Feeling a cold wind blowing down there, Satan? The Interior Department just designated polar bears as an endangered species, making them the first animal added to the list because of global warming. True, it took a court order to make it happen, but this is an impressive step for an administration that set records for going the longest without adding any threatened species to the list. Bush and Interior Department Secretary Dirk Kempthorne snapped a two-year record set last Friday by adding the polar bear yesterday.
But all you Conservation Connies and Environmental Eddies shouldn't get too excited just yet. The designation also includes rules specifically aimed at quashing any efforts to extrapolate polar bear protection into wider carbon emissions legislation or regulation. The rules could even conceivably protect offshore oil and natural gas drilling in critical polar bear habitat.
[Kempthorne] said listing the polar bear as threatened "should not open the door to use the ESA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles, power plants and other sources. That would be a wholly inappropriate use of the Endangered Species Act. The ESA is not the right tool to set U.S. climate policy."
That won't stop conservationists from testing the theory, though. Kassie Siegel, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, said that any attempts to limit the reach of the Endangered Species Act to block greenhouse gas regulation would be "illegal and won't hold up in court."
Debate about polar bear populations rages in the scientific community; while Canada's western Hudson Bay population decreased by 22 percent since 1987, it remained unclear whether that trend extended across other Arctic populations. Either way, most scientists agree that two-thirds of the polar bears' sea-ice hunting habitat will disappear by 2050. That's far too fast for the bears to adapt.
Still, this legislation emerges as a small ray of hope for our embattled polar bears. Even Kempthorne admits it was the right thing to do.
"You simply must look at the best available science on this species and project it into the future," Kempthorne said. "I have accepted the science. . . . This may not be a popular decision, but it's the right decision."
We only have one question: What took you so long, Dick?
— Ted Alvarez