Biden on Biodiversity: The Silence and the Promise

Like Biden's climate team, which includes global and domestic leadership posts, and leadership posts all across various agencies--I urge him to build a similar one for Biodiversity. (Photo: Don Sutherland/flickr/cc)

Biden on Biodiversity: The Silence and the Promise

This silence is disheartening because the biodiversity crisis is just as significant, just as expansive, just as severe, and just as consequential as the climate crisis.

On January 6, 2021, as many of us in the United States were glued to TV watching the horrors of the insurrection against the U.S Capitol, the AFP News in France posted, on its Facebook page, an infographic built with data provided by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which "confirmed the extinction in 2020 of 36 plant and animal species, not seen for decades."

Let us first acknowledge the crisis and then move toward mitigation.

Visit "Build Back Better," the official website of the Biden-Harris administrative team and vision. Click the "Nominees and Appointees" tab. "Climate" is a category of its own and appears on top (alphabetical). The names of nominees of the top leadership positions at Interior, Energy, EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), and the CEQ (Council on Environmental Quality) appear on the "Climate" page. There are other top positions with "Climate" on the title that appear elsewhere as well: "Special Presidential Envoy for Climate" in the "National Security" page, and "National Climate Advisor" in the "White House Senior Staff" page.

By naming and elevating "Climate" in this manner as a top priority of his administrative agenda, President Biden has done something that is significant, long overdue and urgently needed. Above and beyond the obvious posts with a clear mandate on climate, it is also expected that climate change will play a significant role in most if not all of the federal agencies and, there will be co-operation among and across those agencies.

Only time will tell how effective the Biden-Harris administration will be in mitigating the climate crisis. For now, let us celebrate the exemplary and expansive model that President Biden has built with intention and rigor--a whole-government approach that eschews silos in favor of co-operation among federal agencies and other institutions to mitigate the climate crisis.

But how did we arrive here?

I'd suggest that two things have led us to this point: public awakening and grassroots mobilization.

At the turn of this century, Indigenous peoples of the Arctic, who were "already witnessing disturbing and severe climate and ecological changes," made a prescient assessment. They suggested that very little has been done to address the climate crisis because "majority of the Earth's citizens have not seen any significant climate changes thus far" (see The Earth is Faster Now: Indigenous Observations of Arctic Environmental Change, edited by Igor Krupnik and Dyanna Jolly, Arctic Research Consortium of the United States, 2002, pg. 355).

Mere two decades later, today, we can safely say that "majority of the Earth's citizens" have experienced at least some impact of climate change, which has led to wide public awakening about the crisis, including and most notably among the youth. Such witnessing and experiencing in turn also contributed to building grassroots movements that are intersectional--people from diverse race, class, gender, and abilities have participated; intergenerational--youth and elders have been collaborating; inter-movements--environmental justice, economic justice, racial justice, Indigenous rights, each contributed their concerns in the larger movement for climate justice; and transnational--from Amazon to the Arctic and beyond.

In short, without public awakening and grassroots mobilization there would not be the expansive government-wide Biden climate mitigation team and the model that we now see and celebrate and in which we find radical hope for social transformation.

The Silence

Even as I rejoice seeing "Climate" as a top-priority item on "Build Back Better," I'm saddened that "Biodiversity" does not appear in the drop-down menu.

This silence is disheartening, because the biodiversity crisis is just as significant, just as expansive, just as severe, and just as consequential as the climate crisis. According to the United Nations, 1 million animal and plant species face extinction due to human activity. And also consider, the tragic and no-end-in-sight coronavirus pandemic. The root causes of the pandemic are firmly situated in the human-caused biodiversity crisis. Studies have shown that 75% of all emerging infectious diseases come to humans from animals. Recent examples are Ebola, SARS, Zika, bird flu (there is a bird flu outbreak in India as I write this), and of course COVID-19.

"As we seek to build back better after COVID-19, we need to fully understand the transmission" of these emerging infectious diseases, Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) wrote in her Foreword to the UNEP report "Preventing the Next Pandemic," which was published last year. Andersen's use of "build back better" is resonant for the Biden-Harris administrative agenda. But while President Biden has instituted an expansive multi-agencies approach to mitigate the coronavirus pandemic and the climate crisis, there is no such expansive effort to address the biodiversity crisis, which if instituted, would certainly help prevent future pandemics (which may come more frequently and would likely be more deadly in some cases) and also help many species to bounce back from the brink of extinction and thrive.

I would not fault President Biden for the omission of not including "Biodiversity" as a top priority of his administrative agenda, at least not entirely. For a crisis to receive attention at the Presidential level, it needs to have wide public awakening and major push from grassroots movements, both of which have happened for the climate crisis but not for the biodiversity crisis, not yet despite hundreds of committed scientists and conservationists who have been working on it.

Notwithstanding the silence, we need to do all we can now to bring attention to the biodiversity crisis with the hope that President Biden may consider adding "Biodiversity" also as a top priority in the coming year, just as he has done for the "Climate". The United Nations did so almost thirty years ago. It's long overdue that the United States does the same.

In 1992, at the historic Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the United Nations had established two separate bodies: the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)--to address the climate crisis; and the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)--to address the biodiversity crisis.

I do not have any bias for favoring to bring attention to one crisis over the other. Both are equally important. At the turn of the century, during my first visit to the Circumpolar North, I witnessed and made a photograph of one polar bear eating another. That gruesome scene served, for me, as a visual evidence of both climate and biodiversity crises two decades ago and has informed and shaped my work ever since. I recently co-edited (with TJ Demos and Emily Eliza Scott) a book on the climate crisis, Routledge Companion to Contemporary Art, Visual Culture and Climate Change, which will be published next month; and at the same time, this past Fall, I co-hosted (with then-U.S. Senator Tom Udall, now retired), the UNM Biodiversity Webinar Series, and now I'm co-writing (with Ananda Banerjee) a book on the biodiversity crisis provisionally titled, Species in Peril, which will be published next year by Seven Stories Press. All to say that I have been working on both crises, equally, for the past two decades.

The 30x30 Proposal to Save Nature: Proceed with Care, Caution and Compassion

Even though President Biden has not made Biodiversity a top priority of his administrative agenda, in the same manner that he has done for the Climate, he has however, expressed his unequivocal support for one significant biodiversity initiative.

"President-elect Joe Biden has said that one of his first steps upon taking office will be to pass an executive order to conserve 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030," Inside Climate News reported last month. I offer below a brief history of how President Biden came to know and then offered his support for the conservation plan.

A team of 16 scientists wrote a paper "A Global Deal for Nature: Guiding principles, milestones, and targets," which was published in the journal Science Advances in April 2019. A "science driven plan to save the diversity and abundance of life on Earth," the paper calls for conserving 30% of land and oceans by 2030. In the United States, this call from the scientists has been embraced enthusiastically, including by the members of the U.S. Congress.

In October 2019, then Senator Tom Udall (now retired) from my home state of New Mexico introduced the Thirty by Thirty Resolution to Save Nature in the U.S. Senate. Three months later, Congresswoman Deb Haaland, also from New Mexico, introduced a companion 30x30 resolution in the U.S. House of Representatives. Last September, I moderated the inaugural panel "Building a National Biodiversity Action Plan: Science, Policy, and the Grassroots" of the UNM Biodiversity Webinar Series in which then-Senator Udall, Rep. Haaland, and marine conservationist Dr. Enric Sala, one of the authors of the "A Global Deal for Nature" paper participated as speakers and all spoke about the significance of the 30x30 conservation plan.

President Biden has nominated Rep. Haaland to be the Secretary of Interior, author of the House 30x30 resolution and a key member of his climate team. If confirmed by the Senate, Secretary Haaland, a passionate champion of Indigenous rights, environmental justice and conservation would become the first Native American Cabinet member in U.S. history, and would undoubtedly help advance and institute the 30x30 conservation plan.

There is also strong international support for the 30x30 conservation plan.

At the One Planet Summit earlier this month in Paris, a coalition of more than fifty nations under the banner The High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People committed "to protect almost a third of the planet by 2030 to halt the destruction of the natural world and slow extinctions of wildlife," Guardian reported. The 30x30 conservation plan is thought to be the key biodiversity goal of the "Paris agreement for nature" which will be negotiated at the COP-15 UN biodiversity summit in Kunming, China later this year.

But Indigenous peoples are already sounding an alarm about the 30x30 conservation proposal. They are weary, because in the past, large land conservation initiatives often led to evictions of Indigenous peoples from their traditional homelands, and to the destruction of their food security and cultural practices.

"By just setting a target without adequate standards and commitment to accountability mechanisms, the CBD could unleash another wave of colonial land grabbing that disenfranchises millions of people," said Andy White, coordinator of the Rights and Resources Initiative. The Rights and Resources Initiative, which defends indigenous peoples' rights, has calculated that "over 1.6 billion people could be affected--directly or indirectly--by the so-called '30-30' initiative" (source: AFP). The AFP article also points out that a 2016 UN report concluded that "some of the world's leading conservation groups had violated the rights of some indigenous people by backing conservation projects that ousted them from ancestral homes."

I have personal knowledge of one such land conservation initiative. In 2007, the United Nations instituted a program called REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation), which later evolved into REDD+. The plan was reasonably straightforward: rich nations and corporations in the Global North while continuing business-as-usual pollution would pay (to buy carbon offset credits) the poor and developing nations in the Global South to protect forests, which in turn would halt deforestation and contribute to climate mitigation, as tropical forests are significant carbon sinks. Two years later, I was in Copenhagen during the COP-15 UN climate summit. There, I learned about Indigenous peoples' resistance to the UN REDD and the REDD+ program, and later wrote about it.

"From an indigenous and human rights perspective, REDD could criminalize the very peoples who protect and rely on forests for their livelihood, with no guarantees for enforceable safeguards. REDD is promoting what could be the biggest land grab of all time," Tom Goldtooth, Executive Director of Indigenous Environmental Network said at the time. He further added that "REDD will always be potentially genocidal."

Thirteen years after its launch, the REDD and REDD+ initiative has largely "failed to achieve the central goal of curbing deforestation," Mongabay reported last year in a two-part article, "The U.N.'s grand plan to save forests hasn't worked, but some still believe it can."

As many nations around the world are starting to formally adopt the 30x30 conservation initiative to mitigate the biodiversity crisis--I urge everyone to please proceed with care, caution and compassion; include Indigenous and local communities at all levels of decision making; and institute all necessary safeguards against evictions of Indigenous, poor and marginalized peoples from their traditional homelands.

As far as the U.S. is concerned, at the moment, about 12% of lands and 26% of oceans are protected, according to a report from Defenders of Wildlife. I keep thinking that it has taken nearly 150 years (since the founding of the first national park, the Yellowstone, in 1872, which was achieved with great violence committed against the Indigenous peoples) to protect 12% of lands--would it be possible to achieve an additional 18% land protection in just one decade? Are we setting too high an expectation that we may fail to achieve, like UN REDD?

Over the past two decades, I have been fighting to protect significant biological nurseries and cultural places in Arctic Alaska, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. So, please don't get me wrong. I do strongly support land conservation that also honors habitation and cultural practices of local communities, but I'm a bit concerned with the manner and speed with which the 30x30 conservation proposal is moving forward, not so much for the U.S. but internationally that may have significant consequences for the Global South. Let us not overlook justice and ensure all safeguards to protect the places but also the people who live in those places. Let us ensure a 30x30 conservation proposal that would honor those aims.

The Promise

The biodiversity crisis is as much a cultural crisis as it is scientific, because almost all aspects of modern life and our institutions are contributing to the escalation of the crisis. The biodiversity crisis is not a consequence of modern living, but rather, the foundation of modern life and its institutions in part has been built with biological massacres, since the dawn of the early modern age starting in the sixteenth century. Part of that story you will find in late American historian John Richard's eye-opening book The World Hunt: An Environmental History of the Commodification of Animals, and Indian historian Mahesh Rangarajan's India's Wildlife History.

So, mitigation of the biodiversity crisis then must also include culture, in addition to science-based initiatives. I offer a concrete example below.

"A Global Deal for Nature" paper published in Science Advances that provided the foundation for the 30x30 conservation proposal includes a color-coded map of the whole Earth: dark green represents areas that already have at least 30% protection; lighter green represents at least 30% protected and remaining land that can be candidate for protection; orange represents 20-30% protected and remaining; and solid red represents less than 20% protected and remaining. Except parts of the East and the Gulf coasts, Midwest and the Mississippi River Basin, which is solid red, much of the rest of the United States looks light or dark green, meaning there is much potential to advance the 30x30 conservation plan in the U.S. But if you look at India--almost all of it is solid red, meaning there is very little hope for biodiversity conservation in India, according to the 30x30 conservation plan as proposed by the scientists.

Is protecting biodiversity in India a hopeless endeavor? Quite the contrary. India provides home to 7-8% of all recorded species on only 2.4% of world's land area. India and the U.S. are both among the 17 mega-biodiverse countries and, India appears to have lesser number of species in peril than the U.S., according to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species version 2020-2. How is this possible? The answer lies, not in science-based conservation but more broadly in cultural and religious practices, ethics and values. On Thursday, January 28, I will give a public lecture "Visualizing Global Biodiversity: Toward an Understanding of Sacred Places and Relations" at Yale University to elaborate on this point. The online webinar is free and open to the public but registration is required. I hope to see you at the talk.

I end with this question for President Biden: should you put all your biodiversity eggs only in one basket, the 30x30, or should you start, perhaps after your first 100 days in office, thinking about instituting a government-wide team that would work on mitigating the biodiversity crisis, just like the inspiring model you have established for Climate? Like your Climate team, which includes global and domestic leadership posts, and leadership posts all across various agencies--I urge you to build a similar one for Biodiversity. The epic tragedy needs your leadership and demands no less.

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