25 environmental threats in our future

Environmental scientists and policy makers have done some deep brainstorming sessions about our future, according to an article in New Scientist. 35 representatives from organizations involved in environmental policy, academia, scientific journalism in the UK have used what they call 'horizon scanning.' They've established a list of 25 future novel threats facing UK biodiversity. This list includes toxic nanomaterials, biomimetic robots that could become new invasive species or genetically engineered viruses. Even if the scientists only covered the UK situation, most of these threats can be applied in other parts of the world. But read more...

Environmental scientists and policy makers have done some deep brainstorming sessions about our future, according to this article in New Scientist. 35 representatives from organizations involved in environmental policy, academia, scientific journalism in the UK have used what they call 'horizon scanning.' They've established a list of 25 future novel threats facing UK biodiversity. This list includes toxic nanomaterials, biomimetic robots that could become new invasive species or genetically engineered viruses. Even if the scientists only covered the UK situation, most of these threats can be applied in other parts of the world. But read more...

Here is how the idea of building this list started, according to New Scientist. "The original inspiration for the event came from the debate over genetically modified crops. 'I was struck by the fact that we were doing a lot of research into the environmental effects of GM crops after policy makers had made their decisions -- it was just the wrong way around,' William Sutherland, [Professor of Conservation Biology at the Department of Zoology of the University of Cambridge, UK,] told New Scientist. He notes that the future supply of biofuel is already becoming a political issue because a thorough environmental assessment has yet to be carried out."

With many of his colleagues, Sutherland participated to several workshops to scrutinize the effects of current and future technologies on or environment. "And they call for research into the potential environmental impact of releasing manmade viruses. In Australia, researchers have developed a novel way of controlling the invasive red fox -- a virus that infects and sterilises it -- although it has not been released into the wild population. 'What happens if the virus spreads outside its target range?' asks Sutherland. 'Could it sterilise other foxes? Could the virus combine with another and infect different species?'"

The full report is available online from the Journal of Applied Ecology, published by the Blackwell Publishing group as an online early article (March 20, 2008). Here is the link to the abstract of "Future novel threats and opportunities facing UK biodiversity identified by horizon scanning."

Here are some excerpts from this -- pretty long -- abstract. "A total of 35 representatives from organizations involved in environmental policy, academia, scientific journalism and horizon scanning were asked to use wide consultation to identify the future novel or step changes in threats to, and opportunities for, biodiversity that might arise in the UK up to 2050, but that had not been important in the recent past. At least 452 people were consulted. Cases for 195 submitted issues were distributed to all participants for comments and additions. All issues were scored (probability, hazard, novelty and overall score) prior to a 2-day workshop. Shortlisting to 41 issues and then the final 25 issues, together with refinement of these issues, took place at the workshop during another two rounds of discussion and scoring."

The Blackwell Publishing group has released the contents of this report as a free document. Here are two links to the text version and to PDF one (11 pages, 159 KB) of this report.

Below is the list of the 12 issues that the authors have rated as high both for 'assessed likelihood' and potential threat on biodiversity. There is no particular order.

  • Direct impact of novel pathogens
  • Action to facilitate species range change in the face of climate change
  • Frequency of extreme weather events
  • Geo-engineering the planet to mitigate the effects of climate change
  • Increased fire risk
  • Increasing demand for biofuel and biomass
  • Reduction of coldwater continental shelf marine habitats
  • Significant increase in coastal and offshore power generation
  • Dramatic changes in freshwater flows
  • Nature conservation policy and practice may not keep pace with environmental change
  • Decline in engagement with nature
  • Public antagonism towards wildlife due to perceived human health threat

If you don't have enough time to read the full report, here is a direct link to the summary of the 25 issues, opportunities and threats that we might face. Do me a favor: read the full report. And drop me a line if you disagree with it.

Sources: Catherine Brahic, New Scientist, March 20, 2008; and various websites

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