2010 has been named the International Year of Biodiversity by the United Nations. An urgent call to action has been issued to all nations of the world to cooperate and collaborate as a global community to protect the biodiversity of Earth. What is biodiversity you ask? According to Dr. Eleanor Sterling, Director of the American Museum of Natural History’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, “Biodiversity refers to the variety of life on Earth at all its levels, from genes to ecosystems, and the ecological and evolutionary processes that sustain it.” On 10 February 2010, at the initiative of the United Nations Development Program in partnership with the American Museum of Natural History, the official North American launch of the International Year of Biodiversity was held within the historic Hall of Ocean Life at the American Museum of Natural History in NY. In attendance were representatives of the United Nations, the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History, Conservation International, Fordham University and Wildlife Conservation Society and members of Diplomatic Corps to the UN, representation by Mayor Bloomberg, and invited guests. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon issued a communique’ engaging North American people to join the nations of the world to protect life on Earth.
The United States stands alone as the most influential nation not party to the Convention on Biological Diversity. http://www.cbd.int/countries/
Perhaps there was a level of symbolism in the choice of the UN Convention venue. The American Museum of Natural History is a spectacular monument to some of Earth’s most magnificent species, including the blue whale, many of which are threatened, endangered or extinct. We live in a time of vanishing landscapes and endangered species. E.O. Wilson states that “Over the next half century, up to one third of the world’s plant and animal species may be lost forever. Conservation biologists regard this as the first mass extinction since the age of the dinosaurs.”1. In the United States alone, 30% of the nation’s plant and animal species are at risk of disappearing, and over 500 species are missing or may already be extinct. 2. We have lost over half of our nation’s original wetlands, 98% of our tall-grass prairies, 99% of America’s original savannas, and virtually all virgin forests east of the Rockies. Since the colonization of America, four American bird species have gone extinct, including the Passenger Pigeon, once the world’s most abundant bird. 3. The American bison is for all practical purposes ecologically extinct and genetically endangered across their former range. Today, there is recognition that change is progressing with such speed that shifts and loss of plants and species can be documented within our lifetime.
Yet the United States has so far refused to participate in the Convention on Biological Diversity in a meaningful way.
Recent projections on the velocity of climate change by scientists at the Carnegie Institution, Stanford University, the California Academy of Sciences and the University of California, Berkeley calculated the temperature velocity for different parts of the world based on current and projected future climate models. 4. The findings pinpoint those ecosystems of critical environmental concern where biodiversity is most threatened by the speed of climate change. The study found that global warming would impact flatter areas as mangrove swamps, flooded grasslands, coastal marshes and savannas with a velocity of 1 km a year. At higher elevations of the montane grasslands and shrublands, the projected velocity is charted at 110 meters per year. Within the tropical and subtropical coniferous forests, the movement of landscape boundaries would average 80 meters a year. This will lead to a cataclysmic relocation of plant and animal species to shifting landscapes or mass extinctions within a lifetime. Scientists have told the UN that our actions have pushed extinctions to 1,000 times the natural background rate. According to Niles Eldridge within The Sixth Extinction, “ We are in a biodiversity crisis- the fastest mass extinction in Earth’s history, largely due to: human destruction of ecosystems, overexploitation of species and natural resources, human overpopulation, the spread of agriculture, and pollution.”
Why should we care? Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon states that the reasons are ecological and economic. He outlines the ecosystem services that protect people and their infrastructure, like coastal wetlands minimizing the impact of storm surges, sadly realized too late when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans or the cutting of the mangrove swamps for unsustainable shrimp farms and beach development and the tragic loss of life and property from tsunamis in South East Asia. Ecosystems protect infrastructure. New York City enjoys cheap and clean tap water because the city chose to protect the Catskills watershed, saving several billion dollars in the process. According to the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, “Ecosystems provide services such as pollination, seed dispersal, climate regulation, water purification, nutrient cycling, and control of agricultural pests.”
According to the Secretary, “A UN-backed study estimates the loss of natural capital due to deforestation and land degradation alone at between $2 trillion and $4.5 trillion each year.” Environmental protection and economic protection are two sides of the same coin. He urged member states to invest in sustainable development, which will assist indigenous people to protect the biodiversity in developing countries and meet the Millennium Development Goals and build resilience to climate change. Programs as the UNDP Equator Initiative, and the Global Environment Facility Small Grants Program have been put in place to provide assistance. Norway has pledged 500 million to prevent deforestation, though questions remain of reforestation of monoculture crops within rainforest settings. According to Veerle Vandeweerd, UNDP Environment and Energy Group, three quarters of the world’s population rely on the natural environment for survival. 1.5 billion people live in dry lands and 1 billion people rely on sustenance fishing. There is a need for poverty reduction and biodiversity protection.
We need a new strategy that links climate change, biodiversity, and the Millennium Development Goals with concrete targets and implementation in cooperation with the developed and developing countries. According to Stas Burgiel in Convention on Biological Diversity: a progress report, “The UN Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) is the single most important international agreement designed to protect the world’s biodiversity, to encourage the sustainable use of biological resources, and to ensure the fair and equitable sharing of benefits derived from such use.” The Convention was signed at the Rio de Janeiro, Brazil 1992 Conference on Environment and Development- known as the Earth Summit. The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety was adopted on 11 September 2003. It establishes rules under which crops and other organisms, which have been genetically modified, can be transferred from one country to another. According to Stas Burgiel’s Convention on Biological Diversity: a progress report- “The United States was perhaps foremost among developed countries in resisting potential restrictions on biotechnology and intellectual property rights. Indeed, President Bush (senior) refused to sign the CBD at the Earth Summit in Rio. Although President Clinton signed the Convention two years later, so far, the United States remains one of a small handful of countries that has not ratified the agreement, and so has refused to frame its own national laws in line with the CBD.”
International negotiations have continued to craft acceptable mechanisms, as the Biosafety Protocol, to address concerns on biotechnology. Assessments on technology transfer continue with international discussions on capacity building, and the costs, benefits and risks of technology transfer worldwide. International cooperation has been solicited regarding international patents and other intellectual property rights within the forums of the Convention on International Biological Diversity, without the participation of the United States. The Fifth Meeting of the Conference of the Parties, (COP-10) and the Cartagena Protocol for Biosafety, (COP-MOP 5) will be held in Nagoya, Japan on 29 October 2010.
A welcome has been extended to the United States to join the family of nations in this Year of Biodiversity.
© Joseph Emmanuel Ingoldsby, 2010
1. Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, American Museum of Natural History. Humans and Other
Catastrophes: Perspectives on Extinction. A summary of the April 1997 symposium of the same name; Wilson, E. O., The Diversity of Life, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1992. Also see Wilson, E. O., The Future of Life, New York: Knopf, 2002.
2. Stein, B. A., L. S. Kutner, J. S. Adams, eds. Precious Heritage: The Status of Biodiversity in the United States New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
3. North American Bird Conservation Initiative, U.S. Committee, 2009. The State of the Birds, United States of America, 2009. U.S. Department of Interior: Washington, DC.
4. Loarie,Scott R., Duffy, Philip B., Hamilton, Healy, Asner, Gregory P., Field, Christopher B., Ackerly, David D.The velocity of climate change, Nature 462, 1052-1055, December 2009
Joseph Emmanuel Ingoldsby blends art, science and technology to advocate for vanishing landscapes and endangered species. Ingoldsby’s recent writings include:
Vanishing Landscapes: The Atlantic Salt Marsh, Leonardo 42-2, 2009, MIT Press
Vanishing Landscapes and Endangered Species, The Science Exhibition: Curation & Design, Museums etc U.K. 2010
For further information, visit his web site: www.JosephIngoldsby.com