The U.S. Department of Interior has just listed the polar bear as a "threatened" species, that is legally and technically different than being listed as "endangered."
The Feds based their announcement on studies by government scientists. Global warming is reducing Arctic sea ice off the Alaskan and Canadan coasts. This is expected to result in two-thirds of the polar bears disappearing by mid-century. Polar bears depend on polar ice floes to aid their hunting of seals and other under-ice prey. Without the arctic ice sheets the polar bears are not going to be able to find food, according to the predictions. Not every polar bear can live at the city landfill in Churchill on Hudson's Bay.
"Threatened" v "endangered"--what's it all about? It's about the money and the oil, of course. This is America, 2008. You think our government cares about polar bears?
I spoke briefly with Andrew Wetzler, he's Director of the Endangered Species Project with the Natural Resources Defense Council. He said today's polar bear decision is a watershed event. It means the federal government has now openly acknowledged the effects of global in the Arctic. How big a deal is this? Real big, as in big business. Bloomberg News caters to the moneyed and professional investor. Their headline says it all, "Polar Bear Is First Species Protected Because of Climate Change." And this has happened while Dick Cheney is still in office. Can you foresee what could happen in 2009?
Wetzler says "T" is almost as good as "E" in terms of protection. No governmental permits may be issued affecting the polar bear without all concerned government agencies having a say. He indicated the current US government believes it can still go ahead with pet projects in Alaska for oil and gas exploration and exploitation. However, Wetzler says it's not likely any of those projects would be found legal by the courts as NRDC believes they violate the Endangered Species Act. With less than nine months left in power it is not clear how much the current administraton can do to carry out their energy agenda in the Alaskan habitat of the polar bear. And no move affecting the polar bear in Alaska will go without a court challenge, that's clear enough.
Why does this bear watching if you're following greentech? It bears directly on the politics and financing of various fossil fuel and cleantech approaches to American energy independence, the price of gasoline, the cost of electricity and various related economic factors driving the current interest in cleantech. This polar bear decision and the clear global warming admission make it highly unlikely that further oil drilling will proceed quickly in the U.S. Arctic territory. It also gives some legal life to battles over effects of global warming, such as the lawsuit on behalf of the Inuit in Kivalina, Alaska. Environmental groups see the Kivalina case as their version of the massive lawsuits brought against tobacco companies over prolonged health effects and resulting medical costs of smoking cigarettes. You want to see just how worried big business is: here's their take on the Kivalina lawsuit.
Meanwhile the Corps of Engineers is taking their brilliant flood-prevention successes around New Orleans and parlaying that into a move to save Kivalina from the angry sea. Mark this down: the federal government is spending four million dollars to prevent the natural effects of global warming at Kivalina. As such efforts become more desparate, more common and much more expensive, the costs of our various manmade wars may unfortunately begin to look miniscule. How much are we now putting into protecting New Orleans? What's Miami worth? Or Houston? At some point even Congress will understand that curtailing global warming saves money and protects jobs. Duh.