Are scientists using proper words to describe the negative influence of humans on the Earth’s ecosystems?

By Frank Götmark

In “Responsible Use of Language in Scientific Writing and Science Communication1  Kueffer and Larson discussed the role of language and concepts in scientific writing and communication. Researchers increasingly depend on marketing strategies to publish their findings and to obtain funding, according to the authors. They were especially interested in strong metaphors that may come to influence thinking in whole research fields. One example was “ecosystem services”. Although useful under some circumstances, it has come to dominate much writing and calls for funding in the fields of sustainability and biological conservation. Kueffer and Larsson argue that ecosystem services neglect “alternative conceptions that are focused on stewardship and moral duty, long-term sustainability, and the cultural values of ecosystems”. We agree; concepts that originally served to teach people about the value of natural ecosystems can change over time, and be transformed in meaning by dominating anthropocentric views. The term “ecosystems services” may, for instance, increasingly be used to form new agricultural land for humans on formerly forested land.

Below, we present and use an abstract from a study  recently published in the respected scientific journal Nature: Unexpectedly large impact of forest management and grazing on global vegetation biomass2. The study is certainly valuable for ecologists and conservation biologists. But consider how words and concepts are used, and how these tend to hide the background of strong human (a word not used) pressure on ecosystems. By exchanging certain words and concepts in a second abstract (see below), the reality becomes more clear. The second abstract, and especially the title there, may have meant that the study had not been accepted in Nature. Something that’s expected and not “novel” – a word often used in abstracts – does not make editors excited, even if the findings are important.

Title (original text, we have marked words in bold)

Unexpectedly large impact of forest management and grazing on global vegetation biomass

Abstract (original text, our bold words)

Carbon stocks in vegetation have a key role in the climate system. However, the magnitude, patterns and uncertainties of carbon stocks and the effect of land use on the stocks remain poorly quantified. Here we show, using state-of-the-art datasets, that vegetation currently stores around 450 petagrams of carbon. In the hypothetical absence of land use, potential vegetation would store around 916 petagrams of carbon, under current climate conditions. This difference highlights the massive effect of land use on biomass stocks. Deforestation and other land-cover changes are responsible for 53–58% of the difference between current and potential biomass stocks. Land management effects (the biomass stock changes induced by land use within the same land cover) contribute 42–47%, but have been underestimated in the literature. Therefore, avoiding deforestation is necessary but not sufficient for mitigation of climate change. Our results imply that trade-offs exist between conserving carbon stocks on managed land and raising the contribution of biomass to raw material and energy supply for the mitigation of climate change. Efforts to raise biomass stocks are currently verifiable only in temperate forests, where their potential is limited. By contrast, large uncertainties hinder verification in the tropical forest, where the largest potential is located, pointing to challenges for the upcoming stocktaking exercises under the Paris agreement.

Below, our alternative form of writing, making background and mechanisms clear and closer to reality:

Title (our changes with new bold words)

Expected and confirmed large impact of human population on global vegetation biomass

Abstract (our changes with new bold words)

Carbon stocks in vegetation have a key role in the climate system. However, the magnitude, patterns and uncertainties of carbon stocks and the effect of human expropriation of carbon of other organisms remain poorly quantified. Here we show, using state-of-the-art datasets, that vegetation currently stores around 450 petagrams of carbon. In the hypothetical absence of the effect of humans on Earth, potential vegetation would store around 916 petagrams of carbon, under current climate conditions. This difference highlights the massive effect of human numbers and consumption on biomass stocks. Deforestation and other land-cover changes are responsible for 53–58% of the difference between current and potential biomass stocks. The effect of humanity (the biomass stock changes induced by consumption within the same land cover) contribute 42–47%, but have been underestimated in the literature. Therefore, avoiding deforestation is necessary but not sufficient for mitigation of climate change. Our results imply that trade-offs exist between conserving carbon stocks on human-dominated land and raising the contribution of biomass to raw material and energy supply for the mitigation of climate change. Efforts to raise biomass for humans are currently verifiable only in temperate forests, where their potential is limited. By contrast, large uncertainties hinder verification in the tropical forest, where the largest potential and threat is located, pointing to challenges for the upcoming stocktaking exercises under the Paris agreement.

References:

  1. Kueffer, C. & Larson, B.M.H. Responsible Use of Language in Scientific Writing and Science Communication. BioScience 64, 719–724 (2014)
  1. Erb, K.-H. et al. Unexpectedly large impact of forest management and grazing on global vegetation biomass. Nature 553, 73-76 (2018)

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