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World leaders meet to save species from extinction

Thursday, October 21st 2010 3:46:16pm

To the Editor:

World leaders, including federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice, will soon be meeting at the United Nations Conference on Biological Diversity in Nagoya Japan, to try to stem the ever-increasing loss of the planet’s plant and animal species.

In the attached opinion piece, Ontario’s Environmental Commissioner, Gord Miller outlines the steps that he thinks the federal and provincial governments need to take to protect species-at-risk in Canada, including killer whales, the swift fox, and the marten.  

This article can be used by your publication, as long as credit is given to Gord Miller, the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario.

World leaders meet to save species from extinction

The earth is currently losing wildlife, fish, and plants at an almost unprecedented rate. Global biodiversity has dropped by 30 per cent since 1970, according to the Living Planet Report 2010 released earlier this month by the World Wildlife Fund. Species are disappearing a thousand times faster than normal.

This global extinction is comparable to the damage done when a massive meteorite slammed into our planet 70 million years ago and wiped out the dinosaurs. But this time around, the enormous environmental change is being caused by development and climate change.

The federal government, aided by independent scientists, has listed 470 species across Canada that are at risk of extinction, from the killer whales on the West Coast to the swift fox on the prairies and the American marten in Newfoundland.  Even species that we think of as ubiquitous in some parts of Canada, like the Monarch butterfly, are under threat because of logging in their wintering grounds in Mexico, and the mistaken belief that milkweed, their host plant, must be eradicated as a noxious week.

Right now, world leaders are meeting in Nagoya Japan, to try to halt this loss of life around the plant. And the UN Secretary General has told the delegates to the United Nation’s biodiversity summit they face a daunting task, “To tackle the root causes of biodiversity loss, we must give it a higher priority in all areas of decision-making and in all economic sectors.” Ban Ki-Moon has also challenged all governments, including Canada’s, to implement solutions:  “The consequences of this collective failure, if it is not quickly corrected, will be severe for us all.”

How well is Canada rising to the challenge?  This country’s 4th National Report to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity, judged our own progress as “mixed.”  While we are doing a better job than in the past in protecting ecologically sensitive areas, trends also show that, everywhere else, there are significant declines in many species, particularly among birds and fish.

The problem is that all too often, we don’t know how concerned we should be about the state of Canada’s plant and animal species.  Long-term scientific monitoring is often subject to the whim of politics and cut-backs. But its value is immeasurable.  It is also not a luxury: the sustainable management of our natural resources depends on it. The mantra for corporate management applies equally to the environment: “You can’t change what you can’t measure.”

We can’t manage, conserve or protect what we don’t know. We also can’t detect our own failures – as a government or as a society – if we don’t know they exist until it is too late.  This creates uncertainty in a time when decisive action is urgently needed.  Without the knowledge, public debate over what needs to done will be taken up by spurious issues, instead of the actual facts on the ground, in the air, and in the water.

Stepping back, it’s also important that everyone think about their own actions and how these may threaten species and imperil the natural environment.  One way is to look at our individual ecological footprint, the measure of how many of the earth’s resources we personally consume; that can spark an important discussion about the future we want to have.

On a per person basis, Canada has the seventh highest ecological footprint in the world.  Or to put it another way, it takes over seven hectares of land around the world to support each one of us.  In contrast, it takes only two hectares on average to support any one else on the planet.  This is neither a record to be proud of, nor one that matches the perception we have of ourselves as Canadians.

So, on the international stage this month, world leaders at the biodiversity summit urgently need to tackle this environmental crisis head-on.  At home, our provincial governments must play their constitutionally crucial role and be the stewards of our natural resources and biological diversity.  It is a legitimate question to ask all levels of government what plans they have for conserving our biological diversity.

If we care about the future for our children, our communities, and our economy, a bold vision that embraces our environment as the ultimate bottom line is needed.  Our collective security and prosperity depends on it.

Gord Miller is the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario.