Polar bears are smart, politicians less so

“Think of the bears!”, cry the science-lite wing of the environmentalist movement, while politicians look on, eager to find a way of doing the right thing by themselves and their constituencies, and serious environmentalists are largely ignored. As for the aboriginal Arctic communities that rely on the hunting and small-scale exploitation of species such as the iconic Ursus maritimus, they are basically screwed, despite having scientific evidence as well as a long tradition of ecological field observation on their side.

Yesterday’s Guardian carried a report of ongoing discussions within the 178-nation Convention on the Trade in Endangered Species, with the US and Russia ganging up against Canada in an effort to raise the status of the polar bear from Appendix II to Appendix I of the CITES treaty. Such a bureaucratic move would ban all commercial trade in polar bear parts, and present an existential threat to Inuit communities based in Canada’s far north, leaving them ever more dependent on state subsidies and welfare benefits.

Damian Carrington’s Guardian report focuses on the US and Russian delegations to CITES, and lobby groups such as the Natural Resources Defence Council and Humane Society International, both of which oppose the hunting of polar bears. Carrington’s article also cites the International Union for Conservation of Nature, but omits to point out that it opposes the US/Russian proposal. The IUCN quote is taken out of context, and its effect is to misrepresent the organisation’s policy on CITES re-classification…

“The PBSG [Polar Bear Specialist Group] has reviewed the scientific information and CITES criteria. Although all polar bears are ultimately threatened with extinction and currently meet the Vulnerable criteria for the IUCN Red List (the equivalent of threatened in other systems), it is unclear whether they meet the existing CITES definition of threatened. Further, we find that transfer of polar bears to Appendix I is unlikely to confer a conservation benefit, and could have a negative impact on socioeconomic systems as well as domestic and international partnerships. We, therefore, agree with the findings of IUCN and TRAFFIC which conclude that polar bears, at present, appear not to meet CITES listing criteria for transfer to Appendix I.”

It should be noted that, in addition to the IUCN, the World Wildlife Fund also opposes the US/Russian proposal to ban the trade in polar bear parts.

For a considered political discussion of the IUCN and Inuit position, Arctic economy specialist Anthony Speca is worth a read. Take Speca’s recent article for the Northern Public Affairs blog, in which the writer outlines the Canadian government position. Now say what you will about Canada’s right-wing administration and its poor environmental record, but on the issue of polar bears and the country’s fragile Arctic communities it has a point.

Speca explores the motivation behind the US government proposal, and exposes the vacuity of the climate change and habitat depletion argument…

“[T]he USA is asking the international community to sacrifice Inuit economic rights in order to compensate – or, more accurately, in the somewhat dubious hope of compensating – for environmental damage caused more or less entirely by non-Inuit. If polar bears are threatened, it’s because the carbon-intensive industries and lifestyles of Southerners threaten them. Yet as a result, Inuit Northerners will have to forego their own interests in favour of a well-meaning but misguided attempt to manage the consequences.”

That is a coherent political argument, but there is also one based on numbers, and what will happen whether or not polar bears are uplisted to Appendix I. Inuit communities will continue to hunt polar bears, come what may, as it is a matter of survival in a harsh environment. It is all very well the Americans citing the dead hand of the market, but this is an insult to indigenous peoples whose level of economic activity pales into insignificance compared with that of oil and gas extractors in the Arctic. Indeed, the US government is going out of its way to aid energy companies in their large-scale exploitation of the Great White North.

Hypocrisy? So much so, in fact, that the European Union, or at least its executive arm in the European Commission, is desperate to extricate itself from the embarrassment of being associated with such evidence-deficient policymaking. However, Europe is split on the issue, with certain EU member states, the UK among them, together with the European Parliament, keen to support the US and Russia. The European Commission, on the other hand, sees the proposed ban on polar bear trade as attacking the symptom rather than the cause.

Hurrah for Brussels! Though heaven knows what this row will do for europhobic Tory-NIMBY conservationism in Britain.