Back in court to protect the polar bear

Feature story - 21 May, 2008
Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Center for Biological Diversity have launched a new legal challenge against the US Department of the Interior following its listing of the polar bear as a threatened species. Sadly the decision was made almost meaningless by the inclusion of a massive loophole (technically known as a “4(d) rule”) for global warming pollution. So now we and our allies are going back to court to make sure polar bears get the protection they deserve.

Polar bears on sea ice.

Announced on 14 May, the listing of polar bears as threatened under the United States Endangered Species Act should have entitled the bears to many protections. One of the primary protections is the prohibition against any person, corporation, or other entity "taking" a listed species, which includes killing or otherwise harming it. However, the special 4(d) rule attempts to exempt from regulation both greenhouse gas emissions and activities occurring outside Alaska. Our new legal challenge aims to overturn this "special rule".

"While we successfully forced the administration to list the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act, the administration is still undercutting all efforts to implement the law to protect the polar bear," said Melanie Duchin, global warming campaigner for Greenpeace USA in Alaska. "The administration's continued attempt to block meaningful progress on global warming is no surprise, but it won't succeed."

This clause is especially astounding after the US Geological Survey predicted in September 2007 that, based on polar bear distribution and current global warming projections, two-thirds of the world's polar bear population would likely be extinct by 2050, including all polar bears within the United States.

So even though global warming is the biggest threat facing polar bears, 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.

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.

The Arctic melt is also outpacing predictions. September 2007 shattered all previous records for sea-ice loss when the Arctic ice cap shrank to a record 1 million square miles - equivalent to six times the size of California - below the average summer sea-ice extent of the past several decades, reaching levels not predicted to occur until mid-century. Scientists already predict this year's sea-ice minimum could shatter the record previously set in 2007. Several leading scientists now predict the Arctic Ocean could be ice-free in the summer by 2012.

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