New Scientist
May 25, 2005


By Jacques Chirac

Since the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, the environment has become a
major concern for people across the world. Climate warming, the
pollution of freshwater reserves, the destruction of habitats and the
disappearance of many living species have made us realise that far
from freeing humankind from nature, our extraordinary economic growth
has given us an unprecedented responsibility towards it.

We can no longer ignore the evidence of environmental erosion: the
destruction of primary tropical forests, home to over half of the
planet's species; the shrinking of natural habitats due to demographic
and urban growth; the slow demise of coral reefs, nearly one-third of
which have already disappeared or suffered serious damage; the sharp
decline in the numbers of large wild mammals.

The staggering pace of scientific and industrial progress over the
past two centuries has placed us on a direct collision course with
biodiversity, the product of millions of years of evolution. Species
have always disappeared as a result of the natural renewal of
ecosystems. Yet the current rate of extinction is estimated to be up
to a thousand times higher than normal. Today, we know that nearly
16,000 known species are directly endangered, and some scientists fear
that modern societies may be triggering the sixth great wave of
extinction since life first appeared.

Our generation is probably the last with the power to stop this
destruction before we reach a point of no return. The international
community has done a great deal of work since the Convention on
Biological Diversity came into force in 1993. Yet it is fair to
question how effective it has been, since biodiversity continues to
recede. The goal set by the international conference in The Hague in
2002 of stopping the decline of global biodiversity by 2010 looks
unattainable unless we act now.

We know enough to start taking action. Yet we do not yet have a gauge
of all the potential consequences of the degradation of biodiversity.
That is why I suggested at the international conference Biodiversity:
Science and Governance, organised by France at UNESCO headquarters in
January, that a global network of biodiversity experts be set up. I am
pleased to see that the world's leading scientists have since backed
my proposal.

The aim of the network would be to increase our knowledge of
biodiversity and establish a scientific basis from which we can help
the international community meet its responsibilities. This means
mobilising all the scientific disciplines concerned, and calls for
broad-based international cooperation, which could be achieved under
the aegis of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. This effort
would focus on the need to reinforce global environmental governance,
something France tirelessly campaigns for, in particular with its
proposal to create a UN Environment Organisation, which will be
discussed by the world's heads of government at the UN summit in New
York this September.

The global network of biodiversity experts should work on a number of
points. The first is to extend the inventory of life on Earth. Barely
1.5 million species have been identified out of an estimated total of
5 to 30 million. This shows just how little knowledge we have. The
second task is to understand the dynamics of ecosystems. Scientists
are only just beginning to fathom the extreme complexity of relations
between the different species and between species and their
environment. This interdependence is the key to the fragile balance of
each ecosystem and the entire biosphere. Humans cannot isolate
themselves from it. This complexity, knowledge of which has been
popularised by E. O. Wilson's remarkable work at Harvard University,
is one reason why we have taken so long to become aware of the
problem. The final task is to study the impact of climate change on

There is a precedent: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
This group's work since 1988 has brought about a scientific consensus
on climate warming, which many initially refused to accept. An expert
consensus such as this is just what political leaders need to justify
action on biodiversity.

Protecting biodiversity, like combating climate change, calls for
radical changes in attitudes and lifestyles. France is resolutely
pursuing this objective with the inclusion of an environment charter
in its constitution this year. This charter establishes biodiversity
as a right and a collective heritage. It embraces the precautionary
principle, which is vital when dealing with the deterioration of the
living environment. To respond to the urgency of the situation, we
have to step up the pace of action.

With our growing awareness that we are part of the biosphere and
dependent on it as a whole, our civilisation has come to appreciate
its fragility. Now is the time to embark on the path of responsible
ecology, and to include in our quest for economic and human progress
an awareness of our duties to nature and our responsibilities to
future generations. We can do this if we all act together.

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