Catch 22 and the Polar Bear’s Dilemma

By David L. Brown

It’s official — the U.S. Department of the Interior has added the polar bear to the list of endangered species. The story is here on the N.Y. Times news site, which reports:

…the long-delayed decision to list the bear as a threatened species may prove less of an impediment to industries along the Alaskan coast than many environmentalists had hoped. While further protecting the polar bear from direct or immediate threats — like hunting — the Interior Department added stipulations, seldom invoked under the act, that will make it relatively easy for oil and gas exploration and development activities to proceed.

The decision builds on scientific evidence about the retreat of sea ice, which the bears use as a platform to hunt seals and as a pathway to the Arctic coasts where they den. But it does not directly link the threat to the bears to the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Mr. Kempthorne [Dick Kempthorne, secretary of the Interior] said the Endangered Species Act was “never meant to regulate global climate change” and that it would be “inappropriate” to use the polar bear listing that way. He said he made the decision because “sea ice is vital to polar bears’ survival,” and scientific models show the rapid loss of ice will continue.

The secretary, who earlier in his political life was a strong opponent of the Endangered Species Act, added: “This has been a difficult decision. But in light of the scientific record, and the restraints of the inflexible law that guides me,” he made “ the only decision I can make.”

Many fear that so-called “environmentalists” such as members of activist organizations like the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth, will use the listing of the polar bear as an excuse to bring legal action against any and all sources of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the U.S. As the statement above from the Interior secretary shows, the administration is aware of those possibilities and has attempted to put up firewalls against actions that could be detrimental to the economy. However, the fact that the Arctic sea ice is rapidly melting could no longer be ignored, and because the polar bear depends on that ice it is ipso facto endangered.

The problem with this is that there is nothing that humankind can do to change the basic fact. The “Big Melt” is well underway and will continue no matter what we do, even if all GHG emissions could be stopped in their tracks. The polar bear is not only endangered, it is probably doomed to extinction in its natural habitat because that habitat is going to disappear.

This situation is different from past examples of the effects of the Endangered Species Act, in which steps could be taken to preserve the environment required by the species in question, whether a spotted owl, some rare fish or amphibian, an insect or plant. Those have included such steps as preventing forest cutting, dam building, road construction, or real estate development that would impact he species’ habitat.

In the case of the polar bear, the only thing that we could do to mitigate the bear’s plight would be to reverse climate change and reinstate the Arctic environment. That is not possible.

Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel Catch 22 introduced the concept of bureaucratic nonsense concerning the fitness of military pilots to fly combat missions during World War II. The “catch” was that if someone were crazy he would not be allowed to fly — but if he were to admit that he had a problem, that would be considered as proof of sanity and he would be required to continue to fly. The term “catch 22” therefore came to mean something self-contradictory. The case of the polar bear as an endangered species is a good example. No matter how crazy human-induced global climate change becomes, or what steps are taken to attempt to reverse it, those bears will continue to fly into possible extinction, just like Heller’s fictional pilots.

Here is more from the N.Y. Times article:

Few natural resource decisions have been as closely watched or been the subject of such vehement disagreement within the Bush administration as this one, according to officials in the Interior Department and others familiar with the process. After the department missed a series of deadlines, a federal judge ruled two weeks ago that the decision had to be made by Thursday.

Barton H. Thompson Jr., a law professor and director of the Woods Institute of the Environment at Stanford University, said Wednesday that while the Interior Department gave itself “sufficient room” to list the polar bear, it did not provide “environmental organizations with a mechanism for trying to address climate change.”

He said that lawsuits challenging the connection between a factory’s greenhouse-gas emissions and the threat to individual polar bears might provide difficult to win.

“Interior has a reasonable case here that the connection is just too far removed,” he said.

The provision of the act that the department is using to lighten the regulatory burden that the listing imposes on the oil and gas industry — known as a 4(d) rule — was designed to permit flexibility in the management of threatened species, as long as the chances of conservation of the species would be enhanced, or at least not diminished.

Kassie Siegel, a lawyer for the Center for Biological Diversity, one of three groups that originally sued to have the polar bear listed as threatened, said Wednesday that the decision was an acknowledgement of “global warming’s urgency,” but that it fell short of helping the polar bear.

“The administration acknowledges the bear is in need of intensive care,” Ms. Siegel said. “The listing lets the bear into the hospital, but then the 4(d) rule says the bear’s insurance doesn’t cover the necessary treatments.”

The really good news in all of this is that the Bush administration, by this action on behalf of the polar bear, has finally and irrevocably agreed that global warming is real and that climate change is taking place. Although belated, this is a giant step forward so I guess it is better late than never.

It remains to be seen whether the bears can change their lifestyle to survive on land without the sea ice that is rapidly disappearing. As the Arctic Ocean becomes more ice free, 24 hour Summer sunlight will warm the open waters even more, leading to melting of adjacent tundra and dramatic changes in the region’s ecology. Most scientists believe the bears are incapable of adapting to such rapid and significant change, and they are probably right.

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