HONOLULU (CN) — Friday’s session of the IUCN World Conservation Congress opened with a rallying cry: Humankind cannot wait any longer to act if we want to stop climate change.
“We live in an extraordinary time where we’re pushing against a boundary,” IUCN World Conservation Congress director General Inger Andersen said at Friday’s forum opening. “We are losing species. We are not meeting goals. Our generation has to make a shift. We can’t wait.”
Journalist Thomas Friedmann agreed. “There’s a growing understanding that the term ‘later’ is over. You can officially remove the word ‘later’ from the dictionary,” he said.
Following Thursday’s opening ceremonies affirming the call to act on last year’s Paris climate change agreement, Friday’s forum was a strategy session for distinguished panelists to sketch out general approaches to achieving those goals.
“It’s a problem of scale,” Friedman said. “Otherwise, it’s a hobby. How do we get to the level of scale to fix the problems?” he asked Anderson.
“We need to create a broader platform,” Anderson said. “The acceleration is something we need to consider. Which is why we need to reach beyond our community to young people, business people, indigenous people, women’s organizations, entertainers. And it needs to be based on deep science, not just a superficial understanding. That’s how we’re going to get there.”
National Geographic Society executive vice president Brooke Rennette said that in its 120 years of operation, the society has learned “a couple of things about empowering people.”
She added, “We need to empower more young people, to take time to listen to what sound like really crazy ideas and to share our experience with children and inspire them to push further.”
Rennette noted the society’s project to protect the source of the Okavango River in southwest Africa.
“One of the boldest new projects on our docket is the Okavango Wilderness Project in which a National Geographic team is exploring the headwaters of the Okavango River Basin to protect the sources of water that feed the Okavango Delta and all the people and animals that depend on it,” Rennette said. “We’re backing this project with a multiyear $10 million commitment, which will not just document the region but also empower and equip African scientists and will also create a new data capture technology.”
She added, “With its $1 billion endowment, National Geographic can do this.”
UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova, however, cited a grave shortfall of funding for the sciences.
“There was a study done by the World Wildlife Fund that showed only $10 billion dollars is spent annually on conservation science. What we need is about two or three hundred times more. We need about $200 or $300 billion dollars in order to implement efforts for conservation,” Bokova said.
As the panel discussion continued, a deeper idea of “disrupting the paradigm” emerged: a sense that in order to head off natural catastrophe, humanity must change the way that it does business. That business is a vital player in conservation, not an adversary.
“I’m a business person, over 35 years in business,” said U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. “A healthy business is a sustainable business. And a business that is not taking into account its effect on the landscape runs the risk of being out of business in the near future.”
Jewell said her department decides on oil and gas leases and renewable-energy projects on public land by finding the intersection of supporting the economy and minimally impacting the environment.
“We’ve mapped out the entire California desert to determine what is an appropriate area for solar energy and where that is in conflict, for example, with the endangered desert tortoise,” Jewell said. “And how can we drive businesses to those areas that have low conflict.”
She noted that her department has refused permits for areas that are “too special and too sensitive to develop,” including 10 million acres of the Sagebrush Sea between the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada.
“There has been a tendency in the past to only look at the value of selling resources for oil and gas or mineral development or mining; we really need to quantify the benefits of ecosystem services,” Jewell said. “There are legitimate, very important uses that aren’t being counted and need to be in the future.”
Peter Bakker, president and CEO of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development said that business is ready to change.
“The Sustainable Business Goals are a great gift because they give us a development agenda for the next 15 years. I don’t think it’s a very practical gift. Businesses cannot use it easily. But business will do it, will have to change systems,” Bakker said, noting plans to make the food system more healthy, conservation-friendly and profitable.
“The best example of business being ready was seen in Paris, where more than 1,000 CEOs were involved by the French government,” Bakker said. “And we clearly identified solutions.”
But he also noted that business and science aren’t at the same level.
“Science, in your ears, may be very clear. But all the heroes you are celebrating, I don’t know any of them, and I’m in the business. As to science, I don’t think it’s loud and clear enough,” Bakker said. “Business is extremely simple: you give it the facts, it will act. Fact — act. Fact — act.”
He continued: “What can we do in meetings like this to enlarge trust? I shouldn’t feel like a stranger. You shouldn’t look weirdly at my suit. We should do this together because were in such a bad place. You have applauded the businesses that are here for doing the right thing, but it should be the norm that businesses do the right thing. I always say it will be the accountants that will save the world.”
Underscoring the need for business to be involved in conservation efforts, United Nations Environment Program executive director Erik Solheim spoke of the need to reform capitalism.
“I am a huge admirer of modern capitalism. It has achieved miracles. It has made the average human much taller, much better educated, in much better health than at any other point in human history. We have made fantastic process in life expectancy,” Solheim said.
“But there is one system failure of capitalism that we need to rectify: While the profit of destroying nature is always privatized, the costs are nearly always socialized. They are paid by the taxpayer or the global community or by our children and grandchildren. This is the real problem that we need to fix if we really want progress on conservation, because it speaks loudly to need to get payment for equal system services and to enshrine conservation efforts in such a way that it give benefits to people in economic and social terms. If we can’t do that, we will pay in pain.”
The closing speaker, American biologist and “father of biodiversity” E.O. Wilson, urged the audience to focus on living things first.
“The drive to sustainability, which is what we’re all talking about, is at present focused on the non-living world. And I’m here to speak for the little things that run the world,” Wilson said. “We know a lot now about resource depletion, about pollution and of course climate change, where we’re entering the zone of acute emergency, edge of precipice territory. At the same time, the living part of the environment is in deep trouble and dangerously neglected.
He noted that all three levels of biodiversity — ecosystems, species and genes — are “declining precipitously.” Species extinction is approaching 1,000 times greater than before humans spread across the globe and half of the species alive today will be gone by 2100 unless we take “drastic action,” he said.
“We are at risk not only of losing most of the heritage that took 3.5 billion years to evolve, but also in a way we have not yet fully come to understand the very stability of the planet itself,” he said.
“Strip away the natural world, whose ensemble of species and ecosystems that create the stability that it’s evolved over billion of years without us, and upon which we depend without really understanding it, and it will begin to unravel,” he continued. “If we save the living world, we will save the non-living. If we save only the non-living — as humanity seems hell-bent on doing — we will destroy both.”
The Wilson Biodiversity Foundation and partners are finding ways to achieve this practically, Wilson said. One way includes Wilson’s “half-earth” notion that the world can be saved by reserving half of it, piece by piece.
“This move is partly a practice, partly a technical matter, and partly a moral decision. It is time that we align the humanities and creative arts and other regimes, including law and economics, with science,” he said.
“We can if we wish save the rest of the living world and ourselves along with it.”
Other speakers addressed the growing threat of wildlife trafficking, including Assistant U.S. Attorney General John Cruden who touted the Obama administration’s efforts to combat a problem that “contributes to the illegal economy, fuels instability and undermines global security.”
“Criminal enforcement is absolutely essential to addressing the wildlife trafficking crisis,” Cruden said. “That truism is perfectly captured by President Abraham Lincoln’s oft-quoted words: ‘Laws without enforcement are just good advice.'”
Cruden noted the administration’s “Operation Crash” to detect, deter and prosecute rhinoceros poaching and the illegal trafficking of rhino horns — an effort that has netted over 30 convictions. And the multi-agency operation “Totoaba Drama” has resulted in seizures and prosecutions stemming from the illegal take of the endangered Totoaba fish of the Gulf of California, he said.
Finally, Cruden noted the criminal sentencing of Lumber Liquidators, which paid over $13 million in fines for trafficking hardwood that had been illegally logged in the habitats of the endangered Siberian tiger and critically endangered Amur leopard.
“I was delighted to see that National Geographic announced this case as one of the biggest wins against wildlife exploitation of 2015,” Cruden said.
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