Used with permission courtesy of Brent Stirton/Getty Images/WWF-UK

by Alejandro Perez, Sr Vice President, Policy and US Government Affairs at WWF-US

Over the last year, a previously unknown pathogen jumped from an animal to a person, spread across the globe, claimed well over a million lives and brought national economies to their knees. And yet, as devastating as the pandemic has been, the world has yet to fully recognize our responsibility—through our encroachment into the wilderness and the trafficking of wildlife, for the rise of diseases like COVID-19. Sadly, our current dilemma is just one symptom of a much larger problem.

As detailed in WWF’s recently released Living Planet Report 2020, nature is being lost at an alarming rate due to a range of human pressures—and this is a problem for people as well as the planet. Dwindling resources, collapsing ecosystems and an increasing extinction rate are endangering livelihoods, disrupting economies and fostering instability around the world, including in regions of strategic importance to the U.S. The coming decade will be critical to turn the tide against the global loss of nature and the incoming Administration must see it as a top priority that will require bold steps, beginning with its full integration with its foreign policy and national security agenda.

What the UN Secretary General recently called humanity’s “war on nature”—from wildlife trafficking to illegal logging and fishing and the conversion of land for agriculture and other uses—has forced the planet to a breaking point. And this crisis of biodiversity loss is fundamentally intertwined with the growing climate crisis. Forests, grasslands, peatlands and mangroves provide some of our greatest natural carbon sinks. As they vanish, more carbon enters the atmosphere and the rate of climate change accelerates. A hotter planet in turn becomes increasingly inhospitable to animal and plant species, driving further loss of nature. And so, the vicious cycle spins on, until the one species capable of stopping it decides to finally take action.

To its credit, the U.S. national security community has recognized climate change as a national security threat. The 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review and a 2016 report by the National Intelligence Council both projected that climate change would contribute to poverty, political instability and other factors that lead to conflict and violence. The consensus that climate change poses a clear and present danger to our collective future helped secure the historic Paris Agreement. It is time to recognize that the threat posed by nature’s great vanishing act deserves the same attention, and the same commitment to concrete action. Along with partner organizations, WWF has been working to highlight this threat—and the solutions to it—through our “Natural Security” initiative.

Consider the challenge of natural resource scarcity. It foments instability by precipitating food and water insecurity, impeding economic development where it’s most needed, and robbing communities of natural assets that are the foundation of their livelihoods and well-being. It also undermines rule of law and creates fertile ground for bad actors. Some groups, such as al-Shahab and Boko Haram, have exploited increasingly scarce natural resources to extort communities and recruit disaffected individuals. Trafficking in wildlife, timber and fish generates tens of billions of dollars in annual revenue for transnational criminal networks, including those with ties to extremist groups and sometimes even terrorism. And when these illegally harvested products are sold on the global market, they undermine prices for commodities such as seafood and timber, making it harder for honest fishers and foresters to make a living, including here in the U.S.

Finally, when natural resources dry up and disappear, this contributes to mass migrations, which can sometimes escalate long-simmering political, social and economic tensions. The trendlines here are disconcerting: together with rising sea levels, water scarcity and crop failures could displace as many as 145 million people by mid-century.

Intact ecosystems also help to regulate the spread of emerging diseases. But as people push deeper into the wilderness to clear space for agriculture or infrastructure, we fragment natural habitats and alter the delicate balance of these ecosystems. We also remove the natural buffer between us and wildlife-borne diseases, many of which humans have never encountered before and to which we therefore have no natural defense. As people and their domesticated animals come into greater contact with wild animals, whether on the frontiers of deforestation or in urban wildlife markets, the risk rises of these diseases spilling over to humans and sparking the next pandemic.

Fixing our broken relationship with nature is no doubt a daunting challenge. The good news is, the U.S. has a long history of leadership on international conservation and is up to the task. If we are to succeed, however, the incoming Administration will need to support both robust efforts at home and redouble its engagement with other governments around the world.

First, the Biden Administration should issue an Executive Order on U.S. efforts to confront the biodiversity crisis, both at home and abroad, including a commitment to conserve at least 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030 and support for similar efforts globally. This Executive Order should create an interagency task force and national strategy to guide federal actions and investments, drawing on strong input from states, Tribes, and local governments. It should also reflect the need to work closely and constructively with our international partners. Such collaboration would ultimately be strengthened if the U.S. became a full party to treaties such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS). But even without Senate ratification of these agreements, the Biden Administration should demonstrate US leadership, including aligning with the global push for an ambitious post-2020 biodiversity framework under the CBD.         

Second, the Biden Administration should take steps to integrate the biodiversity crisis and natural resource conservation into U.S. national security planning. The President should task the intelligence community with creating a National Intelligence Estimate of the mid- to long-term global and regional threats to U.S. national security posed by the global degradation and loss of nature. A detailed assessment of everything from forests to fish stocks to freshwater systems and the role these natural systems play in undergirding global stability and America’s security interests will help drive home the need to elevate these issues. It can also help determine national and international targets for conservation, and shape the strategies needed to achieve them.

Finally, the U.S. should make global conservation goals an important component of its foreign policy and international trade agenda and weave them throughout its broader portfolio of international development and foreign assistance. Conservation objectives should be fully integrated into diplomatic and development strategies, such as the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review and the Global Water Strategy, as well as programs such as Feed the Future and Global Health—including a reinvigorated whole-of-government approach to preventing future pandemics. As the Administration strives to “build back better” at home, it should also promote the same approach internationally, supporting bilateral and multilateral investments in COVID-19 recovery and economic stimulus that are sustainable and designed to protect or enhance natural systems and biodiversity—including nature-based solutions to climate change.

Achieving these objectives will require significant additional investments by the U.S. and other countries in global conservation. It will also require strong support for the land and resource rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities, who history has shown are among the most effective ecological stewards and critical partners in conservation.

No single agency, agreement, institution, technological innovation or nation can solve the twin problems of climate change and loss of nature. But the absence of America’s global leadership on these issues has been felt acutely over the past four years. If the Biden Administration can realign America’s approaches to diplomacy, global development and national security in ways that truly reflect the gravity of the environmental challenges we face, it will find a world of willing partners waiting to join us. Working together, we can put ourselves on a road to recovery over the coming decade—for people and the planet.

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