Henry Paulson: “The US is losing its birds and must act before it is too late”

For some, it is easy to treat stories about cascading losses in global biodiversity as other people’s worries. Rainforest destruction in the Amazon, savage poaching and plummeting large mammal populations in Africa — those problems can seem so far away.

Last week, however, headlines about biodiversity loss pierced hearts in America. Just as Rachel Carson feared more than half a century ago in her book Silent Spring, we are losing our birds. New research published in the journal Science shows that, since 1970, wild bird populations in the US and Canada have dropped by almost 30 per cent, a loss of nearly 3bn breeding birds. The numbers read like Black Monday in the stock market: a 53 per cent loss among our grassland birds, a billion birds lost from our forests, 862m sparrows and 618m warblers and 440m blackbirds — all gone.

A report for the G7 prepared in May by the OECD offered a grim synopsis of all the varied measures of ecosystem loss across our planet. Overall, more than half of all the vertebrates in the world have disappeared since 1970, and today’s rate of species extinction is 1,000 times higher than prehuman times. The report also calculated the global economic costs of biodiversity loss to be on the scale of $10tn-$31tn a year.

We are fast approaching a tipping point of irreversible loss to naturally functioning ecosystems that will cause catastrophic — and frustratingly avoidable — economic losses at an enormous global scale.

Back in 1992 the UN proposed bold action through the Convention on Biological Diversity, a treaty joined by 196 member nations to launch global efforts for land and water conservation in order to protect worldwide biodiversity. The convention inspired Canada to pledge $1.35bn towards doubling its total protected area. That money launched an ambitious effort that has already conserved 1.66m square kilometres of Canadian land and ocean habitats, an area almost the size of Quebec. China, likewise, has made bold conservation moves, with its recent moratorium on development and World Heritage Site listing along the Yellow Sea coast, the world’s largest intertidal mudflat system and a critical habitat for more than 50 migratory shorebird species.

One member of the UN did not ratify the convention: the US. A century ago, the US was a global leader in conservation. It pioneered an international migratory bird treaty with Canada that protected hundreds of bird species shared across the two nations. This treaty and related laws rescued dozens of bird species that were being hunted into extinction. An American president, Woodrow Wilson, signed the treaty, and the Senate ratified the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918 — even while the horrors of the first world war were monopolising lawmakers’ attention.

A hundred years later, the US has yet to join the convention on biological diversity because the Senate has been unwilling to ratify the treaty. American NGOs have valiantly stepped in and made great progress towards the conservation of wildlife and habitats, but we need more. The next big opportunity for the US to engage on this issue will be the COP15 convention on biodviersity in China next year.

One only need look to the skies to see why the US must take a leadership role. The loss of nearly a third of our wild birds — during my own lifetime — is deeply troubling to me. It took nature millions of years to fill our continent with its living rainbow of scarlet tanagers, Baltimore orioles, yellow warblers, blue jays, and indigo buntings. Now all these species, and hundreds more, are suffering steep population declines.

Failure to act in the past cannot be an excuse for the future. The US must engage in the global biodiversity crisis, and it starts with participating in a meaningful way at COP15.

The writer, a former US Treasury secretary, chairs the Paulson Institute. He is also an avid birdwatcher.

This article first appeared in the Financial Times.