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Bear Necessities

Friday, May 23, 2008

It was foolish of the Bush administration to designate the polar bear as an endangered species.

On March 10, three prominent environmental groups—the Center for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace, and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)—sued the Bush administration for being slow in deciding whether to list the polar bear as an endangered species. Last week, the administration gave them exactly what they wanted: Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne announced that the polar bear would be classified as “threatened” under the 1973 Endangered Species Act (ESA). The three green groups responded with…another lawsuit. 

They are suing to negate the safeguards that the administration put in place to avoid having the ESA used as a back door for the enactment of greenhouse gas regulations. This new suit was inevitable, since encouraging such back-door regulations was the primary reason the green groups lobbied to have polar bears declared endangered in the first place. They made this objective clear in a press release issued prior to Kempthorne’s May 14 announcement. 

“Listing the polar bear,” the groups said, “guarantees federal agencies will be obligated to ensure that any action they authorize, fund, or carry out will not jeopardize the polar bears’ continued existence or adversely modify their critical habitat, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will be required to prepare a recovery plan for the polar bear, specifying measures necessary for its protection.” 

This is one reason why it was foolish of the Interior Department to add the polar bear to the endangered species list. Anyone who thought that environmental groups would settle for half a loaf—a “threatened” listing with caveats—has failed to learn the lessons of history. Environmental groups are, by their nature, extreme in their desires: they are single-value groups that subordinate all other concerns to the preservation of nature. Given their skill at judge-shopping, Interior’s fig-leaf provisions are likely to wither in court like a houseplant under a blowtorch. 

Rather than bow to pressure from environmentalists, the Interior Department should have taken the opportunity to explain that computerized climate models are not science.

But there’s another reason why it was foolish to list the polar bear: contrary to the face-saving, “science made me do it” rhetoric of Interior Secretary Kempthorne, there is no scientific basis for the claim that polar bears are threatened by human-induced global warming. 

What little data are available show that polar bear populations are twice as large as they were 40 years ago, numbering between 20,000 and 25,000. This population growth is backed up by local experts such as Mitch Taylor, a Canadian government biologist who has spent 20 years studying polar bears. “There aren’t just a few more bears; there are a hell of a lot more bears,” Taylor said recently. Long-term scientific evidence of polar bear survival for 100,000 years indicates that polar bears are not fragile “canaries in the coal mine.” Rather, they are robust animals that have survived for millennia, enduring vast swings in the climate that affected their habitat. 

The only thing suggesting that polar bears are threatened is computerized fortune-telling. To believe that polar bears are truly endangered, one must believe that computerized climate models can predict, not only global average temperature changes caused by greenhouse gases, but also regional temperature changes and secondary climate impacts, which they manifestly cannot. As a 2007 study in the International Journal of Climatology observed, real world data find no heating in the layer of the atmosphere where the 22 best global climate models predict there should be the most heating. Regional models are even less reliable.

Environmental groups have long used charismatic megafauna—large, attractive animals—as poster children in deceptive crusades to shield nature from human “exploitation.” But never before has the megafauna tactic had such far-ranging consequences. With world energy prices soaring, the polar bear’s status as an endangered species could be used to prevent much-needed oil exploration. Rather than bow to green pressure, the Interior Department should have taken the opportunity to explain that computerized climate models are not science.                                                                               

Kenneth P. Green, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of “Is the Polar Bear Endangered, or Just Conveniently Charismatic?”

Image by Getty Images/ The Bergman Group.

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