As 2022 begins, I am feeling the loss of two of the titans of U.S. science and conservation – E.O. Wilson and Tom Lovejoy – both of whom passed away in late December. Wilson was a Pulitzer Prize winning biologist whose study of ants and other insects led to some of the most profound and provocative scientific ideas of the 20th century, including that conserving biodiversity is essential for the survival of the planet. As National Geographic put it, “much of the modern environmental movement owes its foundations to him.” Lovejoy similarly was a world-renowned American conservation biologist who first coined the phrase “biodiversity.” He founded the non-profit Amazon Biodiversity Center, and brought to the attention of the world the threat of tropical deforestation. Tom was also a member of the State Department family, having served as a global science envoy from 2016-18.
I was fortunate to get to know them both in the last few years, and they have long been an inspiration for me and countless others in the conservation community. We can best honor them by conserving nature and biodiversity on our planet. While the climate crisis is well known, the biological diversity crisis is just as severe but garners much less attention from the press and public. According to Sir Robert Watson, chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) for the release of the seminal 2019 IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (the ), “[t]he health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”
Here are some of the Report’s key findings:
- Up to 1 million species are threatened with extinction, many within decades.
- 821 million people in Asia and Africa face food insecurity and 40% of the global population lacks access to clean and safe drinking water.
- Three-quarters of the land-based environment and about 66% of the marine environment have been significantly altered by human actions. On average these trends have been less severe or avoided in areas held or managed by Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities.
- Plastic pollution has increased tenfold since 1980, 300-400 million tons of heavy metals, solvents, toxic sludge and other wastes from industrial facilities are dumped annually into the world’s waters, and fertilizers entering coastal ecosystems have produced more than 400 ocean ‘dead zones’, totaling more than 245,000 km2 – a combined area greater than that of the United Kingdom.
- Land degradation has reduced the productivity of 23% of the global land surface; up to US$577 billion in annual global crops are at risk from pollinator loss and 100-300 million people are at increased risk of floods and hurricanes because of loss of coastal habitats and protection.
At the State Department’s Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, reversing this loss of biodiversity and conserving nature for people and the communities that depend on them will be central to our work in 2022. We are doing this by restoring American leadership for a healthier planet.
The four priorities I have laid out for the bureau are:
- fighting nature crimes like wildlife trafficking and other illicit activities such as illegal fishing;
- seeking global solutions to address the onslaught of plastic pollution that spills into our waterways and oceans and harms biodiversity;
- helping countries across the globe conserve 30 percent of their lands and waters by 2030 to reverse the dramatic loss of nature and biodiversity; and
- addressing zoonotic disease spillover by conserving habitat in ways that will reduce the risk of future pandemics.
This new focus on biodiversity will require us to make other changes as well – ones that will help us educate others about this crisis. For example, to make clear that the focus of our work is on conserving the natural world on Earth (and even in space), we have updated the mission statement for the bureau.
Our mission is to provide American leadership, diplomacy, and science to conserve and protect the global environment, ocean, health, and space for the prosperity, peace, and security of this and future generations.Monica MedinaASSISTANT SECRETARY BUREAU OF OCEANS AND INTERNATIONAL ENVIRONMENTAL AND SCIENTIFIC AFFAIRS
This focus on nature and biodiversity conservation can bring greater security to countries around the world where wildlife trafficking and illegal fishing undermine the rule of law and the ability of communities to make a living and feed their people. Conserving biodiversity can force us to confront the pollution in our midst that undermines species everywhere, including humans, particularly plastic pollution. Moreover, if we conserve biodiversity, we will be able to ensure nature-based solutions to the climate crisis that come from the storage of carbon in trees, in the ground, and even in animals such as whales. And finally, by minimizing biodiversity loss, we are helping to protect ourselves from viruses like COVID-19 that are transmitted between humans and wild animals when they come into too close contact. Thus, conserving biodiversity contributes many important co-benefits, beyond the benefits to nature itself.
I believe focusing on nature is something that everyone can get behind – no matter where they live or what they do or their age, gender, religion, or culture. And that is why I am optimistic about our ability to reverse the trajectory of biodiversity loss that we are on today. E.O. Wilson and Tom Lovejoy were optimistic about the future, too. Wilson said recently that he believed that “we are on the brink of a new era, in which the value extends to saving the rest of nature. Knowing it, preserving it, studying it, understanding it, appreciating it….” Similarly, Lovejoy told National Geographic in 2015, “There are things we can do together…There are biological solutions that would benefit everyone.” So, in their honor, I am determined in 2022 and beyond to find those solutions and to work hard to achieve them – to use American leadership and diplomacy to conserve nature for today and for generations to come.
About the Author: Monica Medina is the Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs at the Department of State.