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Polar bears pictured alongside large chunks of floating ice have
quickly become iconic images in the fight against global warming. In
January 2007 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service petitioned the Bush
administration to give the species federal protection by listing it
under the Endangered Species Act. Now, after 16 months of delays, a
federal judge told Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne late last month
that his department has just two weeks to decide whether to give the
bears this status.
The decision, though, carries
significant political overtones. There are now about 25,000 polar bears
in the Arctic, but scientists expect the number to decline by nearly 30
percent over the next half-century due to reduced habitat caused by
melting ice caps. Listing the species as endangered would mean that
Washington would be seen as acknowledging that humans have helped
contribute to global warming and that they are able to play some part
in fixing it. That, in turn, could require the administration to pass
broad regulations limiting carbon emissions across all sectors of the
economy–a far-reaching move in an effort to protect just a single
species. Dr. Kenneth Green, a biologist and environmental scientist who
is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public
Policy Research, spoke with Newsweek‘s Daniel Stone about how
climate change might have affected the bears and whether an
“endangered” declaration would really help. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: What decision is the Interior Department likely to make?
Dr. Kenneth Green:
The administration will likely list the bear as threatened. And after
that they’ll punt it into the next administration, which will have to
come in and start a planning process to develop a protection plan for
the bears. I would expect there to be a conflict over the extent of the
plan. Of course, if [the administration] chose not to list the polar
bear, somebody would undoubtedly re-petition to relist the polar bear
and all the regulatory timetables and clocks would start ticking again.
In either scenario, what kind of political and legal debate would follow?
if protection is offered, environmental groups will file suit calling
for suing carbon-emitting companies that violate the Clean Air Act.
Then they’ll go back to court to sue the government for the reduction
of greenhouse gas emissions. Then a judge will have to say, “Well, will
that do anything to improve polar bear habitat or not?” Then there will
be a fight over what’s actually causing [the ice to] melt, and whether
the climate models predicting deep rates of change are meaningful
Is there apprehension that listing the bear signals acceptance that climate change is caused by humans?
The realization has always been that if you list the polar bear,
because its range is the entire Arctic, your ability to exploit the
Arctic is essentially done. But that’s really only part of it. A much
bigger part is that because the assumed nature of the endangerment is
greenhouse gas emissions, it would empower groups to sue the government
to force the abatement of the gasses.
The polar bear has been
labeled the canary of the planet’s coal mine. How closely is it really
tied to the challenges of climate change?
Its main pull is its charisma. It has a charismatic megafauna.
So you see it as just one species of millions? It’s just cute?
It’s being disingenuously used as a lever to try to get greenhouse gas
emission controls in the back door of the Endangered Species Act, since
the Bush administration has been unwilling to do so any other way. It’s
not immediately obvious that the best thing to do to manage polar bear
populations will be to control greenhouse gasses.
But the number of them is decreasing, largely due to a shrinking habitat.
thing that nobody’s asking is “What’s actually earth’s right number of
polar bears?” The answer is that there is no right answer. The real
question is whether they’re being driven to extinction–and I don’t
think the case has been made that whatever threats they face are of
human causation. If the species is going extinct because of nothing
that humans are doing, you don’t put them under the Endangered Species
Act. The question is whether reversing the emission of greenhouse
gasses is the best way to protect them, or would it be better to find
more ways to increase their land-based habitat?
Aside from limiting greenhouse gases, what would be other effective ways to protect the bear?
government] could prohibit all hunting. I suppose there could be
controlled breeding programs, for which we’d capture a significant
portion of the population and try to increase their breeding in
captivity, and then introduce them to land ice areas. Maybe things like
establishing large reserves on land that would not be open to
What happens after the decision is made to list–or not list–the bear?
The real fight will be over the elements of the protection plan.
And what are some of the implications of that debate?
has implications over the use of the entire Arctic. If you list the
bear, well, there goes [the option of drilling in] the Arctic National
Wildlife Refuge. With oil [soaring] and food prices rising to the point
of causing famine and food riots, is this really a time we want to be
setting aside what may be some of the world’s largest oil reserves
left? This is not like stopping a housing development for a small
mouse. This is a huge question, and it’s unlike anything we’ve dealt
But the ice is melting, and the bear’s habitat
is disappearing. Don’t humans, at least in part, have some
responsibility to stop that?
I’m not saying it’s not
possible that humans are warming the Arctic, but I also haven’t seen
convincing evidence that we are, enough so to draw that conclusion.
written that climate change is not a human problem and that humans
can’t do much about it. What about the other science that says, quite
bluntly, that humans can help and that time counts?
of what causes [polar ice melt], the answer should be to protect
land-based habitat [instead of sea-based], because frankly it is
implausible to think the world is going to turn around the trajectory
of greenhouse gas emissions when the leading emitter, China, wants
nothing to do with it. India, an up-and-coming emitter, wants nothing
to do with it, and neither does Russia. The stage is not set for a
reverse of the trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions. So no matter
what you do with that, it’s not going to have any benefit to the polar
bear at all because it’s not going to happen. [Those countries] won’t
be bound by our Endangered Species Act.
So how do you protect land-based habitat of the bear?
more important thing is to figure out how many polar bears there really
are–get more empirical data on numbers and trends, because the data we
have now is very sparse. This is not a matter of everyone calling for
more studies. The fact is that data on the polar bear is remarkably
sparse. Better data is important, and as part of that we need to
identify what is critical coastal habitat.
If melting ice is
threatening the bear, shouldn’t humans intervene anyway–regardless of
what caused the warming in the first place?
extra degree of warming is already in the climate system from carbon
emissions that have already been expelled. You’re not going to be able
to turn that around. Too late. People have this feeling that they have
control over this because they don’t want polar bears to be injured.
They don’t want to see the species reduced in number. There’s this
hubris in human nature that says “We must be able to do something about
it.” But there are times that nature presents us with things we can’t
do anything about.
If it’s not shrinking habitat, what’s the polar bear’s biggest threat?
don’t think there’s enough data to tell that. The information on polar
bear trends is all modeled. It’s just statistics. The most important
thing to do is increase the focus on gathering data about the polar
bears so we can make intelligent decisions rather than panicked
Kenneth P. Green is a resident scholar at AEI.
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