How great is the challenge? Well, today, 25% of wild marine fisheries are over-exploited, while another 50% are highly degraded.
- West African fisheries have declined by 80% since the 1990s, resulting in thousands of fishermen searching for jobs in Europe.
- When the Newfoundland cod fisheries collapsed in the early 1990s as a result of overfishing, it meant the loss of tens of thousands of jobs and cost $2bn (£1.4bn) in income support and retraining.
- Tropical deforestation and land degradation contributes more global greenhouse gas emissions than all the world's cars, trucks, planes and trains combined.
- What is lost in Indonesia or the Amazon affects the climate in New York, Paris and Sydney.
- More than a billion people lack access to safe drinking water. In the poorest countries, one in five children dies from a preventable water-related disease.
- This is a crisis that is worsening as ecosystems are damaged, increasing droughts and floods.
- Mismanagement and corruption tied to natural resource exploitation have fuelled violent conflict in many countries including Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
- Violence linked to natural resource loss and degradation has led to unimaginable human suffering in such places as Darfur.
- Tensions in the Middle East are fed by conflict over water and oil, as well as religion and politics.
Ecosystem destruction costs our global economy at least $2 trillion (£1.4 trillion) every year. That is the value forests provide by storing the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, cleansing fresh water supplies, and preventing soil erosion. It includes the value oceans and coral reefs provide in food security for millions who rely on fisheries as their primary source of protein. Overall, global ecosystems services have been assessed to be worth as much as $33 trillion (£22.6 trillion) a year. Every home owner understands that restoring and replacing a plumbing system, or a heating unit, is far more expensive than taking care of the system properly. Well, the same is true for nature's ecosystems. Restoring a forest costs 10 times as much as maintaining what we have. Building a reservoir and filtration system is far more expensive than preserving the intact forest systems that naturally filter and cleanse our drinking water.
Traditional measures of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) do not reflect changes in the quality and quantity of a nation's natural assets. Imagine measuring your personal financial condition without factoring in a dramatic and ongoing decline in your assets.
The world needs US leadership to begin honestly accounting for the state our natural assets. The Obama administration can bring these issues into the mainstream during this critical time of reorienting the US's national priorities. Initiatives to advance natural resource conservation in other countries have typically lacked strong political support and received only a small fraction of the total resources dedicated to international engagement. Mr Obama and his team should fully integrate and fund ecosystem conservation priorities within US national security considerations, as well as foreign policy and development assistance. By helping restore and protect developing nations' natural heritage throughout the world, the US will strengthen the bonds of friendship and trust through sustainable collaborations. The stakes are high, and the benefits of bringing ecosystem conservation to the forefront of our foreign policy will be enormous.
As 2009 begins, we face a new era of unprecedented global economic, health and security challenges. Confronting these challenges requires a bold new commitment to protect our most valuable joint asset - planet Earth.
Peter A Seligmann is chairman and chief executive of US NGO Conservation International