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Where the Wild Things Were: How Conservation Efforts Are Failing

26.11.2009
In the essay, “Where the Wild Things Were,” currently appearing in Foreign Affairs, Dr. Steven Sanderson, President and CEO of the Wildlife Conservation Society, asserts the world’s political institutions have failed the planet but “realism cannot turn into defeatism.”

Sanderson, who published an essay with a similarly dire assertion in 2002, concludes these seven years later: “There have been landmark foreign policy acts in the past that managed to satisfy both domestic and global interests, and there could be again in the future.”

Sanderson sees as one road to progress policies that connect biodiversity and climate change.

Writes Sanderson: “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 following are excerpts from this timely article being published on the eve of the U.N. Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen, December 7-18.

Sanderson is available for interviews on these climate change issues and others.

The Situation Is Worsening

“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.”

Dire Political and Environmental News

“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 Adds to the Urgency

“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.

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 Role of the United States

“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.”

One Solution: Connecting Climate Change and Biodiversity

“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.”

Losses Are Global/Solutions Start Local
“Realism cannot turn into defeatism, however. There have been landmark foreign policy acts in the past that managed to satisfy both domestic and global interests, and there could be again in the future. The Food for Peace program begun in 1954, for example, has been simultaneously good for agricultural surplus disposal, foreign assistance, and hunger relief. Leadership from Washington now could help spur movement toward a low-carbon economy and marry it to existing support for protected areas and global public health.

The problems of climate change and biodiversity loss are global, but the solutions to them must begin at the local level. Conservation is about saving wildlife and wild places in specific locales. Small programs can become large building blocks if the global community stands ready to encourage them.”

INTERVIEW AVAILABILITY:
Dr. Steven E. Sanderson is President and Chief Executive Officer of the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York. Prior to his appointment to WCS in 2001, he was Dean of Emory College, Faculty of Arts and Sciences, at Emory University in Atlanta. He received a Ph.D. in Political Science from Stanford University in 1978. As a faculty member at the University of Florida from 1979 to 1997, he directed the Tropical Conservation and Development Program and chaired the Department of Political Science.

A former Fulbright Scholar in Mexico (1976-77), Dr. Sanderson also held a Rockefeller Foundation International Relations Fellowship in Mexico and a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellowship in the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative in Washington, D.C. Sanderson has been the recipient of fellowships and grants from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars of the Smithsonian Institution, NASA, and the Ford, MacArthur, Tinker and Heinz Foundations. From 1985 to 1987, he served with the Ford Foundation in Brazil, where he designed and implemented the Foundation’s Amazon conservation and rural poverty program.

For the past twenty years, he has been deeply involved with scientific cooperation on the environment, through the Social Science Research Council Committee for Research on Global Environmental Change, the International Geosphere-Biosphere program, and the National Academy of Sciences Oversight Committee on Restoration of the Greater Everglades Ecosystem. Dr. Sanderson is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and advisor to the Woods Institute of the Environment at Stanford University.

Sanderson has written several books and monographs about Latin American politics, trade and the environment, as well as the politics of conserving wild exploited nature. Since leaving academia in 2001, he has continued to write about conservation and society and is a frequent lecturer on wildlife conservation, and the impact of global climate change on the future of the wild. Among his recent publications: “The Future of Conservation,” Foreign Affairs (September 2002); “Poverty and Conservation: The New Century’s Peasant Question?” World Development (2005); and “Conservation as Diplomacy,” State of the Wild (Island 2008),”Growing Green,” Americas Quarterly Fall 2009.

John Delaney | Newswise Science News
Further information:
http://www.wcs.org

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