Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Bush's New Environmental Czar? The Polar Bears.

The U.S. Department of the Interior is proposing to list the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

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.


trout said...

Bush actually acknowledged a couple of years ago that global warming was real and at least in part anthropogenically induced. They still question the exact effects and impacts of it, though. This stance, of course, has resulted in no substantive policy to actually combat CO2 emissions.

I'm skeptical that listing the polar bear signals any real change in the Bush administration stance. Sure, they're acknowledging that one of the effects of global warming is the dwindling of the polar bear population. But they can argue that a hostile environment to polar bears isn't necessarily a hostile one to people. Listing the polar bear is an easy way to gain some environmental credibility without, in actuality, doing anything.

The interesting thing to me is how this affects the Endangered Species Act. It seems highly unlikely to me that, even given its imperative of providing a sustainable habitat for endangered species, the ESA will end up prompting CO2 reductions policies. The polar bear might end up a species that we acknowledge is dying off decades before it actually goes, doing nothing save just watching it die.

Tommbert said...

Trout’s pessimism about the ESA’s ability to do good in terms of climate change seems very limited, especially given the sweeping nature of the policy instruments that would be required to stop the habitat loss seen in the polar bear reports I have read. In short, those policy changes would indeed be out of character given the history of suits filed with ESA as precedent. Injunctions against development? Yes, repeatedly. Sweeping creation and lowering of CO2 emissions standards? Likely not at all, on polar bear rationale alone. ESA has traditionally been a vehicle, flawed or not in its implementation, to protect localized habitats, notable in its highest profile rumbles like the TVA/snail darter case and the spotted owl. I don’t know that I could find a ruling based in ESA that has had large scale (meaning significantly inter-regional) effects. I know I could find none on the scale that some conservationists think the polar bear would affect.

This isn't to say I think PK is optimistic; he presents a lot of information that I have been tinkering with for a possible future post about what it is exactly that the president does in terms of environmental legislation besides talk somewhat idly. (And that's ANY president, mind you. See Cannon and Riehl in the Standford Env. Law J. 23:2 2004 for the run down since T. Roosevelt.) Given that this one has just over two years to get something besides a war on his record, it will be interesting to see if he does anything with the polar bear, if only because it might have a shot at popular support with a cuddly face attached to it.