Global Financial Crisis Endangers Conservation Gains

Christine Dell'Amore in Barcelona
National Geographic News
October 8, 2008
The global financial crisis could put recent measures toward protecting the planet at significant risk, experts said today during a meeting of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) being held in Barcelona.

A profound U.S. recession will likely resonate worldwide and push conservation to the bottom of governments' priority lists for years to come, said Alejandro Nadal, who chairs an IUCN working group on macroeconomics and the environment.

The slump may also exacerbate economic pressures that can damage the environment, he added.

For example, governments may lean on private industries—such as mining, oil, and gas—to extract more resources and fill in revenue gaps.

Likewise, countries may divert funds from environmental and social programs to bail out the economy—a "typical example of a macroeconomic policy that has huge environmental repercussions," he said.

"The magnitude of [this] crisis should have the environmental community really worried."

The crisis does have a positive aspect, Nadal said, in that it "may raise awareness of the perils of continuing in this trajectory of consumption, social inequality, and concentration of wealth.

"If humankind doesn't heed this message, we should be the number one species on the Red List of IUCN," he said, referring to nonprofit's ranking of the world's most threatened species. (See photos of some of the animals on the 2008 Red List.)

Oceans of Poverty

Nadal works with economists in Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Costa Rica, and Mexico to weave environmental concerns into economic decisions.

If the financial crisis pushes governments to slash support for social programs, such as commercial loans for small farmers, it will harm communities who live near the world's protected areas, he said.

Without support, these "islands of conservation in oceans of poverty" tempt local people to pillage forests, waterways, and other natural areas for their everyday needs, Nadal said.

Greg Fishbein, director of conservation finance and planning for the U.S.-based nonprofit the Nature Conservancy, agreed.

"Certainly in situations [where] people's livelihoods are threatened, they will be more aggressive in deforesting and overfishing," Fishbein said.

In the same vein, people in the U.S. on the brink of losing their homes to foreclosure may decide against donating money to environmental groups, IUCN's Nadal said.

(Related: "U.S. Bailout May Set Back Science Funding, Experts Fear" [September 29, 2008.])

Russell Mittermeier, president of Conservation International, also thinks the crisis will impact the donor base for conservation, a field that's heavily dependent on philanthropy.

But, he said, "I've seen a lot of crises over the years, and I don't waste a lot of energy in worrying about them."

The Nature Conservancy's Fishbein stressed that the crisis won't derail some long-term environmental goals, particularly those combating climate change.

"The conventional wisdom, at least at this point, is that it's a big potential challenge, [but] more of a near-term issue," Fishbein said.

"We need to keep focused on the long-term problem," he said. "If we don't address climate change, the economic implications can be far worse than the crisis we're talking about right now."

For instance, a 2006 report published by England's Government Economic Service found that taking action now would cost only one percent of global gross domestic product (GDP), but that doing nothing would eventually eat up 20 percent of the world's GDP.

New Avenues of Funding

When it comes to fixing the problem, IUCN's Nadal thinks reregulation—bringing the deregulated financial sector back under federal restrictions—would stabilize global markets and help ease the crisis.

Meanwhile, Conservation International's Mittermeier thinks the crisis should motivate conservationists to scout out new avenues of funding.

Media mogul and philanthropist Ted Turner, who addressed the IUCN congress at its opening ceremony on Monday, offered his own solution: tapping into military budgets.

The nearly half-trillion-U.S.-dollar budget for the U.S. military is supporting "another Vietnam" in Iraq, he said, money that could be better spent conserving nature.

"It doesn't make sense," he said. "It's not a good investment."

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