05/15/2008 11:56 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Interior Department vs. The Polar Bears

It's good (and also unusual) that the Bush administration has yielded to the scientists and declared the polar bear a threatened species. But it's clear from the press release that the Interior Department has little sympathy for the plight of beleaguered bear populations.

In making the announcement, Kempthorne said, "I am also announcing that this listing decision will be accompanied by administrative guidance and a rule that defines the scope of impact my decision will have, in order to protect the polar bear while limiting the unintended harm to the society and economy of the United States."

Kempthorne further stated, "While the legal standards under the ESA compel me to list the polar bear as threatened, I want to make clear that this listing will not stop global climate change or prevent any sea ice from melting. Any real solution requires action by all major economies for it to be effective. That is why I am taking administrative and regulatory action to make certain the ESA isn't abused to make global warming policies.

It's sad, first of all, that the Interior Department announces important environmental protection initiatives in coded language indicating its intent to undermine them. If our government worked as it's supposed to, agencies would actually follow the dictates of the Endangered Species Act (which was passed by Congress and thus reflects the national will on the topic). They would follow the science. They would work to harmonize the interests of stakeholders -- including the business interests that Kempthorne seeks to placate -- in pursuing a particular policy goal.

This civics-book description is of course imperfect and naive. Things never really work that way. Local and special interest politics infuse all decision-making to varying degrees. But it at least provides a kind of legal/ethical framework for action, with government agencies approximating honest brokers. In the case of polar bears, of course you want to integrate, not segregate, ESA from your overall approach to climate change. This is something we should be doing right now, not forswearing it as a threat to "the society and economy of the United States."

The problem is that this process has been systematically politicized and corrupted, and environmental policy has become a kind of shell game where the challenge for people interested in sensible policies is to discover just how bad the giveaway, or the dodge, really is. It will take some time to unwind this knot, which has undermined not just the functioning of government but public confidence in its ability to accomplish concrete goals.