The polar bear debate

Even if you missed the WSJ‘s take this week about the announcement that the big fuzzy white predators will be classified as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, you can probably guess they weren’t so enthusiastic. They borrowed the global warming camp’s classic charge that politics wrongly trumps science in the American debate, citing a ...

605049_BearPop5.gif
605049_BearPop5.gif

Even if you missed the WSJ's take this week about the announcement that the big fuzzy white predators will be classified as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act, you can probably guess they weren't so enthusiastic. They borrowed the global warming camp's classic charge that politics wrongly trumps science in the American debate, citing a growing polar bear population over the last few decades as evidence that the threat to the "majestic" carnivore isn't real. It's all political manipulation, they cried, and it could lead us down the dangerous road to (gasp!) federally mandated reductions in greenhouse gases.

It's interesting that the WSJ took such umbrage at the possibility that a species could be considered "threatened" based on future projections of the quality (or existence) of its habitat. We're already seeing evidence that the bears' polar habitat is retreating and breaking up. To back up its claim that the bears are better off than ever, the WSJ notes that some Canadians consider the bears overabundant, a fact the rest of us may "have difficulty grasping." But that sense of overabundance likely stems from the fact that bears are pushing into areas populated by humans in order to forage for food because the ice shelves on which they hunt are rapidly retreating. 

I asked Bill Stanley, director of the Global Climate Change Initiative at the Nature Conservancy, if he had any reaction to the WSJ's argument. He had this to say:

Even if you missed the WSJ‘s take this week about the announcement that the big fuzzy white predators will be classified as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, you can probably guess they weren’t so enthusiastic. They borrowed the global warming camp’s classic charge that politics wrongly trumps science in the American debate, citing a growing polar bear population over the last few decades as evidence that the threat to the “majestic” carnivore isn’t real. It’s all political manipulation, they cried, and it could lead us down the dangerous road to (gasp!) federally mandated reductions in greenhouse gases.

It’s interesting that the WSJ took such umbrage at the possibility that a species could be considered “threatened” based on future projections of the quality (or existence) of its habitat. We’re already seeing evidence that the bears’ polar habitat is retreating and breaking up. To back up its claim that the bears are better off than ever, the WSJ notes that some Canadians consider the bears overabundant, a fact the rest of us may “have difficulty grasping.” But that sense of overabundance likely stems from the fact that bears are pushing into areas populated by humans in order to forage for food because the ice shelves on which they hunt are rapidly retreating. 

I asked Bill Stanley, director of the Global Climate Change Initiative at the Nature Conservancy, if he had any reaction to the WSJ‘s argument. He had this to say:

There are generally numerous threats to species, some are more immediate and some are more chronic or farther off into the future. Even though some populations may be bouncing back now because of reduction or removal of some immediate threats, the looming threat of climate change is likely to undermine much of that progress.

This debate shouldn’t just be about the size of the polar bear population. They’re not the only wildlife that will be put at risk by warming temperatures. According to peer-reviewed scientific studies, fully one-fourth of Earth’s species may be headed for extinction by 2050 if the emissions and associated warming continues at its current rate. Wouldn’t our time and efforts be better spent debating how best to protect them -and us – from the the disastrous consequences of climate change?

Indeed.

Carolyn O'Hara is a senior editor at Foreign Policy.

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