Environmental group tells Obama administration it will sue over failure to give elephants ESA protection

african-elephant-courtesy-wwf
The number of African elephants has declined from about 3-5 million in 1900 to a few hundred thousand.
Photo courtesy World Wildlife Fund.

An environmental organization has notified the U.S. Department of Interior that it is prepared to sue in 60 days if the Obama administration does not classify two African elephant species as endangered.

The announcement by the Center for Biological Diversity comes about five months after expiration of a deadline set by the Endangered Species Act for a decision on a petition that sought the listing.

“If the current rate of poaching persists, savanna elephants could be extinct in roughly two decades and forest elephants long before that,” Tanya Sanerib, an attorney for the organization, said. “Only by recognizing the true, endangered status of the two species of African elephants can we highlight and address elephants’ plight and threats.”

The June 2015 petition also asked the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to formally classify elephants native to Africa into two species: those that are native to equatorial forests (Loxodonta cyclotis) and those that are indigenous to the continent’s vast grasslands (L. africana).

All African elephants are at risk of extinction. According to the Great Elephant Census, a recent effort to estimate the number of the giant mammals now living in the wild on the bulk of the continent, there are less than 400,000 individuals left.

Savannah elephants are being killed so fast by poachers seeking the ivory of their tusks that they could disappear in 15 years. A recent scientific paper that examined the reproductive rate of forest elephants concluded that they, too, face a precarious future:

“The forest elephants Loxodonta cyclotis of Central Africa face the threat of extinction, with recent analysis of census data across their range showing a 62% decrease in their numbers for the period of 2002–2011 coupled with a loss of 30% of their geographical range (Maisels et al. 2013). Modelling of Monitoring of the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) data corroborates this, indicating that forest elephants are experiencing the greatest levels of poaching in Africa with potentially as much as 10–18% of the population killed per year (Wittemyer et al. 2014).

Section 4(b)(3) of the ESA forces FWS (or, in the case of marine organisms, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration) to decide, within 90 days, whether a petition for listing is supported by “substantial scientific or commercial information indicating that the petitioned action may be warranted.”

The agency then has 12 months to decide whether to add the species to the list of threatened and endangered species.

FWS decided in Feb. 2016 that the CBD petition did meet the scientific prerequisite of ESA section 3. However, the administration has not yet acted on the merits of the petition. One explanation for FWS’s handling of it may be that a decision whether to “uplist” African elephants from threatened to endangered status is not included in the current agency workplan.

Sanerib expressed a belief that the Obama administration has mostly been focused on establishing regulations, called 4d rules after the section of the ESA that authorizes them, to govern trade in elephant ivory and so has not yet prioritized the listing petition.

“I’m not sure that it was necessarily an intentional step by the administration,” she said.

The 4d rule for African elephants, which was finalized on June 6, does largely prohibit the import of ivory into the United States. However, the regulation is not airtight. So-called “de minimis” quantities of ivory are not covered; neither are quantities of ivory that are more than 100 years old, ivory used in certain musical instruments or that is part of some “traveling exhibitions,” law enforcement, or scientific research.

“The U.S. and China have committed to these near-bans on ivory in our domestic markets,” Sanerib explained.

If the African elephant species are listed as endangered, those bans would become far more rigid. Under section 9 of the ESA, essentially all import, export, sale, or transportation of an African elephant, or of its body parts, would be illegal in the United States.

About 100,000 African elephants were killed between 2010-2012. The number of elephants in Africa has declined from an estimated three to five million at the end of the nineteenth century.

Sanerib said that she is not sure whether any litigation that aims to force FWS to make a decision about whether to recognize two species of African elephant and grant both endangered status will be filed before the end of the Obama administration.

“Given the need to send notice letters by certified mail, I think it’s incredibly likely that we will be dealing with the Trump administration on this,” she said.

UPDATE, Nov. 18, 2016, 10:48 pm MST: The discussion of the section of the Endangered Species Act provision relating to FWS’ obligations when presented with a petition to list a species was corrected. The author had inaccurately cited the section number of the statute and erred in stating that FWS has 30 days to evaluate a petition.

 

 

Kerry speaks to COP22, says Obama’s progress on U.S. climate policy will endure

kerry-signs-paris-agreement-apr-22-2016-photo-courtesy-un-photo-by-amanda-voisard-cc-by-ny-flickr
U.S. secretary of state John F. Kerry, with his grand-daughter in his arms, signs the Paris Agreement on April 22, 2016.
Photo courtesy United Nations, photo by Amanda Voisard/CC BY-ND (Flickr).

John F. Kerry, the chief diplomat of the United States, reassured world leaders Wednesday that the American commitment to greenhouse gas emission cutbacks would survive the presidency of climate science denier Donald J. Trump.

Kerry’s remarks to an annual gathering of representatives of the nations that have signed the planet’s principal treaty governing climate policy were set against a backdrop of nervousness that, under Trump, the U.S. would renege on its Paris Agreement obligations.

The secretary of state pointed to market trends as the likely bulwark of the country’s progress in rolling back atmospheric pollution by carbon dioxide and other warming gases.

“I’ve met with leaders and innovators in the energy industry all across our nation, and I am excited about the path that they are on,” Kerry said. “America’s wind generation has tripled since 2008 and that will continue, and solar generation has increased 30 times over. And the reason both of those will continue is that the marketplace will dictate that, not the government.”

Kerry also argued that the political momentum for an enduring program of GHG emission cuts is too powerful to stop, pointing out that the evidence of human impacts on the atmosphere and oceans is too great to be ignored:

“Now, I want to acknowledge that since this COP started, obviously, an election took place in my country,” Kerry said. “And I know it has left some here and elsewhere feeling uncertain about the future. I obviously understand that uncertainty. And while I can’t stand here and speculate about what policies our president-elect will pursue, I will tell you this: In the time that I have spent in public life, one of the things I have learned is that some issues look a little bit different when you’re actually in office compared to when you’re on the campaign trail.”

The secretary of state, who is due to leave office when President Barack Obama’s second term in the White House ends on Jan. 20, 2017, also spoke at length about visits to Greenland and Antarctica and urged Trump, without naming him, to learn from climate scientists.

“[A]bove all, consult with the scientists who have dedicated their entire lives to expanding our understanding of this challenge, and whose work will be in vain unless we sound the alarm loud enough for everyone to hear. No one has a right to make decisions that affect billions of people based on solely ideology or without proper input.

“Anyone who has these conversations, who takes the time to learn from these experts, who gets the full picture of what we’re facing – I believe they can only come to one legitimate decision, and that is to act boldly on climate change and encourage others to do the same.”

Delegates from nearly 200 nations are gathered in Marrakesh, Morocco for the 22nd Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

 

Secretary of State Kerry visits Antarctica, highest U.S. official ever to make the trip

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U.S. secretary of state John F. Kerry and his party encountered a curious Adele penguin at McMurdo Station in Antarctica during a visit there on Friday, Nov. 11.
Image courtesy U.S. Department of State.

U.S. secretary of state John F. Kerry arrived in Antarctica Friday for a two-day visit, becoming the most senior American official ever to visit the vast continent.

Kerry flew to McMurdo Station aboard a C-17 Globemaster cargo aircraft. The five hour-long flight ended when the huge airplane landed on an ice patch that serves the U.S. installation there.

The nation’s chief diplomat spoke to American scientists at McMurdo Station and encouraged them to remain hopeful about the U.S. commitment to fight climate change in the aftermath of a divisive election that saw a climate science denier, Donald J. Trump, win enough Electoral College votes to become the country’s president-elect.

“The rest of the world is not going to abide by scofflaws,” Kerry said. “They’re not going to tolerate people walking away from responsibility, because every country has to be part of this. No one country can solve this problem. And every other country that I know of is starting to try to figure out how they’re going to be able to do it.”

Kerry has led an effort to significantly raise the United States’ diplomatic focus on climate change.

In 2016 he played a key role in achieving international agreements to limit emissions of hydrofluorocarbons, a potent greenhouse gas used in refrigerators and air conditioners, and of carbon dioxide by aircraft.

The HFC agreement, reached during meetings held in Kigali, Rwanda in October, will lead to the phase-out of the compound within about two decades.

Kerry also spearheaded the American effort to conclude the Paris Agreement on climate change in 2015.

blood-falls-and-taylor-glacier-antarctica-courtesy-us-dept-of-state
Blood Falls and Taylor Glacier, both located near McMurdo Station, are among the examples of Antarctic geographic features observed by U.S. secretary of state John F. Kerry during his visit to the continent Nov. 11-12.
Image courtesy U.S. Department of State.

Paris Agreement takes effect; American presidential winner casts shadow over international effort to fight climate change

The Paris Agreement on climate change took effect on Nov. 4, days before American voters elected as their President a candidate who has promised to abandon the nation’s commitment to fighting climate change.

According to a press release issued by the United Nations on Nov. 5, the accord has become operative faster than any other recent international agreement.

“The speed at which countries have made the Paris’s Agreement’s entry into force possible is unprecedented in recent experience of international agreements and is a powerful confirmation of the importance nations attach to combating climate change and realizing the multitude of opportunities inherent in the Paris Agreement,” Patricia Espinosa, the executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, said in a statement.

The agreement, which was reached last December, could not begin to bind the nations that developed it until thirty days from the date on which the number of countries to ratify it reached 55 and the amount of greenhouse gas emissions accounted for by the ratifying countries reached 55 percent of the worldwide total.

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Nations that are parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change are meeting this month in Morocco.

Parties to the UNFCCC are now gathered for their 22nd annual meeting in Marrakesh, Morocco to establish a governing body that will oversee implementation of the Paris Agreement and rules to guide nations in their compliance with it.

The Paris Agreement does not limit national greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, it requires signatory nations to specify Intended Nationally Determined Contributions. INDCs are used to detail each country’s effort to limit the atmospheric temperature increase caused by human activities to less than 2 degrees Celsius. Nations that do not meet their INDC obligation are not penalized.

Since the accord took effect, uncertainty about its future has increased around the world in the aftermath of the U.S. election. Although he did not win the majority of votes cast by Americans, New York real estate developer and reality TV star Donald J. Trump will become the nation’s chief executive because he carried a majority of the state-based votes that will be cast in the country’s archaic Electoral College.

Trump defeated former secretary of state and senator Hillary Clinton, along with a slew of minor party candidates including Libertarian former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson and the Green Party’s Jill Stein, to capture the presidency.

Trump’s comments during the long political campaign leading up to the election indicated that the United States may abandon the Paris Agreement. Trump said in May that he would “cancel” the American commitment to it.

Earlier statements by the Republican businessman, who has no political experience, also indicate that there is a risk that the country which emits the most greenhouse gases might quit the effort to limit them. Trump has said, for example, that he believes climate change is a “hoax” developed and encouraged by China.

Since his election on Nov. 8 Trump has made no public comments about his plans for continued U.S. participation in the Paris Agreement. However, he has chosen a well-known climate science denier, Myron Ebell of the libertarian advocacy group Competitive Enterprise Institute, to manage the transition of personnel and policy at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Trump has also indicated that he is considering several oil executives and at least one politician who is adamantly in favor of increasing American fossil fuel production to lead the U.S. Department of Interior, which regulates energy exploration and extraction on public lands and on the continental shelf.

The United States cannot formally leave the Paris Agreement for four years, according to its terms. However, Trump has a number of options for limiting or preventing its impact on the country’s fossil fuel extraction and use. He could, for example, re-characterize the deal as a treaty and submit it to the U.S. Senate, controlled by Republicans, for ratification. Ratification would be unlikely. Trump could, if he desired to land a stronger blow against international climate change diplomacy, pull the United States out of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. He could also simply ignore the INDCs agreed to by the administration of President Barack Obama, a path that would result in little tangible consequence for the U.S. other than international condemnation.

A Reuters report published Saturday indicates that Trump has not backed down from his stated desire to abandon the Paris Agreement. The article, citing anonymous sources close to the president-elect, said that Trump will move quickly to terminate any American commitment to international climate change policy and programs.

Other nations have continued to act in support of the Paris Agreement since its Nov. 4 effective date.

Australia announced Thursday that it had ratified the accord, joining 108 other nations that have done so.

The country’s prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, said at a press conference that Australia expects to meet its commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28 percent by 2030.

“Almost a year from the Paris Conference, it is clear the agreement was a watershed, a turning point,” he said. “The adoption of a comprehensive strategy has galvanised the international community and spurred on global action.”

“As you know, we are playing our part with ambitious targets. We are on track to meet and indeed beat our 2020 targets. We will review our climate and energy policies next year to ensure that we meet, as we believe we will and are committed to do, to meet our 2030 targets under the agreement.”

Botswana, Burkina Faso, Djibouti, and Italy ratified the Paris Agreement on Nov. 11, Pakistan ratified it on Nov. 10, Japan on Nov. 8, and Gambia on Nov. 7.

Those national decisions followed a string of other ratifications earlier in November: Denmark, Estonia, Gabon, Ireland, Jordan,  Luxembourg, South Korea, Sao Tome and Princepe, Saudi Arabia, Sierra Leone, South Africa, and Vietnam all adopted it during the first week of the month.

Eighty-eight countries that are parties to the December 2015 agreement have not yet decided whether to formally adopt it.

 

China, U.S. formally enter into Paris climate change agreement

Obama signature on Paris Agreement document, Sept. 3, 2016
President Barack Obama signed the Paris Agreement on behalf of the United States on Aug. 29, 2016. Photo courtesy The White House.

President Barack Obama and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, announced Saturday in Hangzhou that the world’s two leading greenhouse gas emitters have formally acceded to the terms of last year’s Paris Agreement on climate change.

The two nations account for 40 percent of the planet’s atmosphere-warming pollution. Obama pointed to the action Saturday as a key step in assuring that the 195 country-strong deal reached last December in France does lead to an effective response to climate change.

“We have a saying in America — that you need to put your money where your mouth is. And when it comes to combating climate change, that’s what we’re doing, both the United States and China. We’re leading by example. As the world’s two largest economies and two largest emitters, our entrance into this agreement continues the momentum of Paris, and should give the rest of the world confidence –- whether developed or developing countries -– that a low-carbon future is where the world is heading.”

Nations were able to sign the Paris Agreement starting on Earth Day of this year. The Paris Agreement will take effect only when 55 countries that represent 55 percent of all GHG emissions on Earth ratify, accept, approve, or accede to it.

With the acceptance by both China and the U.S., 179 nations and the European Union have indicated approval, but only 26 have ratified it. The ratifying nations account for about 39 percent of planetary GHG emissions.

NATION CONTINENT RATIFICATION DATE
Bahamas, The Aug. 22, 2016
Barbados Apr. 22, 2016
Belize North America Apr. 22, 2016
Cameroon Africa Jul. 29, 2016
China Asia Sept. 3, 2016
Cook Islands Oceania Sept. 1, 2016
Fiji Oceania Apr. 22, 2016
Grenada Apr. 22, 2016
Guyana South America May 20, 2016
Maldives Asia Apr. 22, 2016
Marshall Islands Oceania Apr. 22, 2016
Mauritius Africa Apr. 22, 2016
Nauru Oceania Apr. 22, 2016
North Korea Asia Aug. 1, 2016
Norway Europe Jun. 20, 2016
Palau Oceania Apr. 22, 2016
Palestine Asia Apr. 22, 2016
Peru South America Jul. 25, 2016
Saint Kitts and Nevis Apr. 22, 2016
Saint Lucia Apr. 22, 2016
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines Jun. 29, 2016
Samoa Oceania Apr. 22, 2016
Seychelles Apr. 29, 2016
Somalia Africa Apr. 22, 2016
Tuvalu Oceania Apr. 22, 2016
United States of America North America Sept. 3, 2016

The Paris Agreement was reached at the 21st Gathering of the Parties of the UNFCCC. As the first international agreement aimed at limiting the warming of the planet’s atmosphere and oceans now underway as a result of human exploitation of fossil fuels, the Paris Agreement does not require any specific actions by nations to reduce GHG emissions.

Instead, the accord is aspirational. As the United Nations assistant secretary-general for climate change told CBS News last December, it is a plan that aims to “name and encourage” the nations who fail to meet commitments to reduce GHG emissions.

Those commitments, known as “nationally determined contributions,” are to be “ambitious” and “represent a progression over time.” The content of NDCs are to be established “with a view to achieving the purpose of the [Paris Agreement].”

The core of the Paris Agreement is the specification of climate change-related objectives:

“(a) Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, recognizing that this would significantly reduce the risks and impacts of climate change;

“(b) Increasing the ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change and foster climate resilience and low greenhouse gas emissions development, in a manner that does not threaten food production; [and]

“(c) Making finance flows consistent with a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development.”

During the first half of this year the average worldwide temperature was about 1.3 degrees Celsius above that recorded in 1880. Moreover, a study published in Nature on June 30 concluded that all of the NDCs in place so far would not lead to warming of less than 2 degrees Celsius.

 

 

 

 

 

Obama talks conservation in Nevada and Hawaii

President Barack Obama spoke Wednesday about the virtues of conservation before audiences at Lake Tahoe and in Honolulu, emphasizing the connection to fighting climate change and highlighting its benefits to wildlife and people.

Addressing the annual Lake Tahoe Summit, the chief executive explained that public policies aimed at conserving land and waters are essential to the entire range of Earth’s biodiversity.

“Conservation is critical not just for one particular spot, one particular park, one particular lake,” Obama said. “It’s critical for our entire ecosystem.”

The President told the audience that there is no doubt that human activities are causing the planet’s climate to change and, later in the speech, bluntly warned that any meaningful effort to address climate change must include preservation programs:

“A changing climate threatens even the best conservation efforts. Keep in mind, 2014 was the warmest year on record until, you guessed it, 2015. And now 2016 is on pace to be even hotter. For 14 months in a row now, the Earth has broken global temperature records. And because climate and conservation are challenges that go hand in hand, our conservation mission is more urgent than ever.”

Obama addressed the twentieth annual gathering of federal, state, and local leaders involved in ongoing efforts to protect Lake Tahoe’s water quality and aquatic life.

Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe - photo courtesy Wikimedia
Lake Tahoe’s Emerald Bay is shown in this photograph. Image courtesy Wikimedia.

The lake, which is the largest alpine lake and second deepest lake in the nation, is warming rapidly as greenhouse gas emissions accumulate in the atmosphere. According to a report released by the University of California, Davis’ Tahoe Environmental Research Center, during 2015 Lake Tahoe’s surface reached a temperature higher than at any time in recorded history.

Water at greater depths is also warming as fast as 15 times greater than the historic norm and only about 6.5 percent of precipitation in the 6,000 foot-plus elevation Lake Tahoe ecosystem now falls in the form of snow.

Since the first Lake Tahoe Summit in 1997, governments have spent more than $1.8 billion on projects aimed at restoring wetlands, building transportation infrastructure, improving roads to reduce carriage of polluted runoff into the lake, and lower wildfire risks in the national forest that surrounds the lake.

The administration announced Wednesday that the administration would invest more than $29 million more into Lake Tahoe-related conservation efforts during the coming fiscal year.

A fact sheet released by the  White House said that the money would finance ongoing programs to reduce the number of dead and dying trees to reduce the likelihood of wildfire and improve stormwater systems.

In addition, the National Forest Foundation will pump at least $4 million into efforts to restore watersheds and assure that recreational activities are consistent with the region’s ecological health.

The administration also announced a draft of a compensatory mitigation policy that would allow individuals and entities to trade habitat for endangered and threatened species for credits that could be sold to developers.

The tool, called a habitat exchange, has been used in efforts to conserve a number of imperiled species. They include the monarch butterfly, greater sage grouse, and lesser prairie chicken.

“By adding habitat exchanges to the suite of preferred mitigation solutions, the Service is providing a foundational step to unleash the untapped potential of America’s working lands – its farms, ranches and forests – to reverse habitat loss and stop the extinction crisis,” Eric Holst, an associate vice president at Environmental Defense Fund, said in a statement.

Later in the day Obama spoke to leaders of Pacific Rim nations attending the International Union for Conservation of Nature World Congress in Hawaii.

His address there took on a personal tone. The President emphasized the need for a unified approach to climate change policy.

“When it comes to climate change, there is a dire possibility of us getting off course, and we can’t allow that to happen,” Obama said. “That’s why our united efforts are so important.”

Referring to the convention facility in Honolulu, he also spoke of his personal ties to Hawaii:

“[F]or me, this is especially meaningful. I was telling my staff, a lot of my life started about a mile from around here. My mother and father met probably a couple hundred yards from here. It’s true. I went to school about a mile from here. I was actually born about a mile from here. My grandmother and my grandparents lived most of their lives a short way away from here.

“And so since Malia was born, since my oldest child was born, I’ve brought them here every Christmas for the last 18 years now. And I want to make sure that when  they’re bringing their children here, or their grandchildren here, that they are able to appreciate the wonders and the beauty of this island and of the Pacific, and every island.”

Obama planned to visit Midway Atoll on Thursday. While there, the President is to see some of the ocean territory included in a marine national monument he expanded  an executive order issued last week.