Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne pleased everyone from the Audubon Society to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Wednesday with his decision to list the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.
The listing was a scientific decision and Kempthorne followed the science. Then he proposed a few new rules he hopes will eliminate the impact on oil and gas drilling and Arctic shipping. He also wrote rules he hopes prevents environmentalists from suing to use the Endangered Species Act’s Section 7 provision, which requires unequivocally the federal government take no action to jeopardize the survival of the bear. He especially wants to keep them from suing to use Section 7 to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
His Interior scientists and wildlife officials say even if environmentalists try to sue without the new rules, the science isn’t good enough to link a coal-fired power plant to the survival of the bear population. The models are just not yet that good.
That won’t stop Kiran Suckling, the policy director of the Center for Biological Diversity, the group that has made a crusade of forcing the federal government to list all species they believe are threatened and endangered. He told me he’s going to sue to force the Interior Department to designate critical habitat for the bear, which would give them a lower bar to prove activities are harming the bear.
Then he’s hoping to make his case on a larger scale, suing all coal fired plants and linking them to the taking of bear habitat by causing the loss of sea lice with global warming.
Not all environmental groups agree that the Endangered Species Act is the appropriate tool for reversing climate change caused by humans. Betsy Loyless, senior vice president of the Audubon Society takes a different approach.
“What will save the polar bear and protect us all is comprehensive global warming legislation that commits to reducing greenhouse gases and creating a clean energy economy,” Loyless said.
Even regional economy lawsuits like the northern spotted Owl, which caused a transition in the rural economies of Oregon and Washington, or the current lawsuit over salmon pale in comparison to what consulting on every major decision the federal government makes on energy would mean. I would not be surprised if Suckling won such a lawsuit and Congress, a Democratic Congress even, would change the Endangered Species Act overnight facing the reality of such chaos.
But Suckling, disagrees. He believes the Endangered Species Act and all environmental laws will play useful and not so dramatic roles in regulating greenhouse gases.
His challenge and the challenge all environmentalists face in addressing climate change is demonstrating there is a crisis and showing they themselves are prepared to allow society to take the risks necessary to resolve this global crisis. The problem with the Endangered Species Act is it inherently makes no priorities if the law is followed to a T.
But we as a society will have to make priorities. Some will be extremely painful to people, often powerless people. Some ecological choices also will be made.
Clear out all the details and Kempthorne made the choice to save the polar bear. It will be up to his successors to ensure that happens.