“The ecosystems that underpin our economies, well-being and survival are collapsing. Species are becoming extinct at unprecedented rates. Our climate is in crisis. And it’s all happening on our watch.”
The Rio Olympics went out in a blaze of colour. The Para-Olympics are off to a spectacular start, in no way diminished by the booing of Brazil’s new president, and a pro-Russia demonstration by Belarus athletes at the Opening Ceremony. And yet another four-yearly summer event is drawing to a close right now in the southern hemisphere – the World Conservation Congress Hawaii Sep 1st – 10th 2016
The what? Who knew? Have we had so much as a whiff of this in the news? Considering the Congress is bringing people together “to discuss and decide on solutions to the world’s most pressing environment, climate and development challenges” – in other words, matters of supreme importance to the fate of Planet Earth, the health of its land and oceans, the survival of its flora and fauna (which are facing the 6th Mass Extinction), and of the human race itself – the media appear to have greeted the event with an almost deafening silence.
While those other two events, held for (comparatively speaking) the entirely frivolous purpose of establishing who can run, cycle or swim fastest, and jump furthest or highest, are splashed across the headlines day after day. Little wonder the Earth is in such a sorry state.
OK, so let’s fill in the blanks.
First, who’s running the show?
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) organises the Congress. The IUCN was set up nearly 70 years ago in 1948, largely on the initiative of British evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley who became its first Director-General, and UNESCO of which Huxley was then Director. (The distinguished academic was also a founding member of the World Wildlife Fund, and more controversially, President of the British Eugenics Society.)
From the start its mission was “to encourage international cooperation in the protection of nature, to promote national and international action, and to compile, analyse and distribute information.”
Nowadays the IUCN casts its net wide, boasting in its membership
- 217 States & government agencies
- 1,066 NGOs
- 16,151 experts assessing the world’s natural resources
- Members in 161 countries
Who goes to the Congress?
6,000 delegates are assembled in Honolulu – leaders from government, the public sector, non-governmental organizations, business, UN agencies and indigenous and grass-roots organizations. A pretty wide spread of interested parties, in other words.
What is it for?
The Congress is where members decide the “global conservation agenda for the next four years.” It’s not exaggerating to say that is life-and-death stuff.
What’s been happening in Hawaii this year?
The IUCN has issued the Red List of Threatened Species, reassessing the status of thousands of plants and animals. It does not make for happy reading. Four out of six great ape species are critically endangered and the other two are also at grave risk of extinction. The Red List now includes 82,954 species of which 23,928 are threatened with extinction.
The List is of particular significance for the Congress’s host Hawaii, since 87% of their own unique endemic plant species are threatened with extinction and 38 species are already gone.
Read more about the Red List here.
The rising sea temperature has been a ‘hot’ topic. Eighty scientists from 12 countries contributed to the “most comprehensive, most systematic study we’ve ever undertaken on the warming of the oceans.” – Dan Laffoley for IUCN’s Global Marine and Polar Programme. “We all know the oceans sustain this planet, yet we are making the oceans sick” concluded Inger Andersen, IUCN’s director general.
Consequences of warming oceans:
- Marine species gravitating towards the poles, throwing the entire marine ecology into chaos (as well as depriving humans of their fish catch)
- Coral reefs bleaching.
- Human and non-human animals becoming more susceptible to disease-bearing pathogens carried by warmer water
- More extreme weather, more hurricanes and tornados, and the intensification of El Niño
Discussion on the new “gene drive” technology and its risks
Gene drive is slightly different from the CRISPR technology we looked at in Should We Wipe Mosquitoes off the Face of the Earth. CRISPR is the technology that allows scientists to cut out segments of an organism’s DNA and splice in new code, physically altering the organism’s characteristics. So British firm Oxitec has modified mosquitoes using CRISPR so that their offspring die before they reach adulthood – and has already released them into the wild in Brazil.
Gene drive involves adding additional DNA that already occurs naturally to increase the chance of these particular genes being passed on to offspring. As with most new technologies, gene drive has useful potential. For instance, where invasive rats are harming local flora and fauna as in Hawaii, their genes could be engineered to produce only male offspring. But longer term effects of using gene drive are a worrying unknown. Clearly it has the potential to permanently alter species and change entire ecosystems to a point of no return.
Environmentalists are concerned. They sent an open letter to IUCN: “Given the obvious dangers of irretrievably releasing genocidal genes into the natural world, and the moral implications of taking such action, we call for a halt to all proposals for the use of gene drive technologies, but especially in conservation.”
The Congress duly took note and approved a motion that the IUCN would not support or endorse any research or field trials on the use of gene drive until its possible effects have been properly assessed. Unfotunately, the motion has no teeth as it is not binding on individual countries.
So:the Red List of Threatened Species, the rising sea temperature and its effects, and gene drive technology. Which of these is less important than who gets to stand on the podium in Rio? Congratulations to Mo Farah on his achievements, but his gold medals will make no difference whatever to the planet’s uncertain future in the 21st century.
There has to be some good news coming out of Hawaii, doesn’t there?
Well, 85 motions put to IUCN members for electronic vote pre-congress have been adopted. Examples are
- Restrictions on trade in threatened pangolin species
- A permanent ban on gillnet fishing throughout the entire vaquita porpoise range in the Pacific
- Encouraging governments to invest in renewable energy and minimise the effects of offshore renewables on marine life
Another 14 important issues are under discussion at the Congress including
- Shutting down domestic markets for ivory
- The Paris Climate Change Agreement
- Mitigating the effects of oil palm expansion
- Concerns over the use of lead ammunition in hunting
- The South Atlantic Whale Sanctuary
- Protection of primary forests
- Increasing marine protected areas
See full details here
The world must have looked very different 70 years ago to Julian Huxley. It’s impossible to know what the world would have looked like now without the work of the IUCN. No doubt the Congress will wind up tomorrow with as little fanfare and razzamatazz as it began. But I sincerely hope that when we arrive at 2020 we’ll be able to see that the World Conservation Congress 2016 in Hawaii was more than a lot of good intentions and hot air.
The planet depends on it.
Petition urging world leaders to protect our oceans here
IUCN – Wikipedia