So what does science have to say about the state of our environment? A great deal, indeed too much to take in easily. This page is designed to guide you into some of the key literature. There’s a lot of information in the links that follow – if in doubt, look at summaries first. I’m assuming (since you’re reading this) that you can access the net, but not a university library.
One might imagine that, for the UK, government would provide a detailed and objective source of information. But is it usual for a government to say, in effect, our environment is in a poor state but we’re not doing very much about it? So if you go the DEFRA indicators of either sustainable development (http://www.defra.gov.uk/sustainable/government/progress/) (which cover the environment) or biodiversity (http://www.jncc.gov.uk/biyp/), you’ll see an ad hoc collection of incomplete and sometimes arbitrary indicators that government itself has criticised (http://www.parliament.uk/documents/upload/postpn312.pdf). Devolved governments have their own indicators, too. It’s the data that lie behind the indicators that are really informative. Certainly the trends (improving, worsening) that are reported with many indicators are much less meaningful than comparison with an absolute standard (such as, are our greenhouse gas emissions within the limits that will constrain global temperature rise to 2 oC ? - answer, nowhere near).
So what about the NGOs, the pressure groups, the activists? Some will never be the most unbiased source of information, partly because they have a story to tell. They usually take their data from elsewhere, so why not go back to the original, evidence-led, sources? Some however are rigorous, excellent and gather unique data. So I’ve been selective in the links that follow, but caveat emptor.
To get an idea of how wild (or urbanised) various parts of the UK are, look at the results of wilderness attribute mapping (http://www.wilderness.net/library/documents/Carver1.pdf). This is key, since it’s obvious that a major threat to our environment is the destruction and fragmentation of habitats (high biodiversity needs large areas of habitat – it’s hopeless to imagine we can have many different species if our land is chopped into small parcels of unconnected habitats). And any journey by car, train or place demonstrates how small are the areas of uninterrupted native woodland, heath or grassland.
The Countryside Survey (http://www.countrysidesurvey.org.uk/index.html) is a detailed and authoritative guide to changes in our vegetation types and habitats. It shows changes in response to (for example) atmospheric nitrogen deposition as well as in land use.
It is surprising how little recorded most of our wildlife is. Certainly it is too poorly described to accurately measure changes in total biodiversity. The obvious and iconic groups of animals are most studied. Birds are often used as a proxy for ecosystem health, and changes in their populations are well described (http://www.bto.org/psob/index.htm). Mammals are less documented (http://www.mammal.org.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=284&Itemid=330), though we know the last wolf in these islands was killed in Scotland in 1743 – a potent symbol of what once was. Plants are mapped (http://www.bsbimaps.org.uk/atlas/main.php) and surveyed (http://www.plantlife.org.uk/uk/plantlife-surveys.html), including the invasive species that are doing such harm to native habitats. Biodiversity action plans are in place to help reduce the decline in biodiversity (http://www.ukbap.org.uk/), and their implementation is monitored.
For the predicted impacts of climate change on UK wildlife, look at the Monarch study (http://www.ukcip.org.uk/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=331) (summary at http://www.ukcip.org.uk/images/stories/Pub_pdfs/Monarch3_ExecSummary.pdf). There is evidence that our wildlife is already responding to the changing climate – roughly, and on average, species are moving north at 6 km/decade and upwards (in altitude) at 6 m/decade, while flowering and bird migrations are happening earlier, about 2 days/decade.
The use of systematic reviews (equivalent to the authoritative Cochrane reviews in medicine) to answer specific environmental questions has begun, and they are likely to be a major influence in the future. See http://www.environmentalevidence.org/Reviews.htm for some that have been completed.
For the EU, the European Environment Agency (http://www.eea.europa.eu/) produces many reports on pollution, climate change, biodiversity, and semi-natural and managed landscapes. Since much of our best environmental legislation (such as the Habitats Directive) comes from Europe, European views are valuable – and place the UK in a useful context.
Globally, a good place to start is the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (http://www.millenniumassessment.org/en/index.aspx). This explains, among other things, just what ecosystem services are (in brief, the services such as climate control that our environment provides us with and we tend to take for granted; they are a much more useful and important measure of our world than biodiversity), and the various pressures on our environment. It then gives a fair and balanced view of what state we’re in.