Peter Seligmann surveyed a packed congressional meeting room and saw the future of conservation.
Two U.S. senators – a Democrat and a Republican, both major figures on the Foreign Relations Committee – sat with Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai and heads of major development and conservation groups and leading corporations to talk about protecting tropical forests.
“This is the kind of team we need to confront the challenge of climate change – a real Team Earth that represents all sectors of society and understands the interconnectedness of nature and human well-being,” Seligmann said of the Call for Leadership event organized by Avoided Deforestation Partners (ADP).
It was the first time that the distinct constituencies of conservation, development and business, bolstered by Sens. John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) and Richard Lugar (R-Indiana) and Kenyan environmental and social advocate Maathai, have made a unified call for the United States to take a global leadership role in protecting tropical forests as a crucial climate change strategy.
The lineup included Seligmann’s Conservation International (CI), The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) representing conservation, with CARE USA and Oxfam America from international development and American Electric Power and Marriott International as corporate representatives.
Seligmann and other speakers detailed the multiple benefits from tropical forest conservation and endorsed the Call for Leadership document signed by 31 influential supporters from around the world – including Maathai; fellow Nobel laureate President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica; former U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson; Seligmann and other heads of major international conservation and development organizations, and leaders of major corporations including Marriott International, Wal-Mart and American Electric Power.
The central theme by all the speakers was that climate change is here to stay, and failure to act decisively now will mean increasingly severe problems for the planet and all people in coming decades.
Halting tropical deforestation that emits more carbon dioxide than all the world’s cars, trucks and airplanes combined is “essential for addressing climate change, essential for addressing the poverty issue in developing nations, and essential for the national security of the United States and other countries,” Seligmann said.
He called for U.S. foreign policy to help developing countries reduce deforestation and restore already degraded forests, and for the United States to assume a leadership role in U.N.-led negotiations on a new international climate change treaty.
“This is a wonderful opportunity to marry domestic and foreign policy by focusing on the restoration of natural ecosystems, particularly tropical forests,” he said. “Forest conservation is an effective, low-cost emissions reduction strategy that can help minimize the cost of climate legislation to the U.S. economy. This could be an extraordinary step in U.S. foreign relations.”
In particular, Seligmann called on the Obama administration and Congress to include international forest conservation as an option for carbon offsets in any new cap-and-trade legislation.
The Call for Leadership document declares that protecting tropical forests “is critical to solving the climate crisis, enhancing our security, protecting our economy, alleviating global poverty and creating sustainable livelihoods.”
“We the undersigned urge the United States to give priority in domestic climate change legislation and U.S. climate change foreign policy to ending tropical deforestation given the many benefits of forest conservation to climate protection, economic growth, international security, poverty alleviation, local community welfare and biodiversity preservation,” it concludes.
Speakers at the event were Jeffrey Horowitz, founding partner of ADP; former U.S. climate change negotiator Stuart Eizenstat, Helene Gayle, president and CEO of CARE USA; Mark Tercek, president and CEO of TNC; Michael Morris, chairman, president and CEO of American Electric Power; Raymond Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America; Arne Sorenson, CFO of Marriott International; and Frances Beinecke, president of NRDC, along with Maathai, Lugar, Kerry and Seligmann.
Maathai said the world is looking to the United States for leadership in addressing climate change, and she urged all present to “try to reach the ears of the president and Congress and say, ‘This is a very serious issue, and we cannot escape it.’”
In a powerful closing speech, Kerry lamented a lack of global leadership on climate change, particularly by the United States. He cited a litany of certain hardships that will worsen if the world fails to act decisively now, including dangerously rising sea levels, oceans expelling carbon dioxide they no longer can store, and more than 100 million people forced to leave their homes due to climate impacts.
“You’re going to pay now, or you’re going to pay later,” he said, “and you’re going to pay more, big-time, if it’s later.”