When the United Nations welcomed heads of state to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, a global consensus was reached to take vital steps to save the planet. To that end, more than 170 nations gave their support to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. But it was not the only treaty at the summit. There was also a Convention on Biological Diversity.

The climate change treaty is well understood internationally — even if the Trump administration and its congressional allies continue to engage in dangerous denialism and obstruction.

The biological diversity treaty is less well understood, especially in the U.S., which has yet to join the more than 190 parties to the agreement.

In 2020, Russ Feingold wants to change that.

Working as an ambassador for an ambitious international Campaign for Nature, Feingold will in the new year be using his prominence — as a former three-term senator from Wisconsin who later served as the U.S. Special Envoy to the Great Lakes Region of Africa — to get an urgent conversation going in Africa (where he is highly regarded for his long-term commitment to the continent) and in the U.S.

“The first thing is you have to get a baseline awareness of what the problem is,” said Feingold, who acknowledges that “there is a huge learning curve.”

Huge. But not insurmountable.

So let’s start 2020 by putting things in perspective.

This is how Feingold explained things: “A major report from 150 leading scientists from around the world released on May 6, 2019, shows that the crisis facing wildlife and nature is even worse than previously understood. Up to a million species are threatened with extinction, many within decades. And the threats posed to people from the destruction of nature are just as serious as those posed by climate change.”

As a senator and a special envoy, Feingold was passionate about addressing climate change, and he remains so now. But he wants people to know that the climate crisis and the extinction threat pose distinct challenges.

“If you say something to people about (the destruction of nature), they look at you and they go, ‘Oh. Climate change.’ Yet, it’s not the same!” he explained.

Of course, the former senator said, climate and biodiversity concerns are “crucially interrelated.” Of course, he added, “We have to understand both of them and respond to both of them.”

But Feingold wants people to recognize that when scientists describe the five key causes of the loss of biodiversity, “Climate change is third! It's enormously important. But first is land use — agriculture, mining — just impinging on forests or natural areas. Second is what's called ‘the exploitation of organisms’: hunting, overfishing, cutting down trees. That's not climate. That's just harvesting stuff.” (Fourth is pollution. Fifth is invasive species.)

So this is another urgent issue to concern ourselves with at a time when there are already so many urgent issues. Feingold acknowledges that it may be daunting to think about additional threats and additional challenges. But, he explained, we are not starting from scratch.

Real work has been done to address the crisis. Countries have not just signed on to the biological diversity treaty. Many have acted. As the Campaign for Nature noted, “world leaders have committed to protecting 17 percent of land and 10 percent of the ocean by 2020 and governments are on track to meet these global targets.”

The progress toward meeting these goals has been impressive. Today, Feingold noted, roughly “15 percent of land and 7 percent of the ocean are protected globally, but individual countries have helped demonstrate that more ambitious targets are possible to meet. Ninety countries have protected more than 17 percent of their land (the current global target), 27 have already protected more than 30 percent, and a few — including Namibia, Bhutan and Venezuela — are close to or even past protecting half of their land.”

That’s the good news.

Unfortunately, Feingold noted, “The scientists are now saying, ‘Guess what? We're not there, and that's not even adequate.’ They are saying we need 30-by-30 and 50-by-50.”

As in: 30 percent protected by 2030 and 50 percent protected by 2050.

The pivot point will come this year. When the Convention on Biological Diversity convenes in China in the fall of 2020, the goal is to secure approval of a “global deal for nature and people” that would enhance and extend the work of safeguarding biodiversity in the new decade.

More than 190 nations are working to negotiate the details of this “global deal for nature,” explained Feingold, who has written about how “a growing coalition of scientists, indigenous groups, philanthropists and non-governmental organizations is asking that the deal includes three key components: a commitment to protecting at least 30 percent of the planet’s lands and waters by 2030; an increased focus on supporting indigenous peoples and promoting indigenous-led conservation; and a dramatic increase in the financial resources to manage protected areas.”

Feingold and his allies in the burgeoning Campaign for Nature will work in 2020 to put this all in perspective. “This thing (protecting biodiversity) is considered by scientists to be of equal or possibly greater significance, and it's on the cusp,” he said. “It's just about to explode as an issue of equal status, or at least it should be.”

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising. 

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to tctvoice@madison.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.

Sign up for Cap Times newsletters: