The clock is ticking for US biodiversity action

By Liza Khmara

The clock is ticking for US biodiversity action

By Liza Khmara
Editor’s note: The following opinion piece was submitted as part of the inaugural “Op-ed Challenge” hosted by the University of Miami Graduate School. Open to all graduate students, entries were judged by media professionals.

If I asked you to share the first thoughts that pop in your head when you think of the word “environment,” what would you say? Climate change, global warming? Tesla?

How about biodiversity?

Biodiversity is a broad concept encompassing the variety and variability in life on Earth. Without biodiversity, drought resistance, nutrient cycling and other important ecosystem functions that ensure that we can grow food and have clean air and water fail.

Biodiversity loss extends beyond environmental degradation to more widespread changes such as declines in human health. As the world just begins to recover from the devastating impacts of COVID-19, a pandemic likely originating from transmission by a wild animal, we are encountering increased prevalence of diseases that stem from biodiversity loss. That’s because the more we destroy habitats that sustain biodiversity, the higher chance we have of exposure to wildlife that carries viruses such as SARS-CoV-2.

Although biodiversity is different from climate (the study of weather patterns), it’s not an entirely separate concept. Investing in biodiversity conservation is an effective climate change mitigation strategy. Lands and seas that sustain biodiversity, protected areas such as national parks, also serve as natural carbon sinks, storing more than any carbon capture and storage technology. Carbon sinks in protected areas are critical for climate because they remove greenhouse gas emissions, a main climate change driver.

Most countries now emphasize the role of biodiversity in global environmental problems. In December, the United Nations Biodiversity Conference was held in Montreal, Canada, for negotiations on a key biodiversity treaty. But there was one embarrassing absence on the list of parties: the United States.

In 1993 President Bill Clinton signed the first version of the Convention of Biological Diversity, the multi-lateral treaty that identifies a global framework for protecting Earth’s biodiversity. But fully joining the Convention required ratification by the U.S. Senate with a two-thirds majority, which a group of Republicans prevented. By 2015 other holdouts such as Somalia and Andorra had joined the treaty.

The avoidance of the United States in joining the treaty may come as a surprise given the Biden Administration’s unveiling of its domestic conservation focus, the America the Beautiful Initiative, aimed at protecting 30 percent of U.S. territory by 2030.

This reticence is also disappointing compared to the administration’s focus on climate. On his first day in office, President Joe Biden re-ratified the Paris Accords of the United Nations Climate Change Conference. More recently, he celebrated the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, which provided millions of dollars for climate change programs.

The Convention on Biological Diversity has existed for almost three decades. Since 1993, we have a lot more information about the severity of biodiversity loss and the potential of conservation. Ecologists now believe that the planet is experiencing the sixth extinction, but the first that is human induced. We also know that although we’ve already seen the loss of 69 percent of mammals, birds, fish, and reptiles since 1970, conservation can still avoid future extinction and preserve the habitats that give us clean air and water and opportunities for recreation. My doctoral research showed that concerns that conservation harms our economy have also been largely disproved; in fact, in many communities, eco-tourism and sustainable resource management are the backbone of economies. And unlike climate change, biodiversity conservation has become an issue that often receives bipartisan support. During the Trump administration, landmark conservation bills such as the Great American Outdoors Act passed with little opposition.

Nature and its conservation are part of America’s history. In 1910, President Teddy Roosevelt stated in his New Nationalism speech that conservation is a “great moral issue” that involves “insuring the safety and continuance of the nation”.

Let’s follow in his footsteps, if not to uphold his legacy, then to protect our health, economy, and national security.  

Liza Khmara is a graduate student in the Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric, and Earth Science at the University of Miami. Read more about the inaugural “Op-ed Challenge.”