Battle of the bears

They say you can’t please all the folks all of the time - but Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne seems to be struggling to please anyone at all. Last week, he gave greens the prize they’d been hoping for, announcing that polar bears, whose sea-ice habitat is rapidly thawing, would finally be listed as a protected species. Then, to balance things out a little, he handed a sop to oil companies and climate skeptics, declaring that he wouldn’t allow the bears’ protected status to be used to justify new carbon regulations or limits on Arctic oil exploration.

Of course, Kempthorne’s grand compromise only earned him opprobrium from both sides. The ruling had been on the books for less than a day before environmental groups launched a legal bid to strike down his limits on the practical applications of the polar bears’ protected status. It only took a few days more for Alaska’s Republican governor, Sarah Palin, to announce that she would file a counter-suit, asking a judge to revoke the bears’ protected status altogether on the grounds that it would slow her state’s oil and gas development.

The tug-of-war points to a contradiction at the heart of the Endangered Species Act: It demands action, but fails to provide the tools with which to act. The ESA was intended to handle localized threats, and requires regulators to show a direct connection between polluters and specific animals; that would make it all but impossible to use the Act to impose limits on the greenhouse gas producers responsible for the bears’ shrinking habitat.

In short, Kempthorne and the climate-denial brigade are right: The ESA is the wrong tool with which to roll back global warming. But the greens’ basic point is also true: Without a serious attempt to regulate greenhouse gases and roll back global warming, the polar bears’ hard-won protected status will count for nothing.

That leaves us at an impasse: By giving polar bears protection under the ESA, we assume a moral obligation to do more than simply shrug as the polar bear population dwindles; but the ESA itself is incapable of regulating the carbon emissions responsible for the polar bears’ plight. Put that way, the solution is obvious: Instead of getting bogged down in ESA lawsuits and compromises, we need Congress to get busy and pass comprehensive climate legislation. The ESA can’t cut it; we need new rules and new regulatory apparatus if we’re to stand a chance of managing the global climate crisis - or to have any hope of saving the polar bear.

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