Sunday, May 18, 2008

Is the Polar Bears’ Predicament a Sign of Things to Come?

What has happened over the past couple of decades that has landed the mighty polar bear on the "threatened" list under the Endangered Species Act? Scientists believe that at least two-thirds of the world's polar bears will be gone within 40 years. The U.S. Geological Survey has confirmed that the biggest concern for the bears’ future is the shrinking Arctic sea ice, which is quickly reducing the size of the bear’s habitat. Heightened controversy over the status of the polar bear is tied to the fact that this is the first time a species has been considered for listing specifically because its habitat is threatened by global warming.

"This decision is a watershed event because it has forced the Bush administration to acknowledge global warming's brutal impacts," said Kassie Siegel, climate program director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

But some say the decision is just lip service and ignores the real issues. Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Massachusetts, Chairman of the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming told CNN in that "After years of delay, the Bush administration was forced to face the reality that global warming has endangered the polar bear and that the polar bear needs to be placed on the Endangered Species Act. But the administration has also simultaneously announced a rule aimed at allowing oil and gas drilling in the Arctic to continue unchecked even in the face of the polar bear's threatened extinction. Essentially, the administration is giving a gift to Big Oil, and short shrift to the polar bear."

There are currently around 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears now in the Arctic wild. The polar bear population had actually been recovering since the late 1960’s thanks in part to another protective law, the Marine Mammal Protection Act. However, the “best scientific data available” from the U.S. Geological Survey and other organizations, indicates that bears’ luck is about to run out. They are now having an increasingly difficult time, which will only worsen. They are a species that is “likely to become endangered of extinction within the foreseeable future” due to the worrisome trends with Arctic ice. Overall, scientists believe the future is not a bright one for the bears.

In announcing the new threatened listing, Secretary of the Interior, Dirk Kempthorne, seemed to be feeling a little threatened himself. He was very quick to point out that the decision should not be "misused" to regulate global climate change. Kempthorne also quoted US President Bush on the matter trying to reemphasize the fact that the burgeoning oil and natural gas development in the region should not be blamed.

"Listing the polar bear as threatened can reduce avoidable losses of polar bears. But it should not open the door to use of the Endangered Species Act to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles, power plants, and other sources," said Kempthorne. "That would be a wholly inappropriate use of the ESA law. The ESA is not the right tool to set U.S. climate policy."

Kempthorne’s wording seemed to reflect concessions common to the overall climate debate. Beliefs about global warming seem to be largely split two ways. The vast majority of scientists believe the accumulated evidence indicating that global warming will have dire consequences to Earth’s diverse biology, but big industrial companies and lobbyists, along with a small minority of scientists, say it’s either nothing to worry about or it’s something we can’t do anything about either way.

Critics say that oil companies and industrial lobbyists are too quick to downplay human involvement in climate change say that they are primarily motivated by greed and that there stance is both short-sighted and dangerous. A “lets wait and see” attitude doesn’t cut it for many scientists who believe that without immediate and considerable action to stem the effects of man-made climate changes, it could quickly become too late.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) comprised of climate experts from around the globe, the Arctic Sea could be ice-free in the summer by as early as 2040, and that winter ice depth may shrink drastically. The IPCC also predicted that once global oil production peaks between 2008 and 2018 there will be a global recession. Once “Hubbert's” Peak is reached, global oil production will begin an irreversible decline, possibly triggering a global recession, food shortages and conflict between nations over dwindling oil supplies, the IPCC predicted last summer.

But for now it’s the Arctic that is really feeling the heat. According to a recent PBS report “there's no doubt the Arctic is warming. In fact, this extreme region has warmed faster than any other on earth, with the Arctic temperature increasing three to five times faster than the Earth as a whole over the past 100 years. Climate models predict that the Arctic will become an additional 7 to 12 degrees Fahrenheit warmer during the next century…With the Arctic experiencing the most rapid and severe climate change on Earth, the plants and animals that have evolved to survive in this extreme habitat come increasingly under threat. Like the canary in the coalmine, the Arctic can serve as our early warning sign of impending climate change. Observing the tumultuous change its inhabitants are experiencing can be a lesson to us about the changes in store for the rest of the world.”

Posted by Rebecca Sato

Original here

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