• 31 May 2024

Mass Extinction Conference

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On May 30th, the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences – RBINS – organised in Brussels an in person conference around the topic of Mass Extinctions with the participation of the Belgium Science Policy Office BELSPO. The opening was given by Director General of RBINS Michel van Camp. Co-Masters of Ceremony Kelle Moreau, spokesperson from RBINS and  Petra Manderscheid, Executive Director of the JPI Climate Secretariat at BELSPO guided through the programme and discussions.

The morning session included keynote speeches by Dr Frank P. Wesselingh (molluscan paleontologist at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center, Leiden, The Netherlands), Dr Benoît Fontaine (conservation biologist at the Centre d’Écologie et des Sciences de la Conservation, France), Dr Thierry Smith (paleontologist at the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, Belgium) and Dr Anna Wienhues (environmental philosopher, University of Oslo, Norway & KULeuven, Belgium).

  • Dr Frank P. Wesselingh: Understanding extinctions: Lessons from the geological past to address the Anthropocene Biodiversity Crisis
  • Dr Benoît Fontaine: The sixth extinction: fact, fiction or speculation?
  • Dr Thierry Smith: Eocene Thermal Maxima: impact on (terrestrial) biodiversity and comparison with present-day global warming
  • Dr Anna Wienhues: The ethics of species extinctions

The keynotes addressed fascinating topics as listed above, covering information on the 5 previous mass extinctions, the complexity in trying to define the 6th mass extinction due to the limits of data on understudied classes of species like molluscs and insects, the vulnerability of modern ecosystems against extinction stresses, or the ethics underlying the extinction of species.

The afternoon session began with an intervention by Dr Patrick Semal (Head of Heritage Service, Institute of Natural Sciences, Belgium) on the ‘Communication on the role of natural history museums’.

This was followed by a debate co-moderated by Kelle Moreau and Petra Manderscheid. The debate panel constituted all keynote speakers, along with Dr Luc Janssens de Bisthoven (CEBioS, Institute of Natural Sciences, Belgium).

Engaging discussions ensued, where a diverse array of perspectives was brought forward by the audience. The panel discussed the disparity in funding between climate change and biodiversity conservation, emphasizing the need for the biodiversity crisis to become a focal point on policymakers’ agendas. This may require an overall ranking of causes, although this is foreseen as a challenging task by scientists due to regional differences in risks.

It might also be worthwhile to use narration and imagery to help the society, nature investors, and policymakers appreciate the intrinsic, functional, and relational values associated with all species. Speakers underscored that while evoking emotions can be powerful, it might not be sufficient to create action needed to halt the biodiversity crisis. They advocated for the necessity of conducting economic evaluations to concretize the financial losses resulting from biodiversity decline and the investment required for restoration efforts.

Discussions also delved into shifting baselines of what is considered ‘normal’ biodiversity, anthropogenic factors driving species extinction, links between biodiversity crisis and human health, and the role individuals can play in mitigating this crisis. The involvement of the audience, who actively participated and provided a range of viewpoints, alongside the expertise of the speakers, made the conference and subsequent debate a highly insightful exchange.

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