by Melanie Duchin

May 14, 2008

If you’re paying attention to the news today, you’ll have heard that the federal government decided to list the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  What you’re probably not hearing is that this threatened listing comes with a huge exemption that effectively neuters any protections today’s decision could have brought to the polar bear.  What happened? The Interior Department will include an exemption so that federal agencies will not have to consider the impact of global warming pollution on the polar bear.  That’s like the Bush administration announcing it is going to stamp out lung cancer, but it’s exempting the impact of cigarettes in its plan.

Am I mad? You bet I am.  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 announcing the decision carried the headline, “Secretary Kempthorne Announces Decision to Protect Polar Bears under Endangered Species Act,” but it’s clearly mistitled and 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 simple.

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.

The federal government’s own scientists predict that 2/3 of the world’s polar bears will be gone by mid-century, including all of Alaska’s polar bears, because of sea ice loss caused by global warming. Global warming is literally causing the polar bears habitat to melt out from under them, causing them to drown, cannibalize eachother, increase mortality in yearlings, etc.  The ESA is supposed to protect plants and animals from going extinct, yet our federal government is shirking its responsibility to the American people by looking the other way while global warming spells extinction for US polar bears.

I’m sure some of you are reading this and thinking that saving the polar bear is a laudable goal, but 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 government of every other industrialized country on the planet is ratcheting back on its emissions of global warming pollution, without sacrificing jobs, their economies or their quality of life. Case in point: Europe is cutting back on global warming pollution, and the EU economy and Euro are walloping the dollar.
  • 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 Arctic.
  • 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.

I have to get back to work, but I’d be interested in hearing what folks think about today’s decision, and if you are getting the message that the threatened listing is nothing but a hollow victory for the polar bear.

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