Page last updated at 21:01 GMT, Monday, 19 January 2009

Setting out Obama's green agenda

Peter Seligmann (Image: Conservancy International)
Peter Seligmann

Barack Obama will become the 44th president of the US as the world is engulfed in a global economic crisis, says Peter Seligmann. He calls on the new president not to ignore the environment, which is "rapidly reaching a tipping point".

Protest by Cambodian farmers (Image: AP)
The global environment is rapidly reaching a tipping point, much like our global economy
What an odd juxtaposition of almost giddy anticipation and deep anxiety as we prepare for a US presidential inauguration that will be celebrated worldwide.

Hopes for a new year and a new global leader of vision and courage collide with a tremendous angst as people everywhere are engulfed by the global economic crisis.

Alongside the urgent action needed to keep the economy afloat, there is a course that President-elect Barack Obama can chart that will help our global society move into a new era of sustained security.

This security is not only for our economies, but also for our health and for present and future generations to thrive.

Another young US president, Theodore Roosevelt, summed up that course about 100 years ago when he said: "The conservation of natural resources is the fundamental problem.

"Unless we solve that problem it will avail us little to solve all others."

'Tipping point'

As Mr Obama becomes the 44th president, one of his toughest challenges is also his greatest opportunity.

Barack Obama (Getty Images)
The world needs US leadership to begin honestly accounting for the state our natural assets

The global environment is rapidly reaching a tipping point, much like our global economy.

Once it passes that point, it will be all the more difficult to pull it back to stability.

Our Earth is being altered to the point where it cannot sustain much of the life that has thrived for millennia; species extinctions today are occurring at an estimated 1,000 times the normal rate.

When our landscapes, rivers and coral reefs can no longer sustain robust species populations, humans are also in trouble.

People depend on healthy ecosystems for the very fundamentals of survival: clean air, fresh water, soil regeneration, crop pollination and other resources that we often take for granted until they are scarce or gone.

Just as the current financial crisis reveals how the world's economies are interconnected, we also must recognise the fundamental links between human well-being and Earth's ecosystems.

When we abuse and degrade the natural world, it affects our health, our social stability and our wallets.

Natural capital

How great is the challenge?

Well, today, 25% of wild marine fisheries are over-exploited, while another 50% are highly degraded.

Bulldozer on a landfill site (Image: PA)
Ecosystem destruction costs our global economy at least $2 trillion (1.4 trillion) every year

West African fisheries have declined by 80% since the 1990s, resulting in thousands of fishermen searching for jobs in Europe.

When the Newfoundland cod fisheries collapsed in the early 1990s as a result of overfishing, it meant the loss of tens of thousands of jobs and cost $2bn (1.4bn) in income support and retraining.

Tropical deforestation and land degradation contributes more global greenhouse gas emissions than all the world's cars, trucks, planes and trains combined.

What is lost in Indonesia or the Amazon affects the climate in New York, Paris and Sydney.

More than a billion people lack access to safe drinking water. In the poorest countries, one in five children dies from a preventable water-related disease.

This is a crisis that is worsening as ecosystems are damaged, increasing droughts and floods.

Mismanagement and corruption tied to natural resource exploitation have fuelled violent conflict in many countries including Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Violence linked to natural resource loss and degradation has led to unimaginable human suffering in such places as Darfur.

Tensions in the Middle East are fed by conflict over water and oil, as well as religion and politics.

Under pressure

Now, climate change exacerbates the threats posed by over-consumption, pollution and habitat destruction.

We are already witnessing rising oceans, spreading disease, reduced freshwater sources and myriad other serious threats.

Recent studies show half of the world's population could face a climate-induced food crisis by the end of this century.

Franklin D Roosevelt (Getty Images)
Roosevelt's New Deal helped get the US economy back on its feet

Yet as overwhelming as the global environmental crisis has become, it offers some of today's greatest opportunities.

First, we must make conservation of nature a core principle of development; they cannot be separated.

Often an unintended consequence of development projects is the depletion or degradation of natural systems. We must recognise the value of nature and invest to protect it.

Ecosystem destruction costs our global economy at least $2 trillion (1.4 trillion) every year.

That is the value forests provide by storing the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, cleansing fresh water supplies, and preventing soil erosion.

It includes the value oceans and coral reefs provide in food security for millions who rely on fisheries as their primary source of protein.

Overall, global ecosystems services have been assessed to be worth as much as $33 trillion (22.6 trillion) a year.

Every home owner understands that restoring and replacing a plumbing system, or a heating unit, is far more expensive than taking care of the system properly.

Well, the same is true for nature's ecosystems.

Restoring a forest costs 10 times as much as maintaining what we have. Building a reservoir and filtration system is far more expensive than preserving the intact forest systems that naturally filter and cleanse our drinking water.

Traditional measures of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) do not reflect changes in the quality and quantity of a nation's natural assets.

Imagine measuring your personal financial condition without factoring in a dramatic and ongoing decline in your assets.

The world needs US leadership to begin honestly accounting for the state our natural assets.

The Obama administration can bring these issues into the mainstream during this critical time of reorienting the US's national priorities.

Initiatives to advance natural resource conservation in other countries have typically lacked strong political support and received only a small fraction of the total resources dedicated to international engagement.

Mr Obama and his team should fully integrate and fund ecosystem conservation priorities within US national security considerations, as well as foreign policy and development assistance.

By helping restore and protect developing nations' natural heritage throughout the world, the US will strengthen the bonds of friendship and trust through sustainable collaborations.

The stakes are high, and the benefits of bringing ecosystem conservation to the forefront of our foreign policy will be enormous.

As 2009 begins, we face a new era of unprecedented global economic, health and security challenges.

Confronting these challenges requires a bold new commitment to protect our most valuable joint asset - planet Earth.

Peter A Seligmann is chairman and chief executive of US NGO Conservation International

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

Do you agree with Peter Seligmann? Do you think Barack Obama's administration will take the environment seriously? Do you think the US will be a serious player in the global green agenda? Or are the problems facing the world too big for one nation to make a difference?

Yes, let's all let our children starve so the stinking polar bears (they build up a mucus plug in the colons during hibernation, and I can't really think of something more stinky) will live on. China is responsible for MORE OF THE AIR (and probably water) pollution than us. Let's start there. And I sure hope your correspondent is NOT willing to starve his children for some ridiculous animals (not human) as the thrust of his argument states. The time to fix the environment was when we were flush (under Clinton and Bush), not now. It'll, really, never be now and y'all should quit your whining.
Brendan Steuble, Gainesville, VA, USA

We are in the unfortunate situation where too many people associate the word environment with global warming. Thus, too much emphasis is given to carbon dioxide and its role in AGW and not enough thought and media attention given to the plethora of other environmental problems. President Obama, the American people, and the peoples of the world, simply cannot afford to ignore the environment, but Obama must consider the environment in its entirety. Habit destruction, over harvesting, pollution, and other problems, have existed for too long, their effects are known and understood, and yet we as a species still take the short term view and ignore our dependence on the environment. The world's banks, and the American health care industry, are prime examples of the need for greater regulation for the common good. But every market sector needs to have its ethics and level of regulation assessed in order to end the unsustainable use of the environment. I hope Obama will be the President who makes a real difference.
David, Cheshire, UK

I hope the good intentions and optimism are not negated by a rush to ecologically-damaging "renewables", such as some biomass/biofuels, hydropower, wind farms etc. The article is right to encourage a wide appreciation of the global problems - including the present, irreversible, mass extinction.
Clive Hambler, Oxford, UK

"CO2 at the levels in our atmosphere is Not a poison or pollutant" No, but CO2 is a greenhouse gas and the more of these gases there are in the atmosphere the more solar energy will be retained instead of escaping back into space. Greenhouse gases are one of the reasons the Earth is 30-35 degrees warmer than it should be given our distance from the Sun, they are the reason we are not struck by frost every time the Sun goes down, they are the reason Venus is hotter than Mercury despite being further from the Sun. Its basic physics. No disrespect, but it seems to me that your incredulity stems from your ignorance of science rather than having any basis in science.
Abdirahim Artan, Bradford

An excellent and informative article - a pity all articles like this appear with some ill-informed comments by someone like Dr Gough who clearly has a problem understanding the science (or perhaps has a doctorate funded by Exxon Mobil... though I should leave the conspiracy theories to climate change doubters). Those who claim we should be focussing solely on the economic crisis are missing the point somewhat - 'green' jobs in the US are likely to be one of the few things that actually helps the economy. I think we should all be hoping and praying that Obama does listen to Seligman and others, as acting now will not only boost the economy but save a world on the brink of collapse.
G Morrison,

Dr T.T. Gough, can I suggest that rather than blindly accepting dogma (from either side of this so called 'debate') - that you consider the evidence for yourself? Do you debate the underlying physics of greater levels of CO2 & methane causing the atmosphere to absorb more solar output, or are the laws of thermodynamics simply another lie of this vast conspiricy theory? Come off it!
Andrew, Glasgow, UK

One has to ask the question, which of the oil companies is Dr Gough in the pocket of?
M Sharp, Southend-on-Sea England

More misinformation from the MMCC naysayers. No scientific theory is ever proven by computer models, only observational evidence can do that (it could be argued that no scientific theory is ever proven, only incorrect theories discarded). Computer models are only used to try to establish what our climate might look at in the future - not to prove the theory. MMCC is accepted by the mainstream scientific community because of the compelling observational evidence, not because of computer models (I could question what proof there can ever be to support conspiracy theories such as scientists questioning MMCC 'fear for their jobs'). I wonder what Dr Gough disagrees with - CO2 is a greenhouse gas (Tyndall 1859), or CO2 levels in the atmosphere are rising (Keeling et al. 1958) as a result of human activities, or that temperatures are rising (NASA GISS, Hadley CRU, UAH, RSS, etc.). Dr Gough does challenge the final point but does so relying on recent and short term changes that are subject to influences such as El Nino and the phenomenon known as 'weather'. Of course changes in Solar output can explain some of the climate change we have experienced, but not all. To discount the influence of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is to ignore scientific thinking that goes back 150 years. The 'increasing numbers of scientists are openly challenging the position' do doubt comes from the numerous lists posted on Internet blogs that turn out to include TV weathermen, economists, scientists whose position has been distorted, scientists who aren't qualified, scientists whose qualifications can't be verified, a certain journalist with a BA in Classics, and a mere handful of genuine sceptic scientists. Thankfully, Obama is a wise man and will ignore the wild claims of Dr Gough and the climate change misinformation industry that has sprung up on the Internet and in a few less than reputable media outlets. After all, aren't these the same sources that tried to portray Obama as some kind of pro-Muslim threat to the US?
Paul A, London

With the nomination of John Holdren Obama ends the War on science. But the dubious honor of having an anti-science president now passes to the European Union with Czech president Klaus.
frish, Prag

With the greatest of respect, I think that Dr. Gough has missed the point. I believe Mr. Seligmann was simply trying to say that an opportunity exists for the Obama administration to step up to the mark and lead the way on environmental issues. The issue of global warming/cooling has undoubtedly become highly politicised and I would not pretend to speak as an authority on the subject, however, one cannot deny that other issues such as deforestation, habitat loss, scarce food and water supplies to name but a few will affect us all in the long run if we all fail to take action now.
J Boyd, Auckland, New Zealand

The climate does change and many other factors as well. Humankinds final days will be at about 2026, due to the lack of lifesupporting gases and other vital necessities. More important is what Mr.Ted Turner (CNN) said aloud: We will make more money on this climate change than ever before. He did not mention any solution to solve the problem. I do have a solution to turn the temperature down but npbody wants to listen, because it also needs a change of habits and thinking. Enjoy the final 6580 days.
Tyll Ruhtenberg, Hamburg,Germany

You are absolutely right Dr Gough, CO2 is not the problem - nor is "climate change" These things are simply side effects of the core problem The problem is "Human Activity" - we have reached the limits of what the planet will sustain. And til we describe the probelm correctly, we will continue to errode the system till it will stop supporting the human race, and as much 4/5ths of the present human population will perish. The planet doesn't give a toss about us. This is simply down to us giving a toss about what happens to us Cheers Steven
Steven Walker, Penzance

Oh Dear! Yet another Religion based on unknown and unproven data. CO2 at the levels in our atmosphere is Not a poison or pollutant. All this media/politico hype is smoke and mirrors claptrap. However it won't be long before actual climatic conditions will prove how utterly stupid some scientists and politicians have been. History has a way of repeating itself and CO2/AGW panic mongers should look back to The South Sea Bubble, Fools Gold, Witches, Dragons and realise they can't see the wood for the trees. Carbon offset trading and Al Gore/Hansen lies will wither as time goes on and so called "Tipping Points" turn out to be figments of a greenie biased imagination
Brian Johnson, Farnham Surrey UK

A little perspective is called for before any serious actions are taken: Over 10k years ago wooly mammoths played in the Arctic region until they were frozen into permafrost. Our human ancestors then fished off the ice flows in the Bay of Biscay and glaciers covered the Great Lakes. Over a period of the next 8k years the ice gradually receded. About 1k years ago Vikings were sailing in the vicinity of Greenland and setting up thriving settlements. 0.5k years ago the area iced over again and the early ocean explorers, in trying to find a route through the Northwest Passage could not even get close and many perished in the ice. 0.1k years ago Amundsan sails through the NWP for the first time in recent history. It freezes up again soon after. 0.06k years ago several expeditions make it through the Northwest Passage. 0.03k years ago we have the first accurate method of measurements with satellites. Over recent years the wooly mammoths that were frozen in the ice are just starting to thaw out so I guess we have just come full circle. Boy I hope we do not have to go through a cycle like that again.
Tim Jenvey, San Francisco, USA

An excellent piece Peter, filled with valid and proven points. I expect that Obama can make some changes himself. But especially hope he will change the starting point for political dialog about climate and sustainable practices. And for those whose scientific horizons have atrophied, the IPCC A4R disposes of their cut-and-pasted complaints very thoroughly. Section 2 debunks the misinformation claims that the Sun is "going quiet". In any case, as noted by Solanki et al, solar activity reconstructions tell us that only a minor fraction of the recent global warming can be explained by the variable Sun.
Jay Alt, Illinois, USA

The guy who wrote the article giving us 100 months got it right. Time is running out. Already the ocean has changed 2 c.degrees which is actually quite huge yet very very worrisome. I have grown up with climate change here in the Kootenays. Glaciers are melting and we get a lot less snow than 40 years ago. We are drier and hotter. So is the planet in some places and wetter and messier in other places. The planet is in trouble and i trust the peer reviewed IPCC.
norman fields, Castlegar, .BC, Canada

Dr TT Gough Dr of what? The world has been cooling quite quickly since Jan 2007? 'global cooling' based on a few cold snaps this winter, the fact that we are at a solar minimum and a regurgitation of 1970s vintage interpretations of Milankovitch theory. Combine that with a few hysterical non-scientists as talking heads and you end up with a repeat of the nonsensical 'Cooling world' media stories that were misleading in the 1970s. So here we see a denialist using a rejected idea of the early 1970s, which other people in his camp use as an example of bad climate science, as good science which "refutes" AGW.
K M D'Arcy, Edinburgh

I pray that our new president will ignore people like Mr. Seligmann and concentrate on getting the economy back to business. I promise to personally admonish my legislators to focus on things that are truly important, and not this foolishness.
Walter Moore, Indianapolis U.S.A.

It's easy for people to feel separate from the natural processes, when we've built our system to do just that. Toilets take our waste away, groceries give us food, diseases happen to us...the process of our society is to make money to get groceries, to pay bills. Ecosystem and nature is something "out there" that doesn't affect us personally. So how do we get people to change this mentality? How can we get people to "recognise the fundamental links between human well-being and Earth's ecosystems", to see that the individual actions of us all are affecting all of us personally. We are all personally affected by disease, we all struggle for meaning in our jobs, and work for the best quality food we can afford. How can we make clear these links so that people feel not only personally responsible, but also convinced that they really can make a positive difference? I've been pleased to see the rise in environmental education programs supported by federal, state, city governments, and non-profits. It is in people's self interest to do those actions which improve their lives; helping them know what those actions are is key. I was also pleased to see that enforcement of EPA environmental standards are being enforced on smaller more individual units. Phase II of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) storm water program, for example, holds smaller developments responsible for finding healthy and safe solutions to pollution filled wastewater issues. As more and more people are actively involved with finding solutions to environmental challenges, our overall sense of responsibility will increase as a society. It is encouraging that jobs in this sector are expected to rise 24% over the next few years. I believe current legislation will continue to "make conservation of nature a core principle of development". I feel confident the Obama administration will uphold the progression of these policies and program, especially as we become increasingly aware of how entwined humanity is to natural processes. In the future, the US should be known as a protector of nature's beauty and a leader of natural resource best management practices.
Suzanne Tomlinson, Seattle, WA 98107

Can one nation make a difference? Speaking as a member of a nation that contains 5% of the world's population, yet consumes 25% of the world's resources, I have only this to say: "Yes, we can."
Karl Zimmerman, Amherst, MA, USA

Essentially NO 1) CO2 is not a problem - false science driven by UN IPCC and government research funding. The USA has spent $50 Billion and yet there remains no proof that CO2 is the cause of 'climate change'. The only support for the hyposesis is from computer modelling. 2) Climate Change is cyclical and the warming 1975 - 1998 was not unprecedented 3) The world has been cooling since 2002 and quite quickly since Jan 2007 4) The Sun is almost certainly the driver of the climate and it has recently 'gone quiet' Cooling coming. 5) It at present suits the media, politicians etc to continue to support the false premise. Increasing numbers of scientists are openly challenging the position, but most dare not for fear of their jobs. 6) People are not stupid. As the climate continues to cool they will become increasingly angry at the taxes and restrictions resulting from the false claims for CO2. Either Peter Seligman has not done his homework, or he has, but dare not for whatever reason speak the truth.
Dr. T.T. Gough, Ballindalloch, Scotland

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