CI Spotlights Biodiversity on Capitol Hill

CI's president, Russ Mittermeier, speaks about biodiversity to a packed house on the Hill.

CI’s president, Russ Mittermeier, speaks about biodiversity to a packed house on the Hill.

2010 is a critical year for protecting biodiversity around the world, and the U.S. government needs to do a much better job of leading the way.

That was the message that a full-to-capacity room of congressional staffers, conservationists, policy and law makers, and yours truly got to hear this week from an elite panel of experts assembled by CI’s Vice President for U.S. Government Policy, Peter Jenkins, in the stately Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill. Hosted by Senator Tom Udall (D-NM), the congressional briefing provocatively asked “Whatever Happened to Biodiversity?” on the U.S. legislative and administrative agendas.

The idea was to gather influential leaders in Washington just a few weeks before the start of negotiations on the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in Nagoya, Japan. CBD, for the uninitiated, is the global treaty that helps provide governments, NGOs, businesses and scientists with a blueprint – and specific, measurable goals – for achieving sustainable development and preserving life on Earth.

It’s hard to say what effect the discussion may have had on lawmakers. But the panelists certainly offered a compelling case.

Headlining the conversation was CI President Dr. Russ Mittermeier, a globally renowned primatologist and herpetologist who explained that “we have an historic opportunity but a brief window” to protect biodiversity on a global scale. Russ gave the keynote presentation. He explained what biodiversity is, and he explained why time is running out for world leaders to come together to stop the loss of unique, ecologically important and still undiscovered species of plants and animals – creatures suffering severe stresses due to habitat loss, climate change and other human-caused pressures. He also told the audience about the world’s current biodiversity and extinction crises, about the need to especially protect terrestrial and marine “hotspots” that contain large concentrations of species, and about how important biodiversity is to human well-being.

A full room showed up to hear Russ Mittermeier and others speak just weeks ahead of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Attendees listen up as Russ Mittermeier and others speak just weeks ahead of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Calling out the United States for being one of only three countries in the entire world that have yet to ratify the CBD (the others are Andorra and the Holy See), Russ added, “We really need to have the U.S. government on board.”

“The United States must wake up,” added William Snape of the Center for Biological Diversity, another panelist, who emphasized that the country is already in compliance with nearly every requirement to join the CBD. No new laws would have to be passed for the U.S. to ratify the treaty and get a formal seat at the negotiating table. “This really shouldn’t be a big deal,” Snape said. “Instead of wringing our hands, we ought to just start doing the hard work.”

Briefing attendees also heard about the Global Conservation Act of 2010 – a bipartisan bill CI strongly supports. It would create a national framework in the U.S. to streamline biodiversity conservation efforts – currently managed by a piecemeal web of agencies. “It’s a bill that has the potential to change the game on biodiversity,” said Jeff Wise of the Pew Environment Group – one of the organizations, along with CI and others, working to promote the bill as part of the Alliance for Global Conservation.

It was heartening to see so many people in the halls of power take interest in biodiversity. Now it’s just a matter of rolling up our sleeves, heading to Nagoya for the CBD, and getting to work. We’ll be pushing hard for countries to support ambitious new goals that will seek to protect at least 25 percent of Earth’s land and inland waters and 15 percent of marine ecosystems by 2020. (You can sign a petition supporting our goal here.)

More to come on that in October!

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