America's Commitment to Nature: Another Endangered Species?

The United Nations declared 2010 as the International Year of Biodiversity, recognizing that biodiversity is the very fabric of life on earth. Our planet is in the midst of an extinction crisis - the worst, in fact, since the dinosaurs died off 65 million years ago. Despite the focus and best efforts of the scientific and conservation community, 150-200 species of plants and animals go extinct every 24 hours.

For every species of plant and animal that disappears, humanity forever loses the unique and sometimes critical scientific resources that species can provide. Consider Ecuador's endangered phantasmal poison frog -- smaller than a dime, but an extract from its skin blocks pain 200 times more effectively than morphine, seemingly without addiction and other serious side effects. Or, the gribble, an even smaller wood-boring marine crustacean, whose unique ability to digest cellulose and turn it into energy-rich sugars could provide a key to converting waste products into biofuel. And the Madagascar rosy periwinkle shrub, which has alkaloid properties that are being used in drugs to treat childhood leukemia, Hodgkin's disease and testicular cancer. In fact, more than 25% of all prescription drugs, and more than 70% of all cancer medications, contain ingredients derived from Earth's natural resources.

For each biological secret we have uncovered about Earth's plants and animals, there is exponentially more that we do not know about nature's potential benefits to people. That is why protecting the planet's vast biological diversity should matter so much to all of us. Every person, every family, every nation, depends on nature to survive and thrive.

Although this is the year of biodiversity, international efforts to institute formal protections are not new. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) is the only international agreement created to ensure that native plants and animals and their ecosystems, as well as the interests of indigenous people, are fully considered by all the nations of the world. President Clinton signed the CBD in 1993. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 16-3 in favor of the CBD in 1994. However, for the past 16 years the CBD has awaited ratification by the full Senate.

The Obama administration can take a major step right now to reverse the loss of Earth's biodiversity, by formally requesting the United States Senate ratify the CBD. This is an important opportunity to make a decision that would positively affect the environment and reflect America's commitment to preserving our natural world.

The CBD has wide international support. Yet the United States remains one of only three nations in the world that has not yet ratified it; the others are the tiny countries of Andorra and The Holy See. We are essentially alone in refusing to join this agreement that we, as a nation, were instrumental in drafting and helped negotiate at the Rio "Earth Summit" in 1992. This is beyond unacceptable. It is outrageous, disgraceful, and an embarrassment to all Americans. This must change.

As chairman and vice chairman of Conservation International's board of directors, we will be working with CI's delegation and world leaders at the CBD conference in Nagoya, Japan from October 18-29. We will tackle the fundamental issues of protecting and sharing the services that a robust natural world provides for all of humanity: Clean air, fresh water, a healthy food supply and the as-yet-unrealized scientific bounty of nature, all of which spring from biodiversity.

The United States contributes huge sums of both private and public money to international conservation projects, but we don't have an official voice in the CBD planning processes that prioritize how large portions of that money are spent. Our national interests in the agricultural, research, pharmaceutical and biotech sectors will be affected in the Nagoya negotiations, but without CBD ratification, we have no vote. The U.S. cannot and should not rely on other influential countries, such as China or India, to represent American interests in the negotiations. These nations have their own economic agendas.

If President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton will take on this leadership role, and announce their support for prioritizing Senate ratification of this CBD treaty, history will record this as a turning point in which America took its place at the forefront of humanity's epic struggle to save life on Earth.

Peter Seligmann is CEO and Chairman of Conservation International (CI). Actor and conservationist Harrison Ford has served as Vice Chairman of CI's Board of Directors for more than 15 years.