the presentation style of the report that were negotiated, but not the facts.

Q: Thinking about here in the United States, do you have any sense of how this report might impact or guide policy in this country?

SP: It’s very interesting. I was in DC at the end of last week, and this report is getting a lot of play there. And it will continue, it’s part of the atmosphere now. I think it’s changing the conversation. Will it do anything to push the Trump administration to do anything responsible? I don’t think so immediately. But it has an impact on the way Congress starts to think about these things. It also has, frankly, an impact on the way voters start to think about things.

KB: I have to say, one of the things I think has been really neat about this is there has been some big national and international coverage, but there’s been a ton of interest at the local level. I talked to Cleveland public radio last week, I talked to a couple public radio stations in Southern California, and there was a big article in the Star Tribune this week. There’s a lot of local interest.  I think that, similar to what’s happening with climate change response, a lot of action on biodiversity and ecosystem services will come from municipal and state levels as much if not more than from the federal level. Though I have been invited to testify to the House Committee on Space, Science and Technology on June 4.

Watch the US House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology Congressional hearing on the IPBES report. (Live-stream Tuesday, June 4, 10 AM EDT)

SP: And outside of the US it’s a whole different story. There are lots of places that are taking this seriously.

Q: Speaking of the media coverage, a lot of the IPBES assessment press coverage focused on loss of biodiversity/species loss. Are there other things from the report that you would want the general public to take away from this assessment that wasn’t in the spotlight as much?

SP: Our whole section is called “Nature’s Contributions to People,” which is the ecosystem services part. It’s asking the questions, “When we destroy biodiversity, destroy habitats and change ecosystem processes, how does that come back to bite us? How does that impact people’s well-being?” We documented a lot of evidence about how there has been a decline in nature’s contributions to people in the last 50 years. Out of 18 categories, 14 are going down (see Figure 1). Everything is declining except for food production and things which are marketed commodities.

Figure 1. Global trends in the capacity of nature to sustain contributions to good quality of life from 1970 to the present, which show a decline for 14 of the 18 categories of nature’s contributions to people analyzed. Data supporting global trends and regional variations come from a systematic review of over 2,000 studies {}. Indicators were selected on the basis of availability of global data, prior use in assessments and alignment with 18 categories. For many categories of nature’s contributions, two indicators are included that show different aspects of nature’s capacity to contribute to human well-being within that category. Indicators are defined so that an increase in the indicator is associated with an improvement in nature’s contributions.

I don’t want to downplay the power of people thinking about species loss and the million species that are impacted, but there are huge human well-being impacts. This is the whole point of Natural Capital Project. If it had been up to me, I would have pushed that message harder.

KB: I think it’s also worth noting that more than half of this report is actually focused on the future and what we can do. As Andy Purvis, who authored that 1 million species explanatory note, says, “This is not a terminal diagnosis!”

There is actually a lot of hope that there are a lot of things that we can do differently. In fact, when there’s something that we want — when we want food production through agriculture, when we want timber production, when we want materials — we’re really good at doing that! So there’s no reason to think that we can’t, with some focused attention, actually manage all of these things much better.

Q: Now that this assessment is out, what does come next? What do scientists do, what do policymakers do, and then what can the general public do?

KB: One of the things that’s really nice about an assessment like this is that it brings together a huge amount of existing research which tells you a lot about what we know, but it also tells you a lot about what we don’t know. Certainly one of our takeaways in the ecosystem services part is that there’s still a lot of work to do. That there are plenty of places where we’ve got a solid idea of the trajectory and what we think the mechanisms are, we just don’t have the measurements. Especially on a global scale.

I actually think one of the reasons that biodiversity got so much coverage is because we have a longer history of it. They were better at coming up with numbers like “a million species of risk” than we are at saying, “a million people are at risk of …” We’re getting better at that. Steve’s actually leading really cool work doing some modeling of that right now, but it’s not something that we’ve been working on for as long. There’s tons of important research still to do here.

SP: The next step is figuring how how to translate the science into action. Even if you know the facts, what are you going to do about them? How are you going to change how people make economic decisions, how they decide run their farm, or whatever it is on the ground that actually affects biodiversity and ecosystem services? Hopefully, what this does is raise the awareness of the severity of the problem and gets both the public sector and the private sector to pay greater attention. We start to provide incentives for sustaining biodiversity, maintaining habitats, and so forth.

As Kate said, we are very good at producing things that we know we want. Part of the problem here is that most of these ecosystem services, frankly, have been somewhat invisible to most people. Farmers grows corn, they get paid for corn. They don’t get paid for producing clean water or sequestering greenhouse gases. Ultimately, there’s got to be a change in the economic system which is driving a lot of the current destruction. The hopeful news is it’s not a great mystery. We generally know what to do. Now it’s actually getting the political system and the private sector to get going on it and take action.

One thing that Kate said, “Our area is where the science needs to improve.” Clearly. But we know a ton already about the direction that things have to move. So even while we’re finding the science, getting the public to move, getting changes in incentive structures and regulations, starting to do that now is really important.

Q: So then, from your perspective as Natural Capital Project leaders and scientists, how does NatCap fit into this? How does our work help facilitate this transformative change that the assessment is calling for?

SP: Well, besides doing some of the science of which this is based on, a really important part here is trying to actually work with organizations that can create transformative change.

I recently met with The World Bank. The World Bank wants to adopt a new set of natural capital index measures, which they will then use to evaluate how countries are performing. They’re interested in tying some of their loans to sustainability measures.

Working in China with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, we’re seeing the Chinese government moving in this direction. There are lots of major organizations that are kind of on board with the ideas, and now it’s a question of finding the specific mechanisms, a specific way forward. They’re saying, “you’ve convinced us that we should do this, now, how do we do it.”

So, the Natural Capital Project has an incredibly important role to play in both the underlying science and in advising institutions who can make this kind of transformative change.

KB: And I’ll just put a plug in for InVEST. I think all of the media coverage has really been a reflection of the fact that people do care, and there are lots of people that want to make change. And so, sometimes NatCap will do that by actually working with change makers like the World Bank or with the Chinese government, but a lot of times that’s going to be providing the toolset so that people can understand that and do their own planning and make their own decisions, and InVEST is really critical for that.

Q: How does it feel to participate in such a global, impactful assessment and convening?

KB: It’s been a ride. IPBES 7 was this wonderful, interesting, boring, unexpected, totally unpredictable event. And mostly, it was just fascinating to be there with really smart people, both on the expert side and on the government side, hearing what are the questions about, what do we need to know, how do we need to present this to make it compelling, to make it acceptable to these governments. And it was nerve-wracking at times. While I think we felt really confident in the work that we’ve done over the last three years, you never know what governments are going to say. And when Bob Watson hit that gavel, and the assessment was accepted, I seriously thought I might burst into tears, which was only partially because I had been up until 3am the night before at negotiations.

Q: Coming out of this experience and looking forward, what is the one thing that you’re most excited about?

KB: Well, you know, we did so much work. We had this amazing team of 14 people. We have a giant chapter that backs up these three paragraphs of key messages. So we have a bunch of papers to write.

SP: I’ll say two things. One, as we were talking about earlier, is thinking about how to move from science into actual action. It does seem like, internationally, this is a time where forward progress—as opposed to just playing defense—can actually happen. So, so there’s the science part of this. But then there’s getting the science into actual policy and getting some forward momentum. So, I’m excited about trying to work with NatCap’s partners to catalyze this change and move forward faster.

The other thing is, you know, there’s Bill Nye the Science Guy, but I think we have a budding science media star here and I want to see Kate Brauman as “Science Gal Kate Brauman” or something…we need to figure out a good name. That’s the other thing I’m excited about.

Check out some IPBES coverage featuring Brauman here, here, and here.

Lucas Garibaldi, Steve Polasky, and Kate Brauman participate in a panel review of their section at IPBES 7. Photos courtesy of Kate Brauman. 

Q: Any last thoughts?

KB: I would also say that I think that this has potentially really expanded our NatCap family. We worked with a team of experts who aren’t NatCappers — I mean that is the whole point, they’re people from all over the world with all different backgrounds who are doing really cool work on nature’s contributions to people and we had the best team — we actually worked together like a team. And I’m excited to integrate their knowledge into what NatCap is doing and spread NatCap out to them.

SP: Going forward, I’m really struck by the core place of ecosystem services science. It’s interesting that the Millennium Assessment really pushed this notion of ecosystem services, and then the IPBES assessment, while the top headline covered biodiversity, right underneath the surface is all of the ecosystem services science. It’s all NatCap. And if things are actually going to move forward, if we’re actually going to push things forward, that has to be a really strong message. You win some people’s hearts with the message around losing species and biodiversity. But you really move forward when you do the tough slog and the tough politics. You’ve got to convince people not only with their heart, but their head and their pocketbook. That’s the NatCap part of it all, bringing everything together. It’s got to be all of those together to really get the changes, that the transformative change that we need.


Kate Brauman is Lead Scientist for Global Water Assessment at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment and part of the Natural Capital Project science team.

Steve Polasky is a co-founder of the Natural Capital Project and a professor of Ecological/Environmental Economics at the University of Minnesota.

Several other members of the Natural Capital Project team worked on the IPBES global assessment as Contributing Authors, including Katie Arkema, Rebecca Chaplin-Kramer, and Anne Guerry. Hal Mooney served as a review editor for the entire assessment.