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Climate Scientists, Biologists and Groups Representing Millions of Americans Ask Obama to Follow Science in Determining Polar Bears’ Fate
WASHINGTON - December 14 - More than 150 biologists and climate scientists today called on the Obama administration to follow the best available science in deciding the level of protection polar bears will get under the Endangered Species Act. The letters were submitted to the Department of the Interior as the agency faces a court-imposed deadline next week on whether polar bears, which are acutely imperiled by global warming, should continue to be classified merely as "threatened" or given maximum protection as "endangered." At the same time, more than 140 public-interest groups representing millions of Americans also sent a letter to Interior today urging that polar bears be protected as an endangered species.
"There's broad consensus that rapid climate change in the Arctic is hurting polar bears right now and the U.S. government needs to take aggressive action to pull this majestic species back from the brink of extinction," said Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity's Climate Law Institute and author of the petition that led to Endangered Species Act listing for the bear in 2008. "It doesn't do polar bears, or any of the rest of us, any good to treat climate change as a problem to be solved by future generations - not when the devastating effects are already being felt right now."
Many polar bear populations are already declining. The bears' less-protective "threatened" designation allowed the Bush administration to exempt the primary threat facing the bear, namely greenhouse gas pollution, from important regulatory programs under the Act. The Center and other groups have argued in federal court that the bears need the most protection possible to avoid the worst effects of climate change.
The letter from climate scientists discusses the rapid and accelerating melting of Arctic sea ice and urges Interior to "acknowledge that anthropogenic climate change poses not just a distant, future threat to Arctic sea ice, but a current threat to this important habitat of the polar bear and other ice-dependent species."
"Many climate scientists, like myself, study climate change by poring over large data sets and running climate model simulations. Global warming can at times seem very distant, almost an abstract concept," said Dr. Michael E. Mann, professor of meteorology at Penn State University. "When I ventured up to Hudson Bay in mid-November and saw the undernourished polar bears with their cubs, sitting around at the shore of the Hudson Bay, waiting for the then month-overdue sea ice to arrive so they could begin hunting for food, it suddenly came home for me. For the first time in my life, I actually saw climate change unfolding before my eyes. It was a sobering moment, and one I'll never forget."
In a second letter, more than 140 biologists urge the Obama government to reverse an argument it has advanced in the litigation - that extinction must be "imminent" before a species may be listed as endangered. The biologists' letter states that "we believe it is wrong to argue that a species may never be listed as ‘endangered,' absent a showing that extinction is imminent," and that the narrow definition advanced by Interior in the litigation "is contrary to language of the Endangered Species Act, inconsistent with the current list of threatened and endangered species, and will limit protections for species known to be at risk of extinction."
In a third letter, a broad alliance of more than 140 faith, human-rights, social justice and environmental groups called on Interior Secretary Ken Salazar today to "fully acknowledge the reality and science of climate change in the Arctic, and grant polar bears full protection as an ‘endangered' species." An additional letter, sent from the heads of the nation's largest environmental groups, was sent to Salazar last week.
Interior has until Dec. 23 to respond to a November court ruling by U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan that ordered the Department of the Interior to reexamine its 2008 decision to list the polar bear as "threatened" rather than "endangered." Secretary Salazar has so far defended the Bush-era "threatened" designation, claiming that threats to the species are only of concern in the future - notwithstanding the fact that polar bears are already drowning and starving as a result of sea-ice loss, with many populations declining. Scientists predict that if greenhouse gas trends continue, two-thirds of the world's polar bears, including all the bears in Alaska, will probably be gone in 40 years and possibly well before then.
"Global warming is not just a future threat for the polar bear or for the rest of us. It's here now," said Siegel. "The Obama government needs to acknowledge the reality that global warming has arrived and grant the polar bear the ‘endangered' status it desperately needs."