On Monday, a federal judge struck down a Bush administration rule that prohibited regulation of greenhouse gases under the Endangered Species Act to save polar bears from extinction. That provision has, since 2008, been the biggest hurdle to using all possible means to address the most pressing threat polar bears have ever faced: global warming.
Now that the rule has been tossed out, Obama can -- and should -- tackle this dire threat. The North's great white bears don't have time for more delays and half-measures.
Year by year, the Earth's warming temperatures are robbing polar bears of the Arctic sea ice they need to survive -- the ice where they find their food and raise their young. But last month, scientists at the University of Bremen said that the extent of summer sea ice in the Arctic reached a historic low, retreating by some 50 percent since 1972.
The ice loss has been devastating for polar bears. Scientific literature is now rife with reports of starvation, cannibalism, drowning, more conflicts with people, increased mortality in both adults and cubs, and shrinking populations.
This species is being pushed inexorably toward extinction: Without help, the U.S. Geological Survey predicts that two-thirds of the world's polar bears -- including all polar bears in Alaska -- will probably be gone by 2050.
The Center for Biological Diversity, NRDC and Greenpeace petitioned for, and eventually won, federal protections for the polar bear in 2008 and more than 120 million acres of protected habitat last year. Despite those important steps, the primary threat to polar bears -- global warming, driven by greenhouse gas emissions from tailpipes, smoke stacks and other human sources -- have gone largely unaddressed.
The Endangered Species Act provides important tools to reduce the diverse threats to species -- threats that range from dams that hurt salmon to pesticides that harm frogs to greenhouse gas emissions that kill polar bears. The Bush administration, determined not to regulate greenhouse emissions, issued a rule exempting those emissions from important provisions of the law, so that large polluters couldn't be compelled to reduce their emissions to protect the polar bear. The Endangered Species Act of course isn't the only, or even the leading, law to reduce greenhouse pollution, but it provides an important supplement to the Clean Air Act and other statutes. Environmental laws are designed to work together, after all, and to solve a crisis like climate change we need to use every tool in the box, not padlock the lid down.
On Monday U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan struck down the 4(d) rule, as it's called, saying it violated environmental review provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act. The judge told the Obama administration to redo the rule -- providing an important opening for polar bears to finally get the help they so badly need. While the ruling, unfortunately, does not foreclose a new exemption similar to the last, it forces the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to work through the process of determining how polar bears should be protected.
Unfortunately, there's reason to be concerned. The Obama administration has already come out with a full defense of the Bush administration rule and has refused to give polar bears the best protection possible by designating them as "endangered" under the Endangered Species Act.
Rather than give up, though, we have to demand more and fight at every turn to make sure President Obama secures a future for the polar bear -- the largest and most magnificent bear on the planet -- rather than simply write it off as a casualty of a crisis we could have controlled.