More on the Polar Bear

On December 27th, 2006, I commented on a Washington Post piece (see it here) that reported the George Dubyah Bush administration was proposing that the polar bear be added to the endangered species list due to threats to its ecosystem.

During my comments, I mentioned how it would be interesting to watch if right leaning, pro-business forces would put forth strong efforts to squelch the listing. Well, it took a few days for a response to appear in the right leaning Washington Times, but you can (see here), in a piece written by Steven Milloy, what at least some conservatives think of the proposal.

Quoting from the article:
It's a futile gesture that only signals a weakening in the administration's earlier strong stance against global warming hysteria.

Well, I take strong issue with Steven's implication that anyone worried about global warming is suffering from hysteria, however Steven does raise some reasonable questions about the proposal itself. Steven asks:
Are polar bears endangered? What would the proposal accomplish, given we already protect polar bears under several laws and treaties?

1st: Are polar bears endangered? Steven points out that there is no data proving decreases in the overall polar bear population. However he does acknowledge in a round-about offhand way that there is some evidence that the population is under stress due to changes in their ecosystem.

Steven also takes issue with the allowance of "trophy hunting" of some polar bears while it is being considered adding them to the endangered species list. As Steven reports, the polar bear is already protected under several laws and treaties, however the Steven quotes from the Fish and Wildlife Service's fact sheet on the proposed endangered listing:
Some Native communities in arctic Canada also obtain significant financial benefits from allocating a portion of their overall subsistence quota to trophy hunters from the United States and other nations.

What's the big deal Steven? While the harvesting of whales is restricted to sustainable levels, even harvesting of threatened species are allowed by some native cultures that have long depended on such harvesting through history. I would think conservatives would be praising such native communities if they tried to turn an additional profit on the number of polar bears they are allowed to harvest. Perhaps some wealthy American businessman is allowed to pull the trigger that "bags" the polar bear and make off with the head for mounting on his trophy wall while the natives get to keep the rest of the carcass and the hide for their own use. Meanwhile they also get to cash a healthy check for the "trophy" rights to the kill that garners more economically for their community then what could be realized if they kept the head of the bear for themselves. Steven has a problem with this? Sounds to me like Steven is complaining about native communities practicing good business sense. Heck, we can't have any of that now, can we?

Steven points out that the FWS proposal is grounded upon the projected threat to polar bears due to the loss of their sea-ice habitat as it melts due to global warming. He then tries to take aim at the science proving the Arctic ice cap is melting with:

No one knows exactly what's happening with Arctic sea ice, much less what the future holds. The Greenland ice melt, for example, was actually larger in 1991 than in 2005 and the Greenland ice cap is thickening.

OK, the Greenland ice cap, at its center, is increasing in thickness. Why is this happening? One reasonable explanation I have heard is that due to increased levels of water vapor in the area there is increased levels of snowfall. Glaciers are formed due to snowfall after all. As each new layer of snowfall occurs, it adds its weight to the layers of snow below it and the glacier ice results at the lower levels due to weight from the layers above. However at the outer edges of the Greenland ice cap it is melting faster then new ice is forming. There is a net loss of ice as a result. The Greenland ice cap might not disappear, that is uncertain, however it is going to decrease in size. In other areas of the Arctic, evidence of loss of Arctic ice is just overwhelming. Steven might "almost" be reasonable in saying no one knows "exactly" what is happening, however to imply that it is not certain whether or not Arctic ice is melting at a phenomenal rate in the same statement is ludicrous.

However Steven does reasonably point out that polar bears have survived what science indicates were warmer periods in their ecosystem in the past. Apparently past generations of polar bears eventually learned to adapt back then, so they could reasonably be expected to learn to adapt once again. Perhaps their overall population might dwindle somewhat as they learned to adapt, however in the past they survived in sufficient numbers to "explode" in population once favorable colder conditions occurred in their ecosystem.

2nd: What would the proposal accomplish? As Steven asks:
But even giving the proposal the benefit of the doubt, will it accomplish anything? When I asked Mr. Kempthorne that question -- noting even if the polar bear habit was shrinking because of melting ice there isn't a credible climate scientist in the world who believes anything could be done to stop the melting...
I think Steven scores a bulls eye with this question. Even if mankind slips into the yoke and really tries to pull together to turn back greenhouse gas emissions today, changes are not going to happen quickly enough to save the polar bear's ecosystem. Polar bears are going to be forced to adapt to the new environment that they experience just as many other species are that are being stressed due to global warming. Simply listing the polar bear as endangered is not going to change this.

Personally, I do not have a problem with polar bears being listed as an endangered species. Even if little to nothing can be done to save the polar bear, that does not preclude the listing. The ecosystem it thrives in is disappearing. While the species was able to adapt to changes in its environment in the past, this does not prove success in adaptation in the future. I think a reasonable case can be made that the polar bear truly is endangered. Even if the polar bear is capable of adapting, will the species they use as food sources also be successful in adapting? Listing the polar bear is only stating they are in danger of extinction, not that extinction is certain.

So why, really, does Steven have a problem with the proposal? Let's look at his concluding statement:
It's distressing that the Bush administration is opening the door for the all-important issue of global warming regulation to be influenced more by our embrace of a soda mascot rather than science.

Steven does not like the fact that such a listing might put pressure on our American society, and our human species, to do something about global warming. To me it is distressing that he will sometimes (although not always) resort to junk science in order to argue against it.


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