Polar bears ‘threatened’

2008-05-14

in Economics, Law, Politics, Science, The environment

As of today, the American Department of the Interior has listed the polar bear as a ‘threatened’ species, on account of the ongoing disappearance of the Arctic ice cap. In making the announcement, Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne stressed that the decision is not meant to compel the regulation of greenhouse gasses:

Listing the polar bear as threatened can reduce avoidable losses of polar bears. But it should not open the door to use of the ESA [Endangered Species Act] to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles, power plants, and other sources. That would be a wholly inappropriate use of the ESA law. The ESA is not the right tool to set U.S. climate policy.

In a sense, that is fair enough. Creating something as comprehensive as a greenhouse gas mitigation strategy in response to concern about a single species is definitely a backwards-seeming way to go about it. At the same time, one is reminded of how somewhat awkward justifications have sometimes been used in the past to secure legal outcomes: for instance, the use of the ‘interstate commerce’ clause in the US Constitution to assert federal jurisdiction, or even the indictment of Al Capone on tax evasion charges, rather than those directly associated with organized crime.

The point here is less whether concern about polar bears does or does not create a legal obligation to act on climate change. Rather, this is another demonstration of how virtually all conservation planning now requires the consideration of climate change effects. This is just one of a thousand cuts through which federal reluctance to effectively regulate greenhouse gasses will need to be eliminated.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan May 15, 2008 at 12:15 am

Incidentally, this is the 2000th post on this blog.

Emily May 15, 2008 at 12:49 am

Huzzah!

. May 15, 2008 at 11:25 am

Bye-polar Kempthorne

By Joseph Romm

The Department of Interior suffers from a rare form of bipolar disorder called bye-polar disorder. There is one major symptom of this disorder: You list the polar bear as “threatened” because of its melting polar sea ice habitat, but then do nothing to actually protect that polar habitat from its primary threat, greenhouse-gas emissions from fossil fuel combustion.

. May 15, 2008 at 11:26 am

Bearly legal
Bush admin to list polar bears as threatened; advocates pledge to continue the fight
Posted by Kate Sheppard at 8:01 PM on 14 May 2008

Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne was flanked by two large television screens rolling video of polar bears as he discussed his department’s decision Wednesday to declare the bears “threatened.” The video bears — and the bears in the many photos on display at the press conference — were fat and happy, wrestling on solid ice floes and devouring the flesh of prey. But environmentalists fear that Interior’s decision not to give the bears the stronger “endangered” designation will put them in continued peril — meaning fewer healthy bears, and eventually, none at all.

. May 23, 2008 at 12:39 pm

Polar Bears in Limbo
How a legal morass could save the environment.
By Holly Doremus
Posted Tuesday, May 20, 2008, at 3:33 PM ET

Yes, this is yet another example of the administration’s longstanding antipathy to regulating greenhouse-gas emissions. But there is more to it. Even an administration that cared deeply about global warming might resist regulating emissions through the Endangered Species Act. The truth is that the ESA is ill-suited to addressing the greenhouse problem—it’s much too narrow and reactive. But these very shortcomings might yield something better in the future. The morass of enforcement battles that can be expected to follow the polar bear listing would force us to confront the need for national greenhouse-gas legislation sooner rather than later. Unfortunately, the administration is making every attempt to head off those battles and obscure that message.

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