The 20th century satirist, writer, and comedian, Spike Milligan, famously had something to say about everything, but he was particularly concerned about the state of the planet. A sincere enough soul, he was nevertheless prone to making naïve generalisations about a raft of environmental issues. He was inclined, rather quaintly, to repeatedly call upon ‘world leaders’ to ‘get together’ and provide solutions to preoccupations such as over-population, pollution and deforestation. He seldom, however, offered any practical suggestions of his own and his knowledge of natural systems was as basic as any other showbusiness personality. Neither did he explain exactly who these world leaders were, how they could be reached, or what might be expected of them.
Yet, the term ‘world leaders’ is still common parlance for a cabal of self-interested parties whose commitment to public service is largely notional. It is used throughout the COP 15 literature to describe the principals who will decide the future of biodiversity on planet Earth. They are the talking heads of state that constitute the UNEP sponsored Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)[i] and, as a group, they are just as amorphous as they were when Milligan was berating them on television chat shows. The difference this time around is that something is expected of them beyond lip-service to a biodiversity crisis that has been more than one hundred years in the making.
If anything, ‘crisis’ is an understatement: the present rate of species extinction constitutes an evisceration of nature that goes hand in glove with global warming and wider changes to the world’s climate. We know that these phenomena are presently accelerating faster than we can deal with them, but they are not beyond our control. Humanity has created the conditions for the pernicious loss of natural resources, but we can equally create the conditions for correcting this dysfunction.
COP 15 purports to reach out to world leaders, get them together, and encourage them to agree that nurturing global biodiversity is a political, economic, and humanitarian necessity. But what are they actually going to do? Well, they are going to talk about the problems we all face, but they are only going to do that once a year. They are going to agree that rich countries ought to commit to funding, but that will, as always, be no more than a matter of choice. Most importantly of all, they are going to conclude that while COP 15 didn’t achieve as much as was hoped, it was still a step in the right direction.
There is even some money in the mix although contributions from individual countries are uneven and indifferently targeted. The figures run to billions of dollars but, in global terms, the current pot amounts to no more than a whip-round for a departing colleague and a couple of promissory notes. Of the latter, it is our old friends the un-named ‘major donors’ who have pledged “$20 billion” to top up a kitty which stands at around $5.25 billion of actual cash money, which is disbursed to developing countries through the Global Environment Facility (GEF).[ii]
For ‘major donors’ we can safely read international corporations that do not normally enter into ‘something for nothing’ arrangements, especially those that deliver no material gain to their shareholders. We can also safely expect these pledges to be adjustable, conditional, and ephemeral, for a pledge is little more than a promise to do your best according to prescribed limitations. It is less than a promise and far less than an oath, which is certainly an arcane way of doing things but could be a great deal more credible.
What really makes COP 15 a bit incredible is the gap between what is needed and what has, so far, been raised in terms of political will and financial resources. It’s going to take a whole lot of both, but it’s hard to see how UNEP can negotiate with despots, opportunists, and white-collar criminals and persuade them to give up despotism, opportunism, and criminality. Similarly, a child with an abacus could show these world leaders and major donors the difference between $25.5 bn and the $700bn required to begin repairing our planet.
It is, of course, it is the very notion of applying remedial maintenance to a sorely compromised natural world that stretches credulity to breaking point. Biodiversity is not something you can pop into the repair shop and expect to have returned in pristine condition a week or two later. In my view, a holistic response to the climate crisis and the crisis in nature requires holistic change. We cannot wait around for a new prophet, another guru, or any other kind of miracle cure. A healthy, habitable planet for ourselves and other organisms can only be guaranteed by accepting and adopting the natural world as our first consideration.
The suggestion that natural resources are either unlimited, micro-manageable, or artificially extendable is more than just a lie. It belongs in the realms of fantasy. COP 15, and the messages from preceding conferences, perpetuate the myth of sustainability as an adjustable liability that can be altered to suit the business needs of Planet Earth plc. Bizarrely, this mindset prevailed at COP 2 where discussion of “access to genetic sources” took precedence over any mention of terrestrial habitat loss and the concomitant reduction in biodiversity. It is a pattern that continued with COP 3 (intellectual property rights), COP 4 (benefit sharing), COP 5 (tourism), COP 7 (transfer of technology and technology cooperation) and so on. What followed between COP 7 and COP 15 was little more than administrative housekeeping.
In my book, ‘The Fragmented World of the Mongoose Lemur’, the chapter entitled ‘Prospects and Perspectives’ asked much more of UNEP than its annual talking shop on biodiversity. It also demanded a great deal more from The World Bank in terms of financial incentives for good stewardship of natural resources and protecting biodiverse regions. Of course, present funding levels for conservation are utterly dwarfed by the trillions of dollars spent worldwide on exploiting the same finite natural resources. Clearly, we are taking out far more than we are putting back in. That is why I argue for parity; for unless serious action is taken to address this essentially financial anomaly, biological diversity will be sold off cheaply at the expense of the future generations.
One commentator who read my book suggested that my worldview may be unnecessarily bleak. I do not think this is case. I am simply concerned that over-amplifying perceived progress in nature conservation may undermine the ongoing momentum generated by public opinion. Now is the time to ramp up the message, fight complacency, and push hard for meaningful change. It’s time for Spike Milligan’s ‘world leaders’ to step up, identify themselves, and show us the money. They have to find the missing billions. They must plug the funding gap and allow biodiversity to defend itself on equal terms against anthropogenic ambition. If they don’t then they will have shown they have no integrity, no honour, and no courage: and history will judge them harshly for these failings.
Michael Stephen Clark
[i] The Fifteenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP 15) will be held in Kunming, China and Montreal, Canada, in two phases. Phase one takes place virtually, from 11 to 15 October 2021 and will include a High-Level Segment from 12 to 13 October. Phase two will be an in-person meeting in Montreal, Canada, from 7 to 19 December 2022.