Polar Bears on an ice shelf. Mother and cub.
After months of calculated delays and several lawsuits against
them, brought by Greenpeace, the Natural Resources Defence Council
and the Center for Biological Diversity, the Bush administration
has listed the polar bear as threatened under the United States
Endangered Species Act (ESA).
A threatened listing under the ESA is supposed to provide broad
protection to polar bears. This includes a requirement that United
States federal agencies ensure that any action carried out,
authorised, or funded by the United States government will not
"jeopardise the continued existence" of polar bears, or adversely
modify their critical habitat.
However, the decision comes with a big catch: an exemption
(technically known as a "4(d) exemption") for global warming
pollution. Global warming is the biggest threat facing polar bears
and this exemption eliminates any real protection the listing could
have provided for the polar bear. It specifically says federal
agencies don't need to consider the impact of global warming
pollution on the polar bear. It gets worse: the listing also
proposes a separate regulation that reduces the protections the
polar bear would otherwise receive under the ESA.
This might look like a listing to protect the polar bear but
it's really just a way for the administration to protect the
interests of the oil and gas industry, as well as get away without
taking action on global warming.
What does the science say?
A decision about whether or not to list a species under the ESA
is supposed to be based on the best available science. The best
available, most current science on the impact of global warming on
polar bears is clear: the species faces extinction because its
Arctic ice habitat is melting. Sea ice melts and refreezes
seasonally, but recent years have shown a smaller area of maximum
sea ice in the winter. Predictions about Arctic sea ice loss have
become worse with each passing year. A few years ago, scientists
were predicting the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free in summer as
early as 2100, then that prediction was moved up to 2050, then 2040
and 2030. Late last year, one leading scientist predicted the
Arctic Ocean could be ice free in summer as soon as 2012. It seems
clear that the pace of global warming in the Arctic is outrunning
predictions and is happening faster than expected.
"I have been following this issue for quite some time, and I
have seen firsthand the impacts of global warming in the Arctic.
I've been in Alaska's Beaufort Sea when the sea ice retreated so
far offshore that a lone polar bear was stranded in open water,
swimming for what little ice it could find in search of its ringed
seal prey that were hundreds of miles away at the ice edge. That
bear was not long for this world, and the image haunts me every
time I read another grim report about the plight of polar bears in
our warming world," said Melanie Duchin, a global warming
campaigner for Greenpeace US, based in Alaska.
In 2007, the US Geological Survey predicted that by 2050, two
thirds of the world's polar bears would disappear, including all of
the polar bears in the United States. Scientists are witnessing
evidence that polar bears are already in real trouble. Reduced food
supplies due to global warming has resulted in polar bears actually
resorting to cannibalism in the north coast of Alaska and Canada.
Scientists with the US Minerals Management Service documented the
drowning of at least four polar bears in September 2004, when the
sea ice retreated a record 160 miles off the state's northern
coast. Just last week, scientists in Alaska reported that fewer
polar bear yearlings are making it to maturity. The polar bear
population in Western Hudson Bay of Canada has declined from
approximately 1200 bears in 1987, to 1,100 bears in 1995, and then
to fewer than 950 bears in 2004 due to ice loss. Arctic sea ice
loss set a record low in 2007. This year, the sea ice melt season
is already shaping up to break the record set in 2007.
Polar bears and sea ice
Polar bears live only in the Arctic and are totally dependent on
the sea ice for all of their essential needs, including hunting
their prey. The rapid warming of the Arctic and melting of the sea
ice poses a serious threat to polar bears. The polar bear could be
the first mammal to lose 100 percent of its habitat to global
warming. As the ice continues to disappear, so will the polar
bear. The only way to save the polar bear is to stop global warming
and protect their sea ice habitat from melting away, and the only
way to do that is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Once again, the Bush administration is ignoring the science that
is staring it in the face: global warming is threatening polar
bears with extinction. The federal government's press release
carried the headline, "Secretary Kempthorne Announces Decision to
Protect Polar Bears under Endangered Species Act," but it's clearly
mistitled. It would have been more aptly written if it had said,
"Secretary Kempthorne Announces Decision to Protect Oil and Gas
Industry." Exempting global warming pollution caused by unabated
oil and gas drilling spells doom for the polar bear, pure and
For those reading this and thinking that, while saving the polar
bear is a laudable goal, what's more important is drilling for
oil, jobs and the economy, consider these facts:
- The US will never be able to drill its way to energy
independence since it has only three to four percent of global oil
reserves, yet burns one-quarter of the world's oil.
- The Arctic is a harbinger for things to come at lower
latitudes. What we see now in the Arctic - unprecedented sea ice
loss and species threatened with extinction - will not be limited
to the Arctic. Serious global warming impacts and species'
extinction will accelerate in the mid-latitudes as it is in the
- Stalling action now means more disruption and economic cost
down the line. It's not just about polar bears and the Arctic, the
entire country will benefit if the government replaces dirty
sources of energy such as oil, gas and coal with cleaner, climate
friendly forms of energy like solar and wind. Conservation can go
a long way toward cutting US energy needs as well.
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