Is Anyone Paying Attention to the Biodiversity Conference of the Parties?
The United Nations is a talking society. Talking has always been a better idea than warfare, and so the U.N. performs a critical function. Still, some talk is more important than other talk. Currently, the 15th United Nations Biodiversity Conference of the Parties (COP15) is underway in Montreal. They are trying to figure out something they haven’t been able to do at the other 14 biodiversity conferences they’ve held: How do we reduce the massive species loss being imposed on the planet by humans? As Catrin Einhorn and Lauren Leatherby reported in last week’s New York Times:
“Wildlife is disappearing around the world, in the oceans and on land. The main cause on land is perhaps the most straightforward: Humans are taking over too much of the planet, erasing what was there before. Climate change and other pressures make survival harder. This week and next, nations are meeting in Montreal to negotiate a new agreement to address staggering declines in biodiversity. The future of many species hangs in the balance.”
I always find the coverage of these conferences fascinating as reporters and delegates gather and pretend that they are participating in and covering a great arena of global decision-making. In fact, whatever is agreed to—if anything is agreed to—cannot be enforced in a world of sovereign nations. Any resemblance to operational reality may well be purely coincidental. Perhaps even worse: it appears that no one is paying attention.
I know that when pressed, many people at COP15 will admit that the real aims of the meeting are far less dramatic than the stated goal of preventing species extinction and maintaining biodiversity. Like their older and more popular sibling, the Climate COP, they are hoping to focus the world’s attention on a critical environmental problem. Their focus is not climate change but ecological well-being. The United States will attend the meeting but is not a party to the convention. Biodiversity and ecology are not at the center of global diplomacy or national policymaking. If this is a media extravaganza, it is decidedly low-key. Biodiversity loss is not a new story, it is centuries in the making. According to Einhorn and Leatherby:
“While countries in the global south are experiencing the most dramatic biodiversity losses right now, Europe and the United States went through their own severe declines hundreds of years ago… Now, with negotiations underway in Montreal, countries that are poor economically but rich in biodiversity argue that they need help from wealthier countries if they’re going to take a different route. Overall, the financial need is daunting: hundreds of billions per year to help poorer countries develop and implement national biodiversity plans, which would include actions like creating protected areas, restoring degraded lands, reforming harmful agricultural, fishing and forestry practices; managing invasive species; and improving urban water quality. On the other hand, failing to address biodiversity loss carries enormous financial risk.”
In some instances, the climate goals and biodiversity goals overlap, because preserving natural areas can help reduce and absorb greenhouse gases. But the need for funding for the Global South places the biodiversity COP and the climate COP in an unacknowledged competition for the same scarce financial resources. Biodiversity has been losing in this competition for a long time. I think it is likely because the biodiversity crisis is both more complex and subtle than the climate crisis. Climate change is a relatively simple and straightforward problem that is well understood. Climate models have become more accurate over the past quarter century as the small number of critical factors influencing climate change have become better understood. Moreover, the predictions of climate impact due to sea level rise and extreme weather events have proven to be accurate and widespread. We are all experiencing the impact of climate change. While the reactionary governor of Florida only mentions climate science to deny it, he is still spending billions of dollars to build the resiliency needed to adapt to climate change. He may not acknowledge the science of climate change, but he knows he must deal with its impacts.
Although the climate problem is relatively easy for non-ideologues to internalize, biodiversity is not as easy to understand. The interconnections and relationships between elements of our living biosphere are far more complex than climate change and less understood. We are learning more each day about species interdependencies, but there is still a great deal we do not know. When we lose a species, it becomes a new scientific fact, and the relationship of that loss to other losses requires years of careful study to understand. The overall impact of massive biodiversity loss is still being studied, and we need a lot more research before we get a real handle on these problems. In addition, the knowledge we’ve gained has not been effectively communicated.
The climate crisis has resulted in a proposed SEC corporate carbon disclosure rule, but a similar disclosure rule on ecosystem damage, risk, and impact is not on the policy agenda. COP27 received massive global attention. COP15 is a well-kept secret. Additionally, whoever planned COP15 decided December 7-19 would be a good time for a global meeting in the beautiful but quite cold city of Montreal. Even worse, it conflicts with the December 12-16 Annual Meeting of the AGU (American Geophysical Union)—typically in San Francisco, although this year in Chicago. In case you are wondering, the AGU:
“Fall Meeting is the most influential event in the world dedicated to the advancement of Earth and space sciences. Every year, AGU Fall Meeting convenes >25,000 attendees from 100+ countries to share research and network. Researchers, scientists, educators, students, policymakers, enthusiasts, journalists and communicators attend AGU Fall Meeting to better understand our planet and environment, and our role in preserving its future. It is a results-oriented gathering rooted in celebrating and advancing positive individual and collective outcomes.”
Not only are the earth scientists likely to be absent, the only head of state attending COP15 is the host, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. It’s clear that the climate folks have hired a better public relations team than the biodiversity group. The COP15 secretariat needs to hire a team of professionals skilled enough in events management to avoid conflicting with holidays, the AGU, and the World Cup.
My Columbia sustainability students and my colleagues at the Columbia Climate School were eager to attend COP27 and were visible participants in many events. Students requested funds to help them travel to Egypt for the conference, and the Climate COP was a wonderful learning experience for many of its attendees. In contrast, no one from my university seems to be going to Montreal, and if they are, they aren’t talking about it.
I am not trying to minimize the importance of climate change since it is quite obviously an existential crisis for our planet. But biological threats ranging from COVID-19 to species extinction are at least as dangerous. Part of the danger is that we do not yet fully understand the impact of this threat. As Einhorn and Leatherby observed in the New York Times:
“Biodiversity, or all the variety of life on the planet — including plants, invertebrates and ocean species — is declining at rates unprecedented in human history, according to the leading intergovernmental scientific panel on the subject. The group’s projections suggest that a million species are threatened with extinction, many within decades.”
Unprecedented declines lead to uncharted impacts. The 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity has been endorsed by 196 nations but not the United States. Perhaps it’s time for our nation to join in and focus greater attention on these issues. Human domination of Earth is here to stay. Let’s hope it does not result in human destruction of the only planet we have and the only one known to support human life.
I could use some hope. I don’t understand why these meetings cannot be held annually until we can agree on more effective targets and meet some of them. They are so infrequent that the entire planet could be emptied of life and you could count the meetings on one hand. But climate meetings happen often, get publicity and attendance by high up persons.