On February 19th, the Obama administration officially declared that greenhouse gas regulations are outside the scope of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), stating that activities outside of the bear’s natural habitat should not be regulated. In particular, the ruling is meant to point out that coal plants from, for example, central US should not be under regulation by the ESA despite the fact that the coal plant’s emissions are directly contributing to global warming. This new ruling by the Fish and Wildlife Service will have a direct impact on polar bears since global warming and shrinking ice caps are the animal’s major cause of death. This ruling stems from a court-ordered review by the US District Court for the District of Columbia. Ultimately, the court agreed with the ruling that the ESA is not an appropriate piece of legislature for regulating greenhouse gases.
Despite being listed as threatened in 2008, and despite comments by the Obama administration stating concern for the polar bear’s survival, it seems that the new ruling will ultimately render the ESA useless in protecting the polar bear from extinction. Without stricter regulations that protect the bear’s natural habitat, more than two-thirds of the planet’s polar bears will be gone by 2050. In 2012, the area of sea ice across the arctic reached a record low – a mere 1.32 million miles, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Centre. By comparison, the average size of summer ice between 1979 and 2000 was almost 3 million miles, double last year’s area. To recall, polar bears depend on arctic ice as a natural habitat and as a means for hunting. The rapid reduction of arctic ice due to global warming translates into rapid ecosystem changes, in turn sending polar bear populations into abrupt decline.
With greenhouse gas regulation playing such a crucial role in maintaining the world’s polar bear species, many eco-activists have responded strongly against the recent rulings. One of the major voices is Brendan Cummings, a spokesperson from the Centre of Biological Diversity. “Global warming is triggering an Arctic meltdown that threatens the bear’s place on the planet,” said Cummings in an official statement. “These amazing animals need the Endangered Species Act’s full protection — not this hollow half-measure that ignores the mortal danger that polar bears are in from greenhouse gas emissions.”
While I do share the disappointment over the lack of proper polar bear legislation, I agree with the courts that the ESA is not an appropriate medium for greenhouse gas regulation. New and more specific legislation needs to be created in order to reduce emissions instead of tackling the issue through polar bear preservation. Hopefully, the Obama administration will keep its promise to create progressive environmental legislation – if not for the polar bear’s survival, at the very least for our own.