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Crunch time for the cosy cousin?

Richard Black | 09:02 UK time, Thursday, 28 January 2010

You'd think that conserving the world's biodiversity would be a pretty uncontroversial aim - wouldn't you?

PandaWho wouldn't think it a good idea that the giant panda survives for our children's children to marvel at, that the intricate dependencies of coral reef ecosystems remain un-ruptured by dynamite and fertilisers, that savannahs and forests and mangroves be allowed to continue providing humanity with game and oxygen and coastal protection?

According to York University's Alastair Fitter - you need to think again.

Co-chairing a wrap-up session at the recent InterAcademy Panel conference, the biologist suggested that biodiversity may not remain climate change's cosy cousin for much longer.

The fundamental reason why e-mails were stolen last year from the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit was, he said, because climate change had reached such a fever pitch of political heat, and if it becomes evident that conserving biodiversity means changing lifestyles, those working in the field must expect debate to reach similar temperatures.

With this year being declared the International Year of Biodiversity, and with the critical session of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) coming up this October, you'd expect such heated conflict to materialise this year, if at all.

History suggests that Professor Fitter may be correct.

Just two countries in the world are not parties to the CBD: Andorra and the US.

I'm a little shaky on Andorra's reasons. But the aetiology of the US position speaks absolutely to the argument that the "mom and apple pie" view of biodiversity can quickly turn into "mom and a lacing of strychnine".

After President Bill Clinton signed the convention in 1993, it went swiftly into Congress for ratification, and the first indications were that it might well pass.

But a number of interested parties began to argue against - organisations concerned with land ownership and land rights, such as the Montana Farm Bureau Federation and Grassroots for Multiple Use, allied with groups opposed in principle to extensions of government and regulation.

Concerns were expressed about possible restrictions on the unfettered access that US pharmaceutical companies had to the developing world's biological riches, and on the nascent technology of genetic engineering.

With senators lining up to condemn the convention, using phrases such as "I am especially concerned about the effect of the treaty on private property rights in my state and throughout America" and "a rather common view among so-called developing nations that this treaty is some sort of an international cash cow to be milked", it went un-ratified - and remains so to this day.

In the domain of public opinion, the parallels are striking.

On the website of Sovereignty International, you'll find a video clip of Lord Monckton speaking against carbon curbs through the UN climate convention, and a video clip of US lobbyist Henry Lamb speaking against moves to protect wild lands through the UN biodiversity convention.

A related consultancy, Environmental Perspectives Incorporated, links the issues by talking of "false environmental catastrophes like global warming and ecosystem destruction" - both promoted by people who want to establish global governance.

The rhetoric on news media is also familiar: "Your instincts tell you there is something wrong, or incomplete about what the media is telling you... We provide information the media leaves out - the other side of the story!"

Now, this post isn't a history lesson, isn't an examination exclusively of US lobby groups, and doesn't assume that UN conventions are the only way to protect biodiversity.

But it does demonstrate the wider point that when panda push comes to financial shove, biodiversity can become every bit as heated as climate change.

Here's a hypothetical example raised at the InterAcademy panel meeting.

Amazon rainforestLet's say you want to protect the Amazon rainforest and the rich biodiversity it contains.

One way you might look to do that is by reducing deforestation; and one of the main causes of Amazonian deforestation is clearance for cattle ranches.

So you might choose to campaign among Western consumers, or to lobby Western governments, to reduce the amount of beef consumed on Western plates; less beef equals more trees.

Does the issue look uncontroversial now?

So with something of a nod to the industry of our regular commenter davblo2, and without a hint of judgement on their merits, here are just five arguments that I expect to see deployed at some point during the year:

• Biological diversity around the world isn't really declining

• Where it is, it's a product of natural cycles such as the normal run of predator-prey dynamics; species have always gone extinct and always will

• Much of the evidence for declining biological diversity comes from eco-extremist groups, so cannot be trusted, as these organisations have a financial stake in portraying a crisis

• Moves to protect biodiversity are just an excuse to raise taxes

• Developing countries should concentrate on economic growth first, then use their wealth to repair any damage caused; they have more to gain by ripping down their forests and selling the timber than by protecting them


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