Monthly Archives: December 2013

Ivory and Environmental Justice

Elephants, Ivory, and Justice

Guest Poster: Katie Theiss, Middlebury Class of 2014

Poaching and the illegal ivory trade hit record numbers in 2011, with around 25,000 African elephants killed, and levels of trade may be even higher this year, according to GreenWire. Driven by poverty and corruption in the supplying countries, the illegal ivory trade network has been met with increasing demand in Asia.

Poaching is an issue of environmental justice. Often times, communities that have been forcefully removed from their homes by conservation groups in order to make way for protected areas resort to poaching as, first, a reaction against the injustice of being removed from their land, and, second, a reaction against seeing a valuable food resource go to waste. Impoverished communities that lie on the outskirts of protected areas, known as “conservation refugees,” often poach in order to survive.

This, however, is not to excuse the damage done to wildlife by poachers. Animal rights groups estimate that poachers in Africa kill between 25,000 and 35,000 elephants annually, meaning 104 elephants die a day. And, of the 157 poaching-related cases detected in Kenya in the past three years, less than five percent have been prosecuted and only three of those convicted were sentenced to jail. The illegal poaching trade is an international network that brings in 17 billion dollars a year. Because of this, experts warn that Africa could lose 20 percent of its elephant population within a decade.

In the first-ever meeting focusing on the dynamics of the entire ivory value chain, which took place in Botswana on Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013, 30 countries agreed, and 6 countries signed a pact, to take “urgent measures to halt the illegal trade and secure elephant populations across Africa.” All of the major countries involved with the ivory trade agreed to the provisions, including the elephant range states, which are Gabon, Kenya, Niger, and Zambia; the ivory transit states, which are Vietnam, Phillipines, and Malaysia; and the ivory destination states, which are China and Thailand.

An especially key signature on the treaty is China, which buys 70% of the world’s ivory. In fact, a spokesman for the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which organized the summit with the Government of Botswana, revealed that it was China who made the suggestion that the illegal trade should be eliminated and that supply and demand should be reduced.

Interactive Link on Ivory Trade

14 measures will be put in place in order, including the classification of the trafficking of ivory as a “serious crime.” This treaty paves the way for international cooperation on this issue, including mutual legal assistance, asset seizure and forfeiture, and extradition.

This treaty is an encouraging example of governance on an issue that requires a multidimensional and international response. While criminalizing the ivory trade may decrease elephant poaching, it does not necessarily solve one of the root causes behind poaching, which is the extreme poverty and environmental injustices caused to communities on the outskirts of protected areas. It is, however, a start.

The Filibuster and the Environment

Guest Blogger: Dan Hellman, Middlebury College Class of 2014

If you have been awake for any part of the past few years (or longer), you may have noticed there is dysfunction in Washington. This dysfunction reached new bounds this past week as the senate changed its rules in what was deemed the “nuclear option” to prevent filibustering of lower-level presidential appointments. Now, we are clearly in an age where no amount of government dysfunction should surprise us (SEE: government shutdown), and the blame falls to both political parties for their repeated use of brinksmanship and stonewalling negotiations. The symbolic impacts of this change to the senate rules are an important story that has been covered by any number of biased news publications you may wish to read, but left out of much of the analysis is the policy impact. For environmentalists, the decision to circumvent senate filibusters represents a short-term victory.

Obstructionism and failure to compromise led to the "nuclear option" changing the senate rules

Obstructionism and failure to compromise led to the “nuclear option” changing the senate rules

The DC court of appeals plays an important role in the environmental policymaking process. There is a special provision in the Clean Air Act stipulating that challenges to rulemaking skip lower courts and go directly to the DC court for appeals. This makes it extremely important for people interested in new regulations against greenhouse gas emissions or crackdowns on coal-fired power plants. Any rule will inevitably be challenged as too strict by industry representatives, so filling the empty seats with liberal judges would give Obama a major advantage. This court has recently ruled against Obama on issues like their delaying a decision on issuing a permit for Yucca Mountain to become a nuclear waste repository.


As of now, the political makeup of the court is balanced. Democratic presidents appointed four judges and republicans appointed the other four, but this does not tell the entire story. When the caseload is full for the regular judges, the overflow goes to the senior (part-time) judges. Of the six senior judges, five are republicans.  There are three empty seats on the main court waiting to be filled. Obviously, this presents an important opportunity for the Democrats to gain control of an influential court.

1937 political cartoon when FDR was accused of court packing

1937 political cartoon when FDR was accused of court packing


Now, some people have said that by nominating justices to fill these seats, Obama is guilt of court packing.  I am looking at you Ted Cruz.  Though to be fair to the senator from Texas, I should mention that most of the republican establishment is saying the same thing.). They argue that the size of the court should be shrunk down to the current eight members. I am not often one to let facts come in the way of good political theatre, but this is not what court packing is. Just because they want the court to remain ideologically in their favor does not make his nominations invalid. When a Supreme Court justice retires, filling that vacancy is not court packing. It is simply fulfilling a constitutional requirement. If Obama were to expand the size of the Supreme Court to fifteen judges, that would be court packing. This is simply just filling open seats. As a quick aside, if court packing is increasing the number of judges so that the court becomes ideologically balanced in your favor, does that mean that withholding qualified nominations indefinitely to prevent the court from swinging ideologically towards the other side is court unpacking?

Political squabbles aside, the impact of this change to the senate rules is significant. This could eventually be seen as an important moment with regards to Obama’s climate legacy, as any rules he passes will inevitably pass through this court. Looking at the long term we should not expect this change to have any profound advantage to one party or another because each can benefit form the new format when they are in power. But for the moment, we can chalk this one up as a victory for environmentalists.