Sunday, February 24, 2008


Not without good reason is Alaska called the “Great Land,” at least that’s what I thought the first time I drove the Al-Can north toward my new home. Its sheer immensity merits such a designation and makes the human population even paltrier than its numbers (600,000+ people, or about 1 person per square mile, as opposed to that population hotbed of Wyoming with about 5 persons per square mile).

Polar bears are not nearly as numerous as humans, nor do they get to vote. Polar bears occur in two geographical populations: the Southern Beaufort Sea population shared with Canada (about 1,500 bears), and the Chukchi/Bering seas population shared with Russia (about 2000 bears). The best available information concludes that both populations are declining. Just over a year ago, the
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – Alaska proposed to protect polar bears by putting them under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

That proposal, still awaiting decision by the federal government, has united the state’s Republican congressional delegation and Republican Governor Sarah Palin in opposition. That’s no small union. Over the last year, Senator Ted Stevens, Senator
Lisa Murkowski, and Congressman Don Young have all been fending off corruptions charges and ethics violations. Governor Palin, on the other hand, won the statehouse in 2006 after alienating the state Republican establishment as an anticorruption whistle blower. But they are all together in opposition to putting polar bears under ESA.

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,
The primary threat to polar bears is the decrease of sea ice coverage. Although some females use snow dens on land for birthing cubs, polar bears are almost completely dependent upon sea ice for their sustenance. Any significant changes in the abundance, distribution, or existence of sea ice will have effects on the number and behavior of these animals and their prey.
And the loss has been considerable, even in Alaskan terms. According to an
AP story released on Friday, between 1970 and 2000 the loss was greater than the combined area of Alaska, Texas, California, and Georgia.

Alaska’s political leadership state their doubts about scientific evidence, but it is hard to take those objections too seriously when the immediate issue appears to be how listing the polar bear would involve a plan to protect the shrinking Arctic sea ice, thus endangering chances for a natural gas pipeline that would tap the North Slope’s vast reserves. Nearly 90% of Alaska’s unrestricted revenue for next year is projected to come from the oil industry.

There is an African proverb that says, “Until lions write history, the hunters will always be the heroes.” In our case, we might paraphrase, “Until polar bears write history, the political leaders will always be the heroes of the oil companies.”

But the concerns about protecting polar bears go far beyond the borders of Alaska. From the
Heritage Foundation comes a plea:

The Department of the Interior (DOI), in response to litigation from environmental groups, is considering whether to list the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). For the first time in the history of the ESA, the threat of global warming would be the reason for listing a well-known species. Given the ESA's sweeping powers, such a move would raise energy prices by putting an end to promising new oil and natural gas production in Alaska. Even more troubling, listing the polar bear could be used as a back door to implement global warming policy nationwide by restricting energy production and use throughout the U.S. [bold mine] This would obviously harm the economy and—considering the ESA's poor track record—could also harm the polar bears as well. The President should tell the DOI not to take this highly problematic step.
There you have it: even greater than threatening a gas pipeline, listing the polar bears might trigger implementation of a global warming policy nationwide. That’s the big bugaboo! I must confess that I have heard some environmentalists express such hopes for getting the bears on the list. Isn’t it about time we have a global warming policy? If efforts to protect polar bears give us the push to do what our best scientific minds tell us we must do if we are to survive, why not? It may very well already be too late to save polar bears, but it may not yet be too late for the rest of the planet.

Looking Back: Jared Diamond, author of Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2004), wrote an
article nine years earlier titled, “Easter Island’s End,” which begins,

In just a few centuries, the people of Easter Island wiped out their forest, drove their plants and animals to extinction, and saw their complex society spiral into chaos and cannibalism. Are we about to follow their lead?
He wonders how it could have happened:

As we try to imagine the decline of Easter's civilization, we ask ourselves, "Why didn't they look around, realize what they were doing, and stop before it was too late? What were they thinking when they cut down the last palm tree?"

I suspect, though, that the disaster happened not with a bang but with a whimper. After all, there are those hundreds of abandoned statues to consider. The forest the islanders depended on for rollers and rope didn't simply disappear one day-it vanished slowly, over decades. Perhaps war interrupted the moving teams; perhaps by the time the carvers had finished their work, the last rope snapped. In the meantime, any islander who tried to warn about the dangers of progressive deforestation would have been overridden by vested interests of carvers, bureaucrats, and chiefs, whose jobs depended on continued deforestation… The changes in forest cover from year to year would have been hard to detect: yes, this year we cleared those woods over there, but trees are starting to grow back again on this abandoned garden site here. Only older people, recollecting their childhoods decades earlier, could have recognized a difference. Their children could no more have comprehended their parents' tales than my eight-year-old sons today can comprehend my wife's and my tales of what Los Angeles was like 30 years ago. Gradually trees became fewer, smaller, and less important. By the time the last fruit-bearing adult palm tree was cut, palms had long since ceased to be of economic significance. That left only smaller and smaller palm saplings to clear each year, along with other bushes and treelets. No one would have noticed the felling of the last small palm.

Alas, we have our own “carvers, bureaucrats, and chiefs”, whose jobs depend on the oil industry. The changes in the sea ice have not been all that difficult to detect, but they denied those at first too, and railed at the scientists who told them.

Will anyone notice when the last polar bear is gone?

- Milo

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