Friday, May 16, 2008

More on the Polar Bear Listing

Along with the decision to list polar bears (noted here, history here), DOI issued a 4(d) rule. Secretary Dirk Kempthorne’s comments announcing the listing decision also lay out its limits: it will “not open the door to use the ESA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles, power plants, and other sources” and the 4(d) rule “will ensure the protection of the bear while allowing us to continue to develop our natural resources in the arctic region in an environmentally sound way.” In other words, the rule is crafted, in part, to minimize impact on oil operations. This is not surprising, given that Kempthorne, roundly criticized by environmental groups upon his nomination, complained in the announcement that the ESA prevents him “from taking into account economic conditions and adverse consequences in making listing decisions.”

Potentially more important than its impact on specific activities, the polar bear listing carries enormous symbolic value. It highlights the effects of climate change beyond human discomfort or dislocation. It is a clear illustration of climate change impacting species survival. Because addressing climate change requires global thinking and recognition of complex natural systems, it may be the best route to broader public (and policy-maker) recognition of the need to maintain biodiversity as the planet’s life support system. As in past environmental issues, this charismatic megafauna represents the vanguard of public awareness. Protecting the polar bear is clearly a biodiversity issue, reaching broader ecosystem issues just as the spotted owl or Pacific salmon do. But can the acknowledgement of the threat to this top predator from climate change promote better understanding of the biodiversity crisis? Or is it simply another tangible attention-getter for promoting climate change awareness (like sea level rise) that, however valuable, will not significantly affect biodiversity policies or perceptions?
An AP piece, appearing in the Anchorage Daily News, opens: “It's not about saving the polar bear as much as the polar bear saving us” (from climate change). For towns in polar bear country, there is the speculation whether the listing will reduce tourist income (by banning import of trophies from hunting in Canada) or boost it (by creating urgency for the visits).

At this point, there is little evidence that the polar bear listing will spark greater attention to biodiversity concerns in climate change policy. Nonetheless, using the nation’s – perhaps the world’s – strongest biodiversity protection law at the cutting edge of climate change issues bodes well for biodiversity preservation gaining ground in the draft of the momentum that climate change has gained.

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