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World Wildlife Experts Weigh Trade Limits on Climate-Affected Plants and Animals

By Lauren Morello, E&E reporter
April 9, 2012; 4:46 PM ET

Two years after a failed U.S.-led push to ban international trade in polar bears, a U.N. convention that governs wildlife is taking another look at climate change.

Scientific advisers to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species are gathering in Dublin this week to debate the limits of the 37-year-old agreement.

Can CITES, which now governs global commerce in roughly 33,000 plant and animal species, accommodate concerns about the effects of rising temperatures, diminishing ice, shifting rain and snow patterns, and other signs of a changing climate? More importantly, should it?

"We're hoping that this climate change issue in general isn't seen as just a polar bear issue," said Zak Smith, a staff attorney at the National Resources Defense Council, one of the parties participating in the discussion this week in Dublin. "It's not. It's a much larger issue. It's going to be applicable to species everywhere going forward -- and sometimes, even with benefits. Some species might find their habitat is expanding."

The climate change debate within CITES flared two years ago in Doha, Qatar, during the last meeting of member nations. The United States pushed hard to ban global trade in polar bear parts, arguing that warming was shrinking the bear's Arctic sea ice habitat.

The vote failed, 48-62, with 11 abstentions. Opponents -- led by Canada -- argued that trade posed minimal threat to the bears. The European Union added heft to that argument with its bloc of 27 "no" votes.

Some indications of new agreement

But CITES members did agree to take a closer look at climate change's impacts on decisions about when to offer protection, and how much of it, to species that are traded on the global market.

In a strange-bedfellows twist, the two countries that spearheaded opposing factions in the polar bear debate -- the United States and Canada -- are leading CITES' new climate change working group.

The center of a biological debate. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"What CITES is looking at, really, is those species that are traded, and whether we will have to look at lower harvest and different harvesting techniques," said Colman O'Criodain, a policy analyst in international wildlife trade at WWF International and a participant in the working group.

A draft document submitted by the United States and Canada in advance of this week's joint meeting of CITES' animal and plant committees notes that members of the working group generally agree that the convention's legal structure is flexible enough to include climate change. But some experts worry that without a separate resolution or guidelines that explicitly mention climate change, the issue could fall by the wayside in decisions to afford species CITES protections.

"The discussion group that's been going on since the last Animals Committee meeting hasn't really come up with much," said Teresa Telecky, director of wildlife at Humane Society International. "They are looking at whether CITES processes are robust enough to be able to include climate change in decisionmaking, whether a species should be listed or making a nondetriment finding or setting a quota for sustainable harvest. Where the working group sits right now is that additional recommendations are not necessarily needed."

In Telecky's view, that's a problem.

"One thing we would like to see come out of this is for the parties to get a grip on what is coming out of climate change science -- and what time frames you need to deal with," she said. "Most delegates that are involved with CITES do not have a clue on this."

In her mind, that includes many of the scientists -- largely biologists -- who serve on CITES' main technical advisory panels, the Animals Committee and the Plants Committee. It is those two committees that will consider recommendations of the climate change working group this week, and have the power to kick the issue up to CITES' standing committee, which will set the agenda for the next conference of the parties, set for March 2013.

Eels get protection; polar bears raise tougher issue

"This will be the first test, to see whether we can get the biologists to understand climate change science and how it could be applied" to CITES, Telecky said.

While at least one species -- the European eel -- has been granted CITES protections in part because of concerns about climate change effects, experts who favor a resolution on climate change say they're afraid the recent polar bear debate is a more reliable indicator of what future debates will look like without explicit guidance for CITES decisionmakers.

"Simple dot-your-I, cross-your-T facts don't necessarily drive decisions at these conventions," said Smith. "A lot of other things go on. A lot of different interests get weighed. And decisions about whether a species gets listed often turns into a political decision."

At the Doha meeting, for example, there were rumblings that European nations resented the U.S. push for the polar bear trade ban, since the United States is often seen as a spoiler in international talks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that drive global climate change.

The polar bear debate also split the conservation, environmental and animal welfare groups that often find common purpose, with WWF siding with Canada and other opponents of a trade ban.

But O'Criodain sees common ground opening up this week at the Dublin talks, where he would like to see a greater emphasis on climate change impacts on species listed under CITES' Appendix II, which allows limited, sustainable harvest of plants and animals traded on the global marketplace.

"Appendix II is really the engine of the convention," he said, since it houses the bulk of species under CITES protections. "If you're saying that it's sustainable to take an annual harvest of 'X' of a species, but that X won't be applicable in a few years' time because of climate change effects, that's something we have to consider now."

Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. 202-628-6500. E&E Publishing is the leading source for comprehensive, daily coverage of environmental and energy issues. Click here to start a free trial to E&E's information services.

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