According to Jeffrey Kluger of TIME, the implications for the listing are incredibly significant as a matter of U.S. public policy: "The government must effectively own up to global warming as the likely cause of the problem. For a White House that has long questioned whether human-influenced climate change exists at all, this is a shift not just in policy, but in the very foundations of its environmental orthodoxy."
It shouldn't be all that surprising if this listing does, in fact, move successfully through the process, that something like dwindling numbers of polar bears are the tipping point. When science (or anything, really) remains in the abstract, critics have a much easier time defeating (or at least deflecting) the argument. The problem of global warming hasn't had an effective "face" or symbol; proponents for change have argued statistics to an audience that largely doesn't care, or can't comprehend the immensity of the issue. But when you slap a polar bear down on the table as the face of the issue, people might finally begin to notice.
At least, it seems the Bush Administration finally has begun to listen.
The key to the change in thought (and I don't want to overstate the change at this early stage - there is still a long way to go before the polar bear becomes officially listed as a threated species) appears to a four decade study of one of the nineteen polar bear population centers in the world. According to Kluger:
Perhaps the best studied of the groups is the Western Hudson Bay population, which scientists have been monitoring since the 1960s. For decades, membership of the group remained relatively stable, at about 1,200 adults and cubs. Between 1987 and 1994, however — precisely the years in which the rise in global temperatures have become the most evident — the number plummeted to 935, or a die-off of 22%. And that is only one of the five overall polar bear populations listed as declining by the multinational World Conservation Union. It's not just the fact that the bears are dying that's so alarming, but the way they're dying — and all of it points to a warmer world. Spring ice that the bears rely on as fishing platforms has been breaking up about three weeks earlier than it used to. Though polar bears don't hibernate, they do retreat to dens in the winter to escape bad weather. When they emerge, they badly need to replenish their fat supplies, and slashing three weeks off the dining schedule does not help. Scientists who track bear populations report that fewer cubs are surviving into adulthood — never mind the ones that aren't getting born at all — and those adults that are observed are often thinner than they used to be. Some bears have been resorting to cannibalism to survive and others are simply turning up drowned, trapped in open water as they try to paddle to ice floes that have melted away.
Even though it's holiday season, enviromentalists aren't universally accepting this gift at face value. The absence of the Bushies usual stonewalling is causing some to wonder whether this is a stalling tactic. I think that's a valid concern, but while the Bush Administration has certainly been in the pocket of big business (specifically here, the electric and oil conglomerates) and slow to warm to the dangers of global warming (no pun intended), they don't rate a zero on environmental matters. The Bush Administration has, in recent months, agreed to several so-called "debt-for-nature" swaps, where the United States has forgiven "third world" debt in exchange for those countries preserving their own natural environments under the Tropical Forest Conservation Act.
Additionally, in June of this past year, Bush created the largest marine reserve in the world when he designated 140,000 square miles of Hawai'i's northwest as a protected space. The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument is larger than all national parks combined.
While I'm not arguing we should all pat the Bushies on the back and not monitor the process of the polar bear listing, the fact remains the Endangered Species Act can't offer the bears full protection until they're listed, and they can't be listed until the listing is proposed. The fact that this listing might come with an acknowledgment from the Bush Administration that global warming is happening in the actual world and not just in the minds of greenie liberals might end up ranking as one of the great side-benefits in environmental history.