Saturday, May 09, 2009

Salazar Keeps the Polar Bear Rule

Last fall, among a set of regulations designed to weaken the Endangered Species Act, the Bush administration promulgated a rule stipulating that the Endangered Species Act could not be used to fight global warming. This regulation was spurred by the polar bear's listing since the primary threat to polar bears is loss of habitat due to melting Arctic ice. This year, Congress gave the Obama administration the authority to overturn all of these last-minute regulations. Last week, the administration did just that and restored review by federal biologists. However, they plan to leave the polar bear rule in place.

Polar bears were listed as threatened last year, the first time any species had been given protection primarily because of climate change. Scientists say that warming temperatures erode the bears' sea-ice habitat. If current trends continue, three of the world's four major populations may be extinct by 2075.

Environmental groups said this ought to trigger federal action against the source of the problem, greenhouse-gas emissions.

But yesterday, federal officials said that was impractical. They said the law requires a causal connection between a particular polar bear and a particular polluter's emissions -- an impossible task, they said, given that greenhouse gases come from factories, power plants and automobiles, many of them thousands of miles away.

"We have to have the smoking gun and the dead animal," said Valerie Fellows, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

In this case, Fellows said, agency scientists cannot prove that sort of link: "You can't link the power plant in Florida with a dead bear in Alaska." Officials from several industry associations used this same logic yesterday in applauding the decision.
In general I agree with the need for a comprehensive framework to address the climate change issue. A comprehensive framework stands a better chance of working, for one thing, and by allowing more stakeholders to contribute to the policy, it may give more people an eagerness to see it work. However, it seems that the administration is prematurely giving up the use of a tool that could become a fallback in case of legislative failure. It is especially disappointing considering that there are a whole series of other species also threatened by climate change; the linked article named mountain pika and some Caribbean corals. Beyond that, there are many birds that are sensitive to small changes in their habitat and climate. Yesterday's decision makes passage of a climate change bill all the more important.