Categorized | Climate Change

Climate Change and International Treaties

Co-authored by Alejandra Goyenechea

Whenever we think of climate change at the international level, the one thing that comes to mind is the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Kyoto Protocol.  After all, these are regularly in the news, with the now well-known Conferences of the Parties (COPs) in Copenhagen, Cancun, and the one happening right now in Durban, South Africa.  However, climate change extends beyond the UNFCCC.  Because climate change is so pervasive, influencing all aspects of the environment, ecosystem services, and animal and plant species, nations are trying to come to terms with its importance in various other international treaties.

The U.S. has entered into scores of legally-binding treaties with other nations to curb pollution, protect natural resources, or regulate the international flow of energy and energy resources.  The Montreal Protocol is among the most recognizable, which banned CFCs to protect the ozone layer.  Another international treaty of which the US is a signatory is the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).  CITES dates from the 60’s, although the final text was not agreed upon until what has become known as the Washington Convention of 1973.  The Convention entered into force in 1975, with the specific goal of protecting animal and plant species from extinction, particularly due to over harvesting and international trading.  Its initial drafting was to be considered also as a conservation treaty.  CITES uses six science-based decision-making resolutions and provisions that address trade and conservation: species listings in three appendices, non-detriment findings, periodic review of the appendices, review of significant trade, quotas, and trade in alien invasive species.  CITES bans international commercial trade in endangered and critically endangered species listed in Appendix I. It regulates and continuously monitors trade of  species listed in Appendices II and III, which include species whose survival is threatened by trade and species that need monitoring of trade and are protected in at least one country member of the Convention, respectively.  The Convention also aims to stimulate scientific studies of populations of species that are listed and worldwide education regarding the environment (see full text of CITES).

Criteria to list species shall include trade volumes and biological information, which relate to the size and distribution of the species wild population and other criteria affecting populations: if it is a small population OR the species has a restricted distribution AND one of various additional criteria, the species is eligible for listing.  Vulnerability to extrinsic and intrinsic factors is one of those additional criteria, and where climate change is most likely to make an impact in the listing eligibility.

Climate change is increasingly impacting species, and these impacts are magnifying already existing threats to species conservation.  CITES nations are now actively looking to incorporate climate change effects into the treaty’s language and implementation.  For that purpose, a Joint Intersessional Working Group on Climate Change (CCWG) was set up at the last Meeting of the Animals and Plants Committees in July 2011, and was tasked with devising recommendations to incorporate climate change into CITES.  Defenders has been active in CITES for many years, and we worked with various other organizations on recommendations of what aspects of climate change should be addressed under each provision and resolution in CITES.  Those recommendations were then incorporated into a final US recommendation to the Animals and Plants Committees.

The CCWG recommendations can be broadly summarized as follows:

  • Issues related to climate change can currently be addressed under all six of the above mentioned scientific-based decision-making processes.  Those decision-making processes provide sufficient opportunity to address the impacts of climate change relative to species.
  • Climate change can in fact be considered one of the extrinsic factors identified in Appendix listing criteria (as stated above).  That means climate change could be a core component of a listing proposal, and this is a very important point.  Parties must ensure that they are using the best available scientific information and sharing expertise as appropriate, including information pertaining to climate change.
  • There are existing examples of applying climate change impacts within the CITES context, as well as guidance material for taking climate change into consideration for conservation purposes.  Parties would benefit from having access to these examples and to peer-reviewed or well-supported scientific studies.  Black coral would be one example where CITES traditional criteria and climate change could come together to affect the listing status of a species.  Black coral is currently under significant trade review and is a species strongly affected by climate change and ocean acidification.  The effects of climate change and acidification together with trade should be the basis for the evaluation of the species status, and CITES might list the species in Appendix I, where trade is prohibited altogether.

The threats to species conservation are multi-faceted; few species are impacted by only one issue. Climate change, in particular, interacts with most other conservation threats. Ensuring that our existing domestic and international conservation laws and programs adequately incorporate climate change into their implementation will greatly enhance our ability to save species as the world continues to warm.

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- who has written 12 posts on dotWild.

Astrid Caldas is the Climate Change & Wildlife Science Fellow for Defenders of Wildlife. Astrid provides scientific support for Defenders, including providing technical assistance for integrating climate adaptation into programs, doing synthetic research, and publishing papers and reports on climate and wildlife issues.

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