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Polar Bears on Thin Ice

March 8, 2007

The environmental movement arguably started with the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, serialized in the New Yorker in June 1962. By the time she died in 1964 from breast cancer, Ms. Carson shook up the American public, not to mention the chemical industry, and began the long march toward government mandated controls on the release of toxins into the environment. Her contributions as a scientist and writer were recognized by Time Magazine when it named her as one of the Most Important People of the 20th Century. She predicted in Silent Spring that the continued indiscriminate use of pesticides would have an unintended collateral effect on other species, “On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of scores of bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.” By evoking the image of a silent spring, Ms. Carson was the first “environmentalist” to use imagery to motivate public opinion. The next time the environmental movement effectively used imagery to influence public opinion was not until the second annual Earth Day in 1971 – when Keep America Beautiful aired a sixty second video of an actor portraying a Native American with a tear in his eye.

Why am I going old school with references to Rachel Carson and Iron Eyes Cody with his fake glycerin tear? Because the W is running scared about the use of another potent image that could galvanize the American public on the issue of global warming: a polar bear, floating by on a wayward piece of melting Arctic ice, becoming an endangered species as a result of carbon dioxide being pumped into the environment by US coal-fired power plants. It is a disaster for countries or industries to mess with the big four — polar bears, seal cubs, otters and whales. They are powerful icons for environmentalists.

The link between global climate change and the loss of habitat for the polar bear appears to be a slam dunk. A September 2005 report revealed the polar ice cap has shrunk by more than twenty percent since 1979, losing an area the size of Colorado in 2004 alone. The Arctic sea ice is the polar bears’ habitat and the Arctic sea ice is melting at a rapid rate due to the rise in temperature from global climate change. It was based on this obvious link that the Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Counsel and Greenpeace filed suit in federal court seeking protection of the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act. As a result of the lawsuit, the Bush Administration agreed to propose “threatened” status for the polar bear because it’s ice habitat could vanish within half a century. There are two fundamental flaws in the administration’s proposal, (1) it fails to designate critical habitat areas for the polar bear and (2) it refuses to identify global warming as the cause of the polar bears’ disappearing habitat. It is a mystery how the Fish and Wildlife Service, part of the Interior Department, is going to correct those flaws without butting heads with the W’s stance on global warming.

Under the Endangered Species Act, the Fish and Wildlife Service has a year to gather and study comments on the proposed listing and make a final determination on the polar bear. It must also work out a recovery plan to control and reduce harmful impacts to the species, usually by controlling the activities that cause harm. Two days ago the Fish and Wildlife Service officials said at a public hearing that the law allows them little room to address the broader problems behind the receding ice. The New York Times went on to report that the Fish and Wildlife Service took the position that it may not propose identifying critical habitat for the bear.

It was after reading that innocuous article yesterday that I first realized that the plight of the polar bear is the perfect storm. While it may sound esoteric, the designation of critical habitat is a basic tenet of the Endangered Species Act. The professionals of the Fish and Wildlife Service will be forced to take a position contrary to their understanding on how to protect the polar bear if they are to remain consistent with the W’s global climate change policy. Imagine a microphone in the conference room where Dick was meeting with the officials at the Fish and Wildlife Service to give them their marching orders. It would sound something like this, “Those damn lawsuits require us to save the polar bears because the Arctic sea ice is melting and the polar bears are drowning. While that may be the case, you must not take a position on why the Arctic sea ice is melting. Not only should you not take a position why their habitat is disappearing, but you must propose to do nothing about it. Any questions?” That’s when Hawkeye turns and gives the camera a funny look because Colonel Flag just told him he knows you know that he doesn’t know what you know.

But, as reported in today’s New York Times, the situation just got bit stranger. It appears that Fish and Wildlife Service employees are not permitted to speak about climate change, sea ice or polar bears unless they receive prior written authorization. The directive that was provided to the Times states, “Please be advised that all foreign travel requests (SF 1175 requests) and any future travel requests involving or potentially involving climate change, sea ice and/or polar bears will also require a memorandum from the regional director to the director indicating who’ll be the official spokesman on the trip and the one responding to questions on these issues, particularly polar bears.” (Emphasis added.)

Just how does Dick get away with censoring a scientist in a country built on civil liberties? Pretend you are a marine biologist in Alaska working for the Fish and Wildlife Service and you had to make a routine trip to, say, Canada to speak with your counterparts about the receding summer ice at the Hudson Bay. One of your counterparts begins a discussion and mentions the decrease in the polar bear population. It is your turn to speak, you know you have to say something about polar bears or sea ice, but you remember the “memo.” You furtively look around to see if there are any men in trenchcoats nearby, nonchalantly walk over to the lighting fixture to determine if the room is bugged, and then turn on the radio loudly so you can respond to your counterpart’s question about…polar bears. You know the two Canadians are looking at you like you lost your mind, but they are Canadians and they probably assume you hit the drink cart hard on the flight over. Somewhere George Orwell is smiling.

-Mark K. Dowd

To read other blog entries by Mark K. Dowd on global warming or others at GUERNICA click HERE

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