Polar Bears, Climate Change, and Human Dignity

By | December 14, 2008

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Polar bears are recognized worldwide as living symbols of the Arctic, and have recently become prominent symbols in international campaigns to combat global climate change. On May 14, 2008 a slightly different symbolic association was presented to the world. Against a backdrop of American flags and large photos of polar bears, the US Secretary of the Interior announced his government’s decision to list polar bears worldwide as a threatened species due to declining Arctic sea ice. Explicit in the same announcement was the current US administration’s clear determination to prevent this listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) from being used to regulate greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) or obstruct energy developments deemed vital to US interests.

While at first glance this listing may seem like a victory in the fight against climate change, the outcomes are likely to be complex and may take some time to become clear. Legal challenges have already begun, from environmental groups seeking to force governmental action on GHGs, the State of Alaska challenging the US government’s science, and aggrieved American hunters who can no longer import the polar bear hides from their guided hunts in Canada. A new US administration might very well decide to take action on GHGs, but the initial decision will at the very least delay development of substantive, practical, and effective polar bear conservation policies which are urgently needed. The primary criterion for appraising any policy decision is whether it is likely to resolve the problem it is intended to address: the “threatened” listing fails this most basic test. Further, that decision ensures that the only costs of listing polar bears are borne by a relatively few US citizens – plus the Canadian Inuit and Inuvialuit communities that, until this spring, derived an important source of seasonal income from those hunts. What, if anything, should be done?