Why everyone loses from US boycott of the UN biodiversity agreement

The US is one of the only three countries worldwide not to have ratified the UN convention on biodiversity. As another round of negotiations begins, William J Snape III explains what both sides stand to lose.
<p>A butterfly in the Botanic Garden of Montreal, Canada. Copyright:</p>

A butterfly in the Botanic Garden of Montreal, Canada. Copyright:

Twenty years after the world agreed to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, all major scientific indicators regarding the state of “life on earth” – from species’ population trends and extinction risks to natural habitat condition and ecological community composition – are distinctly negative. 

Species extirpations, human population growth, consumption rates, pollution discharge, invasive species, and infectious diseases are all up. It is a stark reality, particularly when one considers the growing disparity in quality of life for the planet’s seven billion human inhabitants. How superpowers such as the United States and China deal with these tectonic shifts in natural history will determine the story’s outcome.

One thing we know is that nature has a way of biting back. Food volatility, weather disasters and rising pollution-related health care costs all reflect a deficit with our current environment. Fortunately for the 193 nation-states that are parties (only the US, Andorra, South Sudan and the Vacitan have failed to join), the CBD provides useful a legal infrastructure to address our species’ currently dysfunctional relationship with the land, air, water and their many inhabitants.

The formidable challenge for the CBD is to crystallise more precise responses to the calamities currently befouling the Earth’s biological resources. The convention must aggressively push a narrower and deeper agenda of reform. This type of reform, it should be noted, is precisely what US mega-corporations do not want. 

To its credit, the CBD has helped many developing countries create the legal, technical and social mechanisms necessary to protect biological diversity, and the many modern forms of economic growth dependent upon its components. But lacking from the current overlapping mix is focus, either from a programmatic or communications viewpoint. Yes, biodiversity (protection) can be as complex and complicated as it is inspiring and important. That does not mean, however, that the legal and policy agenda must descend into incomprehensible technical jargon and countless bureaucratic committees.

UN meeting in India

An examination of the provisional agenda for the October 2013 Conference of the Parties in India reveals sprawling meeting matters and sub-matters on such as organisational issues, genetic resources, biotechnology, strategic plan and biodiversity targets, financial resources, and more. This dizzying array of issues all fall under the umbrella of species loss, food insecurity, and disease vectors – all caused or exacerbated by climate change. The central challenge to the CBD Secretariat is preventing its agenda from becoming diffuse to the point of ineffectiveness.

The irony for the United States is that its robust public civil legal tradition could and should fit very well within a functioning CBD. The US certainly would help bring further focus to the CBD. Important discussions are presently occurring in the US about many historic conservation decisions: if and where to drill for fossil fuels; rewriting and reinterpreting public land protection in the era of climate change; pollution limit standards for large stationary sources, revamping of the automobile fleet; listing of endangered species, habitat conservation actions, and permit requirements; definition of wetlands and waters of the US; reauthorising the national toxics inventory and regulatory controls; fishing rules; mining rules; ground rules for renewable energy siting; and many others.  

In all of these regulatory battles, the public interest community (while outspent by orders of magnitude) is fairly well positioned to defend core democratic interests. 

What is missing in the US is any urgency to seek durable solutions to many of these problems. How this has come to be is a modern lesson in the power of oligarchical segments to take over political parties. In other words, old guard corporate users of the Earth’s biological resources will not succumb lightly to new economic-ecologic paradigms that weaken their power. 

Thus, it is exceptionally easy for this corporate oligarchy to secure the 34 (out of 100) Senate votes necessary to block United States ratification of the Convention on Biological Diversity (or the Law of the Sea or countless other international treaties the US sits out). One particularly galling way these multilateral agreements are blocked in the US is by strategically spreading false rumours of the United Nations taking over key aspects of American life. 

Biodiversity crisis around the world

This year has sadly seen a profusion of climate-related biodiversity crises all over the world, including China and the United States, and the public narrative has not yet clearly connected the dots. Increased fossil-fuel combustion is leading to more droughts and floods and fires, which are leading to water degradation and food scarcity, which are leading to disease and violent conflict, which have the perverse overall effect of increasing greenhouse pollution and natural resource waste that perpetuate another destructive cycle. 

The bitter pill is that agriculture’s role in global warming continues to grow even as global warming itself continues to harm agriculture. We have created a Frankenstein monster.

Biodiversity is literally the canary in the coal mine, our scientific and ethical measurement of overall environmental health. The Convention possesses diverse tools to push its nation-state members to make sustainability commitments on behalf of biodiversity. The US has not yet made any commitments under the CBD, despite a majority of the US Senate in favour of ratification. 

Maybe the American voters will reject the viewpoint expressed by presidential candidate Mitt Romney that US leadership is not about “rising ocean levels or healing the planet.” Maybe the current US president, if re-elected, will finally implement the domestic Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, National Environmental Policy Act and Endangered Species Act so as to effectuate real greenhouse reductions and responses. Maybe the CBD Secretariat will draw dramatic attention to the rapidly melting Arctic ecosystem, which if left unchecked will not only mean the demise of polar bears, whales, seals and almost infinite fishing resources, but will also alter global weather and food production in ways we can scarcely imagine.  

In any event, here’s hoping Mother Nature feels a bit better in 2013 than she did this year. The odds aren’t looking terribly good until we find a way to reverse the tragedy of the commons, that is, make those profiteers who sully our natural amenities shoulder the burden of clean-up and the path to a brighter future. This will only happen if citizens demand action from their respective governments. The CBD provides productive pathways for that action.  

William J Snape III is senior counsel for the Center for Biological Diversity in Arizona and a fellow and practitioner in residence at American University Law School.