The Unbearable Truth About Global Warming

By David L. Brown

A Federal District Court judge in California has rejected the Bush administration’s request to delay making a decision on whether to order the Interior Department to decide whether or not to list the polar bear as an endangered species. The basis for the ruling would be that the bears are threatened because of disappearing sea ice in the Arctic Ocean.

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There is much heat being generated by this issue. Environmentalists are firmly behind the movement to list the bears as endangered. Opponents say it would give special interest groups the right to go to court to push for dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that are a root cause of global warming. Three groups that led the movement are The Center for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council. The organizations admit they are seeking to have the polar bear listed as endangered “in part to force the Bush administration to take more serious steps toward combating global warming, such as imposing federal limits on greenhouse gas emissions,” according to this story in the Los Angeles Times today.

Conservative talk show host and blogger Hugh Hewitt, who is also a law professor, has covered this developing story. Here is an excerpt from a piece he posted about a month ago on his web site, warning against what he calls “polar bear induced paralysis”:

A variety of environmental groups orchestrated the tsunami of testimonials to the desperate condition of the polar bear because they understand—as much of the public and Congress does not—that a listing of the polar bear will have vast implications, and may in fact be a backdoor to implementation of the Kyoto protocol.

By way of background, I have practiced natural resources law since I left the Reagan Administration in early 1989. Wetlands, jurisdictional waters, and endangered species are my areas of expertise, and if you ever need a lesson on the Stephens’ kangaroo rat, the Delhi sands flower-loving fly, the California gnat catcher, the Desert tortoise or any of a couple dozen other plants and animals throughout the west that are protected under the federal or state Endangered Species Act, drop me an e-mail.

All of those species and many more have fairly predictable aftermaths of their listing –a period of great confusion about where they live and breed, what can and cannot be done near them, and lots of meetings and negotiations with federal officials over habitat conservation plans, Section 7 consultations etc. There are lots of landowners and businesses that lose a lot because of this law, but in the past, the impact zone of a listing was at least limited to the area in which the listed species lived.

In the case of the polar bear, as Hewitt makes clear, there is no direct connection between the animals’ habitat and the source of the damage. But neither is there a specific connection to the United States of America. It would be grossly unfair for the U.S. to be encumbered by draconian regulations to limit GHG emissions while China, India and other emerging industrial economies continue to belch out CO2. But then, who says the world has to be fair?

Now as my readers know, I am a staunch advocate of responsible actions to reverse the steady trend of global warming. But that does not make me a tree hugging “environmentalist” that would sooner see the human race go back to living in caves. In my mind, extremists from both side of the issue are to be viewed with equal suspicion.

If indeed the fears of the right, that the U.S. economy could be brought to its knees by environmental court rulings that would ban virtually all activities that generate GHG, that could be either good or bad depending upon how it is implemented. I suggest several factors that should be considered:

First, court rulings that are measured and responsible could help accelerate the switch from technologies that cause global warming, while reducing our nation’s dependence upon imported oil and gas. That could be a “good” outcome.

On the other hand, draconian and unreasonable precedents that would force the virtual shutdown of entire swaths of our economy would be not only “bad,” but particularly stupid and self-destructive. One can hope that Federal judges would act with a sense of balance and economic common sense.

The situation with the polar bears raises several questions. First, the fears of the opponents seem to be based on the idea that global warming is a reality, but that is ironically something that many of them explicitly deny. If global warming does not exist, or if it is not caused by GHG emissions, then the opponents of listing the polar bear as endangered should have nothing about which to worry since the courts will decide on the causative issues. (Which is it, deniers? Is global warming real, or is it a myth dreamed up by Al Gore?)

Most experts agree that no matter what is done the Arctic sea ice will disappear, taking with it the traditional ecology that supports the polar bear. The question is not if or whether that will happen; it is happening. The real question, then, is whether the bears can adapt to an Arctic Ocean that is free of ice during the Summer. Early evidence seems to indicate that they cannot, especially as the tundra in bordering regions thaws and turns to bogs. They have probably already slipped past the edge of inevitable extinction.

So if the polar bear is already doomed, wouldn’t it be strange to anticipate heroic efforts to “save” the species? To achieve the impossible? The forces of extinction may sometimes seem cruel, but they are at least even handed and in keeping with the Laws of Nature. There is nothing that mere humanity can do to stay the hand of Gaia

But here is the sixty-four trillion dollar question: What is the real issue here? Why it’s really quite simple, although you are not likely to hear very many voices speaking up to explain it. It is not really the polar bears that are under threat; they are only a symbol. In reality, it is civilization and the human race itself that face possible extinction. If we continue down the present path, allowing increasing amounts of GHG to enter the atmosphere and push the global warming cycle further and further toward vital tipping points, our very own species may face extinction.

Ponder that the next time you chuckle upon hearing about some amusing species being listed as endangered — some unimportant insect, mollusk, or weed. The most endangered species of all might be Homo Sapiens, “the wise ape.” That would be us, and should we end up on the list it might be time to consider coming up with a new scientific name for humanity. In a previous posting, “Overshoot-and Collapse: A Model for Our Future?” posted August 6, 2006, I suggested a possible candidate should we end up as prime examples of extinct species: Homo Stupidus. Let’s hope we turn out to be smarter than that.

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