High five, Leonardo DiCaprio! Your favorite global warming mascot and mine, the polar bear, just got a boost this week, as a federal judge ordered the Interior Department to decide within 16 days on the cuddly-but-deadly ursine carnivore’s inclusion on the endangered species list. The department missed a Jan. 9 deadline to decide about polar bear listing, and since then conservation groups have lobbied heavily for the government to act. U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken sided with environmentalists, giving the government until May 15 to come to a conclusion.
"Defendants have been in violation of the law requiring them to publish the listing determination for nearly 120 days," the judge, based in Oakland, Calif., wrote in a decision issued late Monday. "Other than the general complexity of finalizing the rule, Defendants offer no specific facts that would justify the delay, much less further delay."
But listing the polar bear as an endangered species could reach much farther than just simple species protection. Scientists think polar bear numbers have decreased in large part because of global warming: The summer sea ice has been shrinking every year, eliminating crucial habitat and feeding time for the large arctic predators. Many bears simply die of starvation, and the U.S. Geological Survey predicted that bears could disappear in as little as 50 years.
The Endangered Species Act forbids actions that harm protected species, which in the polar bears’ case could potentially include actions like building coal plants greenhouse-gas producing activities. The closest global warming threat to the bears is the sale of oil leases covering millions of acres of polar bear habitat in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska’s northwest coast.
Because its survival is intertwined with climate change, saving the endangered polar bear could be invoked to block virtually any carbon-emissions-rich activity. Of course, the federal government could undercut this by just ignoring overwhelming evidence and refusing to list the polar bear as endangered. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time.
— Ted Alvarez