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from the desk of dan ashe

Soft Power and Climate Action

By Dan Ashe
min read

Yesterday (Monday, December 2, 2019), in Madrid, the 25th Conference of the Parties to the U.N. Climate Change Conference began. There, nearly 200 nations will seek to build upon the four-year-old Paris Climate Agreement. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres opened the meeting with some stark facts: icecap melting is alarming and accelerating. In Greenland, 179 billion tons of ice melted in July. Permafrost in the Arctic is thawing 70 years ahead of projections. Antarctica is melting three times as fast as a decade ago.

The latest, just-released data from the World Meteorological Organization show that global average atmospheric levels of heat-trapping greenhouse gases reached another new record high 407.8 parts per million in 2018. Not long ago, 400 parts per million were unthinkable. The last time there was a comparable atmospheric concentration of CO2 was 3-5 million years ago, when average global temperature was 2-3 degrees Celsius warmer, and sea levels were 10-20 meters higher than today.

Secretary-General Guterres said, “The signs are unmissable.”

What will be missing in Madrid is essential to success: leadership from the U.S. and China, the world’s two leading greenhouse gas polluters, responsible for 16 percent and 29 percent of global emissions, respectively.  And what example are these two nations setting? The U.S. has announced that it will withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement at the earliest opportunity, in November 2020. China has recently reinitiated the construction of new coal-fired power plants. 

In my November 20th blog, I noted Benjamin Franklin’s words, “A good example is the best sermon.”  What we see from the U.S. and China is the opposite of what this planet needs urgently. But changed policies are possible.

In early 2012, when elephant poaching was at crisis-level, I raised the importance of closing China’s official domestic ivory markets with my counterparts from China. They had an easy and effective rebuff.  They noted that the U.S. has a domestic ivory market, and asked why we don’t stop the sale of ivory in the U.S. 


Not long after that, at a U.S.-China, joint economic summit, President Obama announced that the U.S. would enact regulations to ban domestic ivory sales and challenged President Xi to do the same. Xi accepted the challenge. We did, and China did too. And the world has followed along. During two subsequent CITES Conferences of the Parties, efforts to resume international ivory trade have been defeated soundly.  Domestic trade bans have been enacted in Taiwan, France, and recently, the U.K. Hopefully, the EU will soon follow.  Globally, ivory value is falling, and while elephant poaching is still a crisis, it is lessening.  This trend is the product of leadership from the two nations with the largest domestic ivory markets—the U.S. and China.

The effort on ivory was an exercise of what diplomats call “soft power.” The U.S. didn’t threaten China but offered an opportunity for the two nations to lead together and set an example. And honestly, China got most of the “credit” because its lift was bigger and more consequential in stemming demand. The role of the U.S. in exercising soft power will undoubtedly be recognized as future scholars analyze how the poaching crisis of the 2010s was (hopefully!) resolved, but who cares? What’s important is that we resolve it!

Climate change and wildlife trafficking are both complex global problems impacting people and wildlife and enabled by both governments and private industry. Success in addressing climate change will require even more skilled and diplomatic leadership, and sadly, it is unlikely to materialize in Madrid.  Addressing climate change is many orders-of-magnitude more challenging, complex, and consequential than the ivory trade.  And the U.S. and China are locked in a seemingly intractable trade war, making cooperation on an issue like climate change unlikely.

There are hopeful signs. Former Secretary of State John Kerry, along with Republican leaders like former Ohio and California Governors John Kasich and Arnold Schwarzenegger, are launching a climate coalition called World War Zero. The name is intended to invoke both the national security threat that climate change represents and the kind of wartime mobilization and national unity required to address it. Their goal is to hold more than 10 million “climate conversations” in the United States across the political spectrum over the coming year.

So, what can our community do?  We can be leaders and show examples of leadership at all levels.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums community played a leading role in the efforts to ban U.S. domestic ivory sales with the 96 Elephants campaign. We have continued this leadership in combatting illegal trade by acquiring the Wildlife Trafficking Alliance as an AZA program. We can and should use every opportunity to voice the importance of the issue of climate change, modeling efforts to reduce carbon emissions in our facilities, demanding leadership at local, state, provincial, and national levels, and setting expectations for international leadership and cooperation. 

We can more effectively integrate climate change understanding into visitor experience and education, especially with species like polar bear, walrus, wolverine, coral, and coral reef species, penguins, sea turtles, and others that will be most immediately impacted by a changing climate. We can provide ways for our visitors and communities to take collective action and share their support for policy change addressing climate change.  We can host “climate conversations” and advocate working with non-partisan efforts like World War Zero, Earth Day Network, and the Campaign for Nature, and can help lead the change that we want to see in our nation and the world.

Our good example can be the best sermon, and can hopefully inspire world leaders to lead and to help solve this problem, leaving blame and credit for history to decide.

The important thing is that we solve it!

Photo credit: Amanda Carberry, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium


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