Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Polar Bears listed under the ESA - a sign of things to come or business as usual?

Today, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed polar bears under the Endangered Species Act as Threatened. Many in the Non-governmental Organization community hailed this as a victory, especially since the listing is based on climate change impacts to polar bears.

I'm not here to get in a debate over whether the polar bear is threatened by climate change alone. And to the climate change deniers, I say this - here's proof, whether you like it or not, that human actions which influence climate have consequences. This is a scientifically sound conclusion, reached and promulgated by the most science un-friendly Administration in living memory. If you want to debate this, I need good, solid, peer-reviewed data, not grey literature strung together that suggests there could be a small window of doubt because no scientist in their right mind dismisses uncertainty.

Now, what does this really mean? What does listing polar bears have to do with farmers in Kansas, or auto workers in Kentucky? Well, if you believe one camp in the debate, alot. You see, the ESA contains this clause called Section 7 that REQUIRES every federal agency to consult with the Secretary of the Interior or the Secretary of Commerce, on federal actions. That means that every time the USDA grants farm subsidies to farmers, every time the Navy conducts an offshore drill or exercise, every time the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issues or renews a powerplant license, they are supposed to come to Interior or Commerce (through NOAA) to have those agencies determine if the federal action will jeopardize listed species.

Pause for a second. Catch your breath. It sounds all bureaucratic and like lots of paper pushing. But think about it for polar bears - if FERC has to consult with Interior on a coal fired powerplant license in Iowa because the pollutants from the plant are described as being in a suite of pollutants that cause global warming and ice loss, then conserving polar bears will require FERC to ensure that the power plant doesn't release those pollutants anymore. Magnify that across the hundreds of powerplants in our nation, and you get a sense of the potential societal change this will cause.

IF you own coal power stocks, however, I wouldn't run out and sell just yet. It will take FWS between 12 and 24 months to get all it's post-listing regulations in place. During that time there will be PLENTY of lobbying, and we'll hold a national election which will alter our leadership at the national level. So what you think this will lead to today, we may end up in a different place sooner then you think.

Yet in the polar bear listing we may well be seeing the opening of a chapter in US history where we, as a nation, have to finally accept accountability for our collective actions. We may also, finally, be forced to answer the question: What are we really willing to do to save the environment?

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