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Will Saving the Polar Bear Save the Arctic Ice?
Emily Gertz, 9 Oct 07
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It's clear that stopping the fast-increasing melt of the northern ice cap would preserve habitat for the polar bear. Last week's welter of bad news about that melt got me to wondering how some current efforts to save the bear might bring that about.

Last week scientists announced that the Arctic ice cap receded this summer at a rate that has taken even these experts by surprise. "Over all, the floating ice dwindled to an extent unparalleled in a century or more, by several estimates," reported Andrew Revkin in The New York Times. "Astonished by the summer’s changes, scientists are studying the forces that exposed one million square miles of open water — six Californias — beyond the average since satellites started measurements in 1979."

While Arctic conditions are complex, and extra-climatic factors may be involved in the shrinking of the northern ice cap, even some scientists who have disputed the degree to which human actions are disrupting the climate appear to be sobered by this year's developments. As Revkin reported,

“We used to argue that a lot of the variability up to the late 1990s was induced by changes in the winds, natural changes not obviously related to global warming,” said John Michael Wallace, a scientist at the University of Washington. “But changes in the last few years make you have to question that. I’m much more open to the idea that we might have passed a point where it’s becoming essentially irreversible.”

The same day's reporting brought a grim prediction for the poster species of global warming, polar bears: a recent study indicates that if there is no appreciable cut in greenhouse gas emissions, and the melting of the Arctic continues at the current pace, the world's 22,000-odd polar bear population will decrease by two-thirds by 2050.

This US Geological Service (USGS) study was done to help inform the US Department of the Interior's ultimate decision -- due in January 2008 -- on whether to declare the polar bear an endangered species under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). What happens if the species is listed as endangered? Would the actions that would be demanded by law ultimately curb the melting of the Arctic, and save the wild polar bear?

First, an overview of how the ESA works. Any group or individual citizen can petition the federal government to consider an animal or plant species for listing. The Act mandates that the government use the best available science to make its determination; that it issue an initial opinion on the petition within 90 days of when it is filed, and a final opinion within 12 months of that date. If the government misses these deadlines or fails to use the best available data, a provision in the ESA allows citizens to sue the government to comply with the law.

If a species is listed as threatened or endangered, among other provisions it forbids federal agencies from carrying out, funding, or authorizing any action which might "jeopardize the continued existence of" an endangered or threatened species. And the Act stipulates protecting not only the species, but also "the ecosystems upon which they depend."

So if the polar bear is listed, it presumably means that the US government would have to take action to eliminate threats to its wild habitat, Arctic sea ice. The primary and perhaps only realistic way to do that would be to make a massive and virtually immediate cut in America's greenhouse gas emissions (which, let us not forget, comprise 25 percent of the world's total carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels). Would it mean that the US Environmental Protection Agency would have to follow up on this past spring's historic Supreme Court decision that greenhouse gasses were pollution, and thus subject to regulations to protect the public health and environment? Does it mean the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would have to drastically tighten up auto emissions standards? Would subsidies to dirty energy industries become illegal; would subsidies to develop and expand clean energy and conservation have to increase? What about federal trade policy and aid with developing nations that are expanding coal-powered energy?

Amid all the dismaying news about the Arctic environment, these are bracingly hopeful conjectures.

I'll follow this up later in the week with what the polar bear petitioners -- including campaigners at the Center for Biological Diversity and Greenpeace -- think about the bear's chances for listing, and for survival.

Image credit: Ansgar Walk/Wikimedia Commons

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