Thursday, May 15, 2008

Canaries in the Arctic

Yesterday’s news about the Interior Department’s finally listing polar bears as a threatened species seemed to cause hardly a ripple on the pond of public concern. And why should it at a time many are suffering from “concern fatigue.” Some are expending so much mental energy on the Democratic presidential primaries that they have heart for little else. Even wars, the economy, and a global food crisis have taken a temporary backseat to concern about the cataclysmic natural disasters in Myanmar and China.

It doesn’t take a political pundit to see that the military junta in Myanmar makes the Bush administration’s response to Katrina look not so bad, but the junta’s fatally botched response does bring back our own memories of needless suffering along our own Gulf coast. And, Myanmar calls attention to of John McCain’s now-resigned lobbyist advisors who was paid to make the junta look good.

Our hearts may not be in the story about the polar bears, but our heads better be because they are our planet’s “canaries in the mine.” We dare not let our concern fatigue allow us bypass this story pass for at least two reasons.

First, this is another graphic illustration of the way the Bush administration works and how federal agencies have been politicized. The decision by the Department of the Interior had nothing to do with concern for polar bears. It was a decision coerced by law suits from environmental groups three years ago. A decision was to be made
early this year. The Department stalled as long as it could. Finally, on April 29, a federal judge set May 15 as a deadline for a decision.

To describe the Department’s response as minimalist would be a gross overstatement.

… the administration shaped its decision in a way that does not force restrictions on emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, even though scientists have said the building greenhouse effect is the main influence driving up global temperatures. Administration officials added that existing protections of the bear, under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, were stringent and sufficient. And they also made clear that oil and gas exploration and extraction showed no evidence of harming the bears and would not be hindered by the decision.

So this leaves everything as it was, in a way, with the bears facing a transforming ecosystem and environmentalists successful in their litigation, but not necessarily empowered by the listing.

Carl Pope, Executive Director of the Sierra Club, said that the action

was "riddled with loopholes, caveats, and backhanded language that could actually undermine protections for the polar bear and other species."
This first reason is important, not because the Bush administration’s circumventing the intent of the law surprises us, but because it is another critical reminder of how much effort will have to be made by a new administration to clean up the politicization, anti-science, and cronyism in federal agencies. And you thought getting our troops out of Iraq was going to be hard.

The second reason why we dare not let this story pass is that polar bears may well be the “canaries in the mine” of an endangered planet. Truth be told, it may be too late to save polar bears, no matter what we do. Between 1979 and 2007 the
loss of sea ice, on which the bears depend for survival, was greater than the combined area of Alaska, Texas, California, and Georgia. Look the at map of the Arctic. The dramatic recent expansion of open water (dark blue) at the peak of summer melt, and the decline in thick old ice (white is ice that is over five years old) and thin ice formed the previous winter (light blue).

However important it is to attempt to save the polar bear, and I think it is, this story is about far more than polar bears. What the Heritage Foundation
feared and what the Bush administration attempted to circumvent in yesterday’s action was this:
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… 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.
In his announcement yesterday Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne was speaking for President Bush and the Heritage Foundation:
The most significant part of today’s decision is what President Bush observed about climate change policy last month. President Bush noted that “The Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act were never meant to regulate global climate change.”

The president is right. Listing the polar bear as threatened can reduce avoidable losses of polar bears. But it should not open the door to use the E.S.A. to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles, power plants and other sources. That would be a wholly inappropriate use of the Endangered Species Act. E.S.A. is not the right tool to set U.S. climate policy.
Andy Revkin, author of the NYT article, commented on Kempthorne’s statement:
This is an interesting point. In essence Mr. Kempthorne is saying that a law conceived to stop a chainsaw, bulldozer or bullet is not an appropriate tool when the environmental assault is from uniformly mixed emissions coming from a Beijing power plant, Boston taxi cab, or Amazon fire. When I broached that notion to him this afternoon on the phone, he agreed, replying: “When the Endangered Species Act was adopted in 1973, I don’t think terms like ‘climate change’ were part of our vernacular.”
In 1973 the writers of the ESA might not have been thinking of global warming, but neither were they thinking that all life on this planet may be “endangered” as we now know it to be. I don’t know, maybe those wise folks who wrote the Endangered Species Act in 1973 did have a sense of that. I’m grateful for their work.

No matter how the Department of the Interior tried to qualify it, this action opens new possibilities for polar bears but for the planet. Kassie Siegel, climate program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, and lead author of the 2005 petition that first triggered the Interior Department to study a listing,
"The administration's attempts to reduce protection to the polar bear from greenhouse gas emissions are illegal and won't hold up in court."
The ESA is now certain to be tested in new ways. That’s the big news from yesterday’s decision. Although the Bush administration will continue slamming the door on it as long as they can, we (and the polar bears) have a foot in the door that we didn’t have on Tuesday.

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