feingold1_Special Envoy for Biodiversity and Water Resources_us national park George Rose/Getty Images

What US Leadership Can Do for Nature

Although the United States is not a party to the Convention on Biological Diversity, its heavyweight status affords it ample opportunities to contribute to global conservation efforts. One major test will be this month’s COP15 conference, which may be the world’s last best chance to reverse biodiversity loss.

MIDDLETON, WISCONSIN – In his narration for the Netflix series Our Great National Parks, former US President Barack Obama describes a sloth as harboring “an entire micro-kingdom” in his fur. “Researching him will help fight cancer, malaria, and antibiotic-resistant superbugs,” he notes, before concluding that, “This sleepy sloth might just save us all.”

These striking lines reflect how dependent we are on nature for our survival and well-being. And what the sleepy sloth and countless other species of fauna and flora are telling us is that the interconnected crises of biodiversity loss and climate change have become an existential threat.

An existential threat means that we do not have the luxury of time. Since 1970, global wildlife populations have declined by around 69%, on average. In North America alone, wild species populations decreased by 20% between 1970 and 2018. This trend will continue if we don’t act now. What we do today will determine whether future generations can be safe in the knowledge that their livelihoods, climate, health, prosperity, and habitat are not at stake.

The United States, for its part, is home to a vast array of ecosystems and an astonishing variety of wild plants and animals. There are an estimated 200,000 native species on its territory, representing 13% of species worldwide. Its breathtaking landscapes stretch from lush forests to frozen tundra and subtropical rainforests, including in 63 protected national parks.

The US is also a global political and economic heavyweight. And, as the world’s largest donor country, international development is a major component of its influence in world affairs.

This month, the world’s eyes will turn to the Convention on Biological Diversity’s (CBD) crucial COP15 conference in Montreal. The hope is that these talks will produce an ambitious final agreement on the “post-2020 framework,” which aims to protect at least 30% of the planet by 2030 (30x30). COP15 is also an ideal moment for the US to leverage its substantial soft power on behalf of global efforts to build a “nature-positive” future in which we have not only halted but also reversed nature loss. Although the US itself is not a party to the CBD – owing to bipartisan divisions and opposition from various interest groups – its heavyweight status affords it ample opportunities to contribute, including by influencing the debate over the final language of the framework.

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Moreover, the US can help build partnerships, influence key decision-makers, and create new incentives for conservation efforts around the world. It can advocate stronger incentives for country-specific commitments to achieve the most urgent conservation goals. It can help to secure the financing and funding pledges needed to support low- and middle-income countries’ efforts to achieve global conservation goals and protect their local ecosystems. And it can integrate conservation into its international-development policies, thus helping to offset the cost of biodiversity conservation in these countries.

Despite the US’s three-decade-long failure to ratify the CBD, it has recently demonstrated that it is still capable of implementing bold, game-changing policies. The Biden administration’s “America the Beautiful” initiative aims to conserve 30% of American lands and waters by 2030, in line with the global 30x30 target that will be negotiated at COP15. This initiative aims not only to accelerate a shift toward biodiversity conservation, but also to put the rights of local communities, indigenous peoples, and tribal nations at the center of protected-area measures.

In the same vein, the Biden administration recently appointed Monica Medina as the first-ever Special Envoy for Biodiversity and Water Resources – a move that signals America’s commitment to tackling biodiversity loss and the climate crisis. Under Medina’s guidance earlier this year, the US joined the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People.

Back in 1964, the US Department of the Interior published The Race for Inner Space, a special report warning that the “conservation clock is ticking too fast to be turned back.” Nearly 60 years on, the conservation clock is still ticking down. But at least Americans’ appreciation of the beauty of our natural heritage is still alive.

The Biden administration’s recent initiatives could redefine America’s conservation movement, enabling the US to lead by example and set the standard for conservation on the continent. It is a country that can use its enormous power and global influence – be it economic, cultural, or political – to help the world shape a new and desperately needed global biodiversity framework. Despite divisions over other issues, the US can achieve an internal consensus on the need to protect its great natural heritage, and to support the global conservation agenda through funding commitments and capacity-building initiatives.

That consensus cannot come soon enough. With the clock ticking down, COP15 must be seen as an urgent wake-up call.

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