Alaska editorial: Threatened status for the polar bear is a positive thing

Posted: Thursday, May 22, 2008

The following editorial first appeared in the Anchorage Daily News:

Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne did what he had to do when he listed the polar bear as a threatened species. The threat is obvious. Steady, rapid shrinking of the Arctic ice denies the bear the hunting and denning areas it needs to survive in Alaska.

If the Bush administration could have found a way to avoid the listing - to deny the science that documents this threat - it would have done so. This is not a group of politicians who like using environmental laws to restrict development. The Bush administration held onto the polar bear issue as long as it could, until forced to act by a federal court.

Anti-environmental groups will sue to undo the polar bear listing. They aren't likely to succeed, though - unless conservative activist judges annoint themselves as polar bear experts and throw out the science done by real scientists.

Having done the unavoidable, Secretary Kempthorne then attempted to strip his decision of any practical impact. No new protective measures would be necessary, he said. The Marine Mammal Protection Act will provide all the protection the bears need.

That's a clever legal dodge, but it's unlikely to work. If existing laws were protection enough, the bear would not be endangered. Environmental groups will sue on this point, and they are pretty likely to win.

The big question, the one that has Alaska politicians all worked up, is what new protections will be imposed. Will all development in Alaska grind to a halt because any new project produces carbon dioxide, which fuels the global warming that is shrinking the polar bear's habitat?

Common sense suggests you'd have to have a pretty big source of carbon dioxide before it makes any meaningful contribution to the polar bear's plight.

True, obstructionist groups may use the polar bear listing to file some fanciful claims in court. But remember - anyone can file a suit; winning a suit is a different matter. After the first couple of adverse rulings, they'll realize the polar bear listing isn't much of a hammer against routine development. The bowhead whale, for example, is listed as an endangered species, but that has not prevented oil leasing and drilling off Alaska's North Slope or Native subsistence hunting of the whale.

Protecting the polar bear doesn't require stopping all development. It does require doing something to reduce the nation's greenhouse gas pollution. That pollution accelerates global warming, which further shrinks the polar bear's habitat. (Global warming is also shrinking human habitat, in coastal regions like Alaska's Shishmaref and Kivalina.) When it comes to global warming, the polar bear's plight is a sign of danger ahead for all who inhabit the planet.

The way to deal with greenhouse gas pollution is a national cap and trade system, which requires significant emissions cuts but allows polluters flexibility on how to do it. One company might have a cheap way to make big reductions and then trade some of the pollution offset to another company where the same emission cut would cost a lot more money. This approach has worked well with acid rain, which is caused by sulfur dioxide pollution.

With a strong cap and trade system cutting greenhouse gas emissions, Congress could revisit how the polar bear gets protected under the Endangered Species Act. Typical endangered species protections might remain, but Congress could tell courts that any further controls on greenhouse pollution are not required to protect the polar bear. The polar bear listing needn't spawn chaos in the courts - as long as it spurs serious action in Congress against greenhouse gas pollution.

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