Monday, January 19, 2009

"Setting out Obama's green agenda
Peter Seligmann

Barack Obama will become the 44th president of the US as the world is engulfed in a global economic crisis, says Peter Seligmann. He calls on the new president not to ignore the environment, which is "rapidly reaching a tipping point".

What an odd juxtaposition of almost giddy anticipation and deep anxiety as we prepare for a US presidential inauguration that will be celebrated worldwide.
Hopes for a new year and a new global leader of vision and courage collide with a tremendous angst as people everywhere are engulfed by the global economic crisis.

Alongside the urgent action needed to keep the economy afloat, there is a course that President-elect Barack Obama can chart that will help our global society move into a new era of sustained security.

This security is not only for our economies, but also for our health and for present and future generations to thrive.

Another young US president, Theodore Roosevelt, summed up that course about 100 years ago when he said: "The conservation of natural resources is the fundamental problem.

"Unless we solve that problem it will avail us little to solve all others."

'Tipping point'

As Mr Obama becomes the 44th president, one of his toughest challenges is also his greatest opportunity.

The global environment is rapidly reaching a tipping point, much like our global economy.

Once it passes that point, it will be all the more difficult to pull it back to stability.

Our Earth is being altered to the point where it cannot sustain much of the life that has thrived for millennia; species extinctions today are occurring at an estimated 1,000 times the normal rate.

When our landscapes, rivers and coral reefs can no longer sustain robust species populations, humans are also in trouble.

People depend on healthy ecosystems for the very fundamentals of survival: clean air, fresh water, soil regeneration, crop pollination and other resources that we often take for granted until they are scarce or gone.

Just as the current financial crisis reveals how the world's economies are interconnected, we also must recognise the fundamental links between human well-being and Earth's ecosystems.

When we abuse and degrade the natural world, it affects our health, our social stability and our wallets.

Natural capital

How great is the challenge?

Well, today, 25% of wild marine fisheries are over-exploited, while another 50% are highly degraded.

West African fisheries have declined by 80% since the 1990s, resulting in thousands of fishermen searching for jobs in Europe.

When the Newfoundland cod fisheries collapsed in the early 1990s as a result of overfishing, it meant the loss of tens of thousands of jobs and cost $2bn (£1.4bn) in income support and retraining.

Tropical deforestation and land degradation contributes more global greenhouse gas emissions than all the world's cars, trucks, planes and trains combined.

What is lost in Indonesia or the Amazon affects the climate in New York, Paris and Sydney.

More than a billion people lack access to safe drinking water. In the poorest countries, one in five children dies from a preventable water-related disease.

This is a crisis that is worsening as ecosystems are damaged, increasing droughts and floods.

Mismanagement and corruption tied to natural resource exploitation have fuelled violent conflict in many countries including Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Violence linked to natural resource loss and degradation has led to unimaginable human suffering in such places as Darfur.

Tensions in the Middle East are fed by conflict over water and oil, as well as religion and politics.

Under pressure

Now, climate change exacerbates the threats posed by over-consumption, pollution and habitat destruction.

We are already witnessing rising oceans, spreading disease, reduced freshwater sources and myriad other serious threats.

Recent studies show half of the world's population could face a climate-induced food crisis by the end of this century.

Yet as overwhelming as the global environmental crisis has become, it offers some of today's greatest opportunities.

First, we must make conservation of nature a core principle of development; they cannot be separated.

Often an unintended consequence of development projects is the depletion or degradation of natural systems. We must recognise the value of nature and invest to protect it.

Ecosystem destruction costs our global economy at least $2 trillion (£1.4 trillion) every year.

That is the value forests provide by storing the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, cleansing fresh water supplies, and preventing soil erosion.

It includes the value oceans and coral reefs provide in food security for millions who rely on fisheries as their primary source of protein.

Overall, global ecosystems services have been assessed to be worth as much as $33 trillion (£22.6 trillion) a year.

Every home owner understands that restoring and replacing a plumbing system, or a heating unit, is far more expensive than taking care of the system properly.

Well, the same is true for nature's ecosystems.

Restoring a forest costs 10 times as much as maintaining what we have. Building a reservoir and filtration system is far more expensive than preserving the intact forest systems that naturally filter and cleanse our drinking water.

Traditional measures of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) do not reflect changes in the quality and quantity of a nation's natural assets.

Imagine measuring your personal financial condition without factoring in a dramatic and ongoing decline in your assets.

The world needs US leadership to begin honestly accounting for the state our natural assets.

The Obama administration can bring these issues into the mainstream during this critical time of reorienting the US's national priorities.

Initiatives to advance natural resource conservation in other countries have typically lacked strong political support and received only a small fraction of the total resources dedicated to international engagement.

Mr Obama and his team should fully integrate and fund ecosystem conservation priorities within US national security considerations, as well as foreign policy and development assistance.

By helping restore and protect developing nations' natural heritage throughout the world, the US will strengthen the bonds of friendship and trust through sustainable collaborations.

The stakes are high, and the benefits of bringing ecosystem conservation to the forefront of our foreign policy will be enormous.

As 2009 begins, we face a new era of unprecedented global economic, health and security challenges.

Confronting these challenges requires a bold new commitment to protect our most valuable joint asset - planet Earth.

Peter A Seligmann is chairman and chief executive of US NGO Conservancy International

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

Do you agree with Peter Seligmann? Do you think Barack Obama's administration will take the environment seriously? Do you think the US will be a serious player in the global green agenda? Or are the problems facing the world too big for one nation to make a difference?"

Hunger. Water pollution. Air pollution. Global warming. Climate change. Geopolitical unrest. We can work together. There is an answer: please see

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