The beleaguered polar bear got some help from the U.S. government this week. The Interior Department declared the bear threatened under the Endangered Species Act because of accelerated melting of the polar bear's Arctic sea-ice habitat. As Rosanne Skirble explains, the listing requires the government to develop a plan to protect the animals, but the new rule also leaves the door open to expanded Arctic oil and gas exploration.
Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne said that without the new protections, polar bears could become extinct within 45 years. "This listing decision will be accompanied by administrative guidance and a rule that defines the scope of impact of my decision in order to protect the polar bear while preventing unintended harm to the society and the economy of the United States."
Those are code-words, says Mike Dalton, the National Audubon Society's conservation director, for what he calls "a hands-off approach" to the regulation of the same polluting oil and gas industries that have been linked to the sea-ice melt. "This is really in many ways not just a listing for the species, but also really a cop-out. The administration is in some ways providing a leaky boat to go save the drowning polar bear."
In fact, Secretary Kempthorne made clear that the new ruling is not intended to influence U.S. climate change policies. "Listing the polar bear as threatened can reduce avoidable losses of polar bears, but it should not open the door to use the ESA [Endangered Species Act] to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles, power plants and other sources." The Secretary said decisions about those issues should not be left to what he called "unelected regulators and judges," but should be debated openly by lawmakers.
Myron Ebell, who directs energy and global warming policy for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, agrees that the Endangered Species Act is not the right tool for setting U.S. climate policy. "The way [the Endangered Species Act] is used by the environmental groups really has nothing to do with protecting endangered species," he says. "It has everything to do with land use controls and stopping things that the environmentalists object to." Ebell says the use of coal, oil and natural gas that power the nation's economy tops that list of objections, pointing out, "That is where we get 85 percent of our energy and they would like to shut that down."
But the Audubon Society's Mike Dalton believes the U.S. can move toward a clean energy economy that is safer and creates jobs. "The reality is that it is going to be more costly the longer we wait."
Dalton says he expects to meet his opponents in court because of the uncertainty of how the law will be applied in this case. "This is the first species that has been shown to be at risk of extinction due to global warming. But our feeling is that the strongest protections possible should be given to the polar bear, and we need serious solutions to global warming."
Meanwhile, the Arctic sea ice on which the threatened polar bears live, breed and hunt is in serious decline. Computer models predict ice-free conditions by the end of this century if global greenhouse gas emissions are not significantly curbed. That would be bad news indeed for the 25,000 polar bears now living in the Arctic region of North America, Norway, Russia and Greenland.