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Polar Bears Listed as ‘Threatened’ Due to Loss of Arctic Ice

May 14, 2008 at 6:45 PM EDT
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In a highly anticipated decision, the Interior Department on Wednesday declared the polar bear "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act because of shrinking Arctic ice due to global warming. Two analysts consider the impact of the decision.
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, the government officially declared today polar bears are a threatened species, but the debate is hardly over about how to protect them. Jeffrey Brown has our Science Unit story.

JEFFREY BROWN: Long a symbol of the rich life of the Arctic, the polar bear has also come to represent the threat of global warming. Today, it became the first animal to be listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act because of the loss of its habitat due to climate change.

The U.S. Geological Survey predicts that two-thirds of the 20,000 to 25,000 polar bear population today could be lost within 50 years, as temperatures rise and sea ice disappears. Polar bears depend on sea ice for hunting seals, their primary food.

After a federal court gave the Bush administration a deadline to reach a long-delayed decision on the matter, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne made today’s announcement.

DIRK KEMPTHORNE, U.S. Interior Secretary: Computer modeling projects significant population decline by the year 2050. This, in my judgment, makes the polar bear a threatened species, one likely to become in danger of extinction in the foreseeable future.

JEFFREY BROWN: But the decision also allows continued production of oil and other energy in the Arctic region.

Global warming key factor in ruling

JEFFREY BROWN: And we discuss today's decision now with Andrew Wetzler, director of the Endangered Species Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council. The NRDC was one of three environmental groups that sued the Interior Department to list the polar bears as a threatened species.

And Lyle Laverty is the assistant secretary for fish, wildlife and parks at the Department of the Interior.

Well, Mr. Laverty, to be clear just to start here, is the administration saying that there is a direct link between greenhouse gas emissions and the plight of the polar bear?

LYLE LAVERTY, Department of Interior: Jeffrey, the listing today acknowledges the fact that we've lost habitat, which is sea ice, which is essential for polar bear survival. And I think that recognition, very clear from what's happened across the Arctic, in terms of dramatic losses over the last 30 years of sea ice.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that is directly from greenhouse gas emissions?

LYLE LAVERTY: We acknowledge that there's warming. There is warming across the climate and across the globe. And I think this is a very clear result.

JEFFREY BROWN: Andrew Wetzler, your group, as I said, was one of those that brought suit to gain these protections. What's your reaction today?

ANDREW WETZLER, Natural Resources Defense Council: Well, I think that this is a major step forward to protecting the polar bear and -- I'm sorry, I have terrible feedback in my ear -- to protecting the polar bear and to acknowledging the threat that global warming poses to not just the polar bear, but all animals in the Arctic and, in fact, wildlife around the world.

And just to respond to what Mr. Laverty said, the U.S. government based its decision to protect the polar bear on computer modeling that were based on the reality of global warming.

So acknowledging that sea ice is likely to disappear and acknowledging that that is going to threaten polar bears with extinction is an admission that global warming is real and is driving the species to extinction, because all of the science that they're using to base that decision on is global warming science.

Disagreement on protections

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we'll try to fix your earpiece there. Appreciate your patience.

Let me ask Mr. Laverty, what exactly are the protections? What happens now? What changes happen because of this designation?

LYLE LAVERTY: Well, Jeffrey, there are several steps in the endangered species law. And the first step is simply what the secretary did today, and that is to designate the bear as a threatened species.

And the next steps in the process require us then to begin to develop a recovery plan and identify habitat, critical habitat. So that becomes the next steps that would be taking place in the protection of the bear.

And when you begin to identify habitat, that starts looking at, what are those essential elements that are going to be necessary for the bears' survival? And we know that the ice becomes critical for their denning. It's critical, certainly, for their feeding.

And how we begin to move on that step is going to be the next important step in the process.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Mr. Wetzler, your group put out a press release and you referred to loopholes that you found in today's decision, while praising it as a step forward. What are your concerns? What's not being done here?

ANDREW WETZLER: Well, unfortunately, the administration, although acknowledging that the bear needs to be protected, is really attempting to sweep under the rug any responsibility to deal with the cause of the endangerment of polar bears, and that's global warming.

And they've done that in a way of really questionable legality, by simply saying, "We're just not going to deal with global warming in the Endangered Species Act because we don't want to," and without any sort of a case-by-case examination of particular sources of global warming pollution and their effect on polar bears. And that's really what the law requires.

JEFFREY BROWN: What's your response?

LYLE LAVERTY: Well, I think the important part of this, Jeffrey, is that the Endangered Species Act was never designed to be the monitoring vehicle to deal with climate change and global warming.

As we deal with this issue as a national public policy, we should not be using the Endangered Species Act, which was never designed to be a model to set this kind of standard. But we need to debate this in a much broader context, because this is really a very international issue. It's a global issue.

The factors that affect climate change, as we look at carbon emissions, are global in nature. And it's not just the United States.

But we need to be looking at, how do we develop that kind of a policy statement on a much broader context and not use the Endangered Species Act, which was never designed to take care of a climate model's...

ESA used to attack global warming?

JEFFREY BROWN: Right, but the obvious question, I guess, is how do you -- if you've made the link, then how do you protect the polar bears without taking some kind of action about the emissions that cause the problem?

LYLE LAVERTY: Well, I think there are a number of factors that have to play into the equation and how we deal with this. One of them is, you know, the law is very clear that we can't -- you have to have a causal connection. You have to be able to -- as one of the courts has talked about, you have to be able to connect the dots.

So emissions from your tailpipe, we've got to be able to connect that specifically back to bear habitat. We just -- the technology and science is not there to do that.

The act today, the listing today is really based on probably the best available science that we have in the world about polar bears. I think the United States is blessed with incredible science, so we've been able to make that determination.

But we don't have the science or the technology to say, "Emissions from here are going to be the direct link to impacting the bear in the Arctic."

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Mr. Wetzler, how do you respond to that? That would seem to be the issue: Can you make the link between a specific facility or activity to the plight of the particular polar bears and take some kind of action? Do you think that the industry and energy work that goes on there can coexist with protecting the polar bears?

ANDREW WETZLER: Well, I absolutely do think that industrial activity can coexist with protecting polar bears, but I do think that what we just heard was a misstatement of the laws.

The Supreme Court made very clear in their landmark global warming decision last year, you don't need to solve the entire problem in order to address something through America's environmental laws.

Nobody is suggesting that the Endangered Species Act is a silver bullet that's going to solve our problem with global warming, but it's a tool that we can use, just like the Clean Air Act is a tool or the National Environmental Policy Act is a tool.

I am heartened, however, to hear Mr. Laverty acknowledge that we do need comprehensive federal legislation to deal with global warming. And there's a bill like that. It's called the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act that's pending in the Senate right now.

Some say yes, others, no

JEFFREY BROWN: Expand on -- you mentioned this earlier, but Interior Secretary Kempthorne today emphasized repeatedly that the act, the Endangered Species Act, is not to be used to regulate greenhouse gases. Now, what exactly is he concerned about?

LYLE LAVERTY: Well, I think what we want -- we need to use the act as the tool it was designed to do, and it was designed to protect species. You know, as we begin to deal with climate change and the factors that are, in fact, influencing climate change, we need to have that policy discussion that captures the broader context of, how do we hook those pieces together?

The act was very clear. It was designed to protect species. And as we look at the conservation measures that we have to take to protect species, certainly one of the factors is habitat. That becomes a very important element for to us consider, as you look at the recovery and the protection of the species.

One of the things that we've talked about, Jeffrey, is the importance of gathering even more information. And knowledge becomes an important part of it, because, as I mentioned, we have a great body of knowledge that we've put together to come up with this listing rule.

But the other part is that we have a lot that we don't know. We don't know, what is the bears' response to that loss in ice? We're starting to do some things. And we talked with the Canadians about, how can we work together to gather additional information?

We don't have good information about bear populations. We have good information in some population segments, but, from the population as a whole, we don't have good information there.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, let me just go to Mr. Wetzler, because we just have about 30 seconds left. But what do you want to happen next? What do you want to see done?

ANDREW WETZLER: Well, the federal government absolutely has to move to protect the polar bears' critical habitat. We need to pass comprehensive global warming legislation to deal with the problem.

And I would hope that the administration will eventually abandon the kind of backdoor exemptions that they're trying to jam through that would gut the Endangered Species Act's protections for global warming and polar bears. And if they don't, we're going to have to take them to court, I'm afraid.

JEFFREY BROWN: Potential court case again.

LYLE LAVERTY: Here we are.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK, excuse me. Lyle Laverty and Andrew Wetzler, thank you both very much.

ANDREW WETZLER: Thank you.

LYLE LAVERTY: Thank you.