David Suzuki: Obama sets example for endangered species protection

Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama completed his first 100 days on the job. During this brief period, his administration has acted to reverse many of the failed and destructive policy decisions of his predecessor, George W. Bush.

President Obama is giving the American people hope that positive change is possible. If only we were being offered the same kind of hope here in Canada.

The U.S. president has rejected the rigid dogma of previous U.S. leaders in moving to loosen restrictions on Cuba and offering to engage in peaceful dialogue, rather than threats and counter threats, with Iran. He has injected billions of dollars into science and overturned the Bush administration’s ban on embryonic stem-cell research in an effort to return the nation to its historical leadership role in scientific inquiry and discovery.

On the environment, he has appointed an outspoken advocate of ocean conservation to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, signed into law protection for over two million acres of wilderness, and made clear his intention to combat climate change, including a willingness to force automakers to produce more fuel-efficient and less-polluting cars.

Obama’s commitment to implement the U.S. Endangered Species Act has received far less attention. Earlier this year, the U.S. government restored key endangered species protections that were stripped away by George Bush in the waning days of his administration. In particular, President Obama has reinstated rules that will ensure that government decisions or activities that might harm endangered species receive independent scientific scrutiny before they are allowed to go ahead.

In announcing the change, President Obama said: “Throughout our history, there’s been a tension between those who’ve sought to conserve our natural resources for the benefit of future generations, and those who have sought to profit from these resources. But I’m here to tell you this is a false choice. With smart, sustainable policies, we can grow our economy today and preserve the environment for ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren.”

The president’s support for the Endangered Species Act signals a 180-degree turn for the U.S. government. Under George Bush, the U.S. did just about everything in its power, including breaking the law, to eviscerate this critical piece of environmental legislation, enacted, ironically, by another right-wing Republican, Richard Nixon, more than 30 years ago.

President Obama’s support for the legal protection of endangered species couldn’t have come at a more pressing time. Scientists are united in their belief that the planet is in the midst of a biodiversity crisis on par with earlier mass extinction events in the Earth’s history. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, some 16,000 of known plant and animal species are currently threatened with extinction, including 12 per cent of birds, 23 per cent of mammals, and 32 per cent of amphibians.

In fact, some scientists believe the effects of climate change alone could result in the premature extinction of 15 to 37 per cent of species within our children’s lifetime –by 2050. Because we likely know about only a fraction of all species on Earth, this does not encompass the many unidentified or undiscovered species that will vanish before we even learn of their presence.

Sadly, our own government leaders have not come close to matching President Obama’s leadership on endangered species. Canada has had legislation protecting endangered species for six years, but our government has failed to implement the law, called the Species at Risk Act, according to a report card released recently by the David Suzuki Foundation and its allies.

The report found that only one animal, a tiny snail the size of a kernel of corn that lives in a few hot springs in an existing protected area, has received the full conservation measures required under the Species at Risk Act. At the same time, some 550 other species, including caribou and killer whales, are wasting away in legal purgatory while the feds dilly-dally on completing and implementing recovery plans that are necessary to prevent their extinction.

When it comes to environmental problems such as climate change and species extinction, the attitude of our “leaders” here in Canada seems to be that we have plenty of time before we have to act. But as our neighbours to the south are finally beginning to realize, that’s not the case. The more we delay, the more severe the problems will become and the more difficult it will be to address them. Our own survival depends on the planet’s ability to provide us with clean air, water, and food. We must act now. And, yes, we can!

Take David Suzuki’s Nature Challenge and learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.