How Conservation Efforts are Faltering
On the eve of the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, I argued that wild nature was in deep distress and that the international institutions charged with the planet’s care were managing it poorly (“The Future of Conservation,” September/October 2002). Seven years on, the situation is even worse. Humans control the Earth’s biosphere and directly manage perhaps half of global plant matter. Their collective ecological impact, however, has taken on a pernicious life of its own, seemingly beyond the will, and perhaps even the capacity. of sovereign political actors to affect.
The Rio de Janeiro summit in 1992 yielded the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD), which was designed to promote the “conservation of biological diversity [and] the sustainable use of its components.” As the International Year of Biodiversity approaches in 2010, a charitable appraisal might argue that the CBD has held its own. Ten percent of the world’s terrestrial surface is now at least nominally under some kind of protection. National biodiversity assessments and the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment have provided useful information on the “state of nature” in various places. The world knows more and is doing more about conservation than in the past.
Nevertheless, the loss of biodiversity — wildlife, genetic material, ecosystems, and evolutionary processes — has not abated. The United States has still not ratified the CBD, and the UN system for conservation is still weak, lacking sanctions for states that fail to live up to their commitments. Trade in protected wildlife continues and poaching runs rampant. Funding for conservation remains vanishingly small, and important animal populations and entire species are in grave danger.
Climate change, meanwhile, has begun to rival habitat loss as the greatest threat to the biosphere. After somehow maintaining most of its animal species throughout human history, for example, Africa now faces unprecedented losses of wildlife and wild places thanks to global warming. Savannah elephants have no exit corridors from East African drought; changes in water availability threaten natural areas and force the rural poor to resettle; migrating birds arrive at the wrong time, finding little food or nesting opportunities; small populations of animals are simply blinking out.
The problems of climate change and biodiversity loss are global, but the solutions to them must begin at the local level. Melting glaciers and changing patterns of rain and snowfall are transforming the Andean, Rocky Mountain, and Himalayan watersheds. The headwaters of the Amazon, the Ganges, and the Brahmaputra rivers are in peril, along with the human and wildlife diversity they sustain. The Arctic is warming fast, surrendering methane and CO2 to the atmosphere from the not-so-permafrost. Troubling images of drowning polar bears overshadow an even greater concern: credible estimates warn that five out of every six migratory birds are vulnerable to climate change, and some Arctic habitats could suffer a 90 percent depletion of waterfowl.
The linkages between climate change and conservation, moreover, go in both directions. Healthy wildebeests, Afghan Marco Polo sheep, and American bison are all necessary for the world’s grasslands, which in turn are an important store for organic CO2. Tropical forests represent a vast sink for carbon, and their destruction may account for 20 percent of annual CO2 emissions. Peatlands lock up one-third of global soil carbon in three percent of global territory, representing a cost-effective area for climate change mitigation — yet they are suffering losses from fire, drainage, and agricultural conversion and, consequently, emitting up to two gigatons of CO2 per year. Mapping the greatest stores of organic carbon would help connect protection of that carbon to protection of ecologies at great risk.
In short, the time is ripe for a new vision, one that takes both biodiversity and climate change seriously and explores the crucial connections between them. The Copenhagen process is already moving in this direction, and some new global financial mechanisms are also emerging. The World Bank’s climate investment funds are designed to reduce deforestation in order to mitigate climate change. The Global Environmental Facility, an organization that provides grants to developing countries for projects related to promoting biodiversity and other environmental issues, could make a greater contribution if given more funding and more agile management. Both the UN and the World Bank have limited but valuable new financial facilities for reducing emissions from land-use change.
So far, however, these initiatives lack policy coherence and the power to overcome obstacles thrown up by recalcitrant stakeholder nations. They are burdened by institutional legacies, stultifying bureaucracy, and the continuing grievances of North-South relations. Few voices are heard in favor of more comprehensive conservation of global carbon stocks or the wildlife they protect. Above all, no global actor has proposed even a rudimentary road map to a global low-carbon future.
For years, Washington has largely stood apart from the climate change debate. The U.S. role in the lead-up to next month’s climate summit in Copenhagen has been cautious and noncommittal, as the Obama administration looks warily over its shoulder at years of hostility in Congress toward the Kyoto protocol and its successors. If climate legislation ever emerges from Congress, it will have struggled its way past powerful forces trying to prevent a truly global bill or at least deflect its purpose from combating climate change to subsidizing special interests in the agricultural, energy, and other sectors.
November 19, 2009