WASHINGTON— After months of high-profile statements about climate change, the Obama administration today finalized a special rule that fails to protect polar bears from greenhouse gas pollution under the Endangered Species Act. The new regulation is modeled on a previous Bush-administration measure excluding activities occurring outside the polar bear’s habitat — such as carbon emissions from coal plants — from regulations that could slow Arctic warming to prevent the bear’s extinction.
“The president’s failure to protect the polar bear is part of a deeply troubling pattern,” said Brendan Cummings of the Center for Biological Diversity, which authored the original scientific petition to give polar bears federal protection. “The Obama administration has repeatedly acknowledged climate change’s threat to endangered species — from polar bears and ice seals in the Arctic to wolverines in continental United States. But time and again, the administration has refused to use the Endangered Species Act to protect these animals from carbon pollution. It’s like pulling the fire alarm and then sending the firefighters home.”
Polar bears were the first species added to the endangered and threatened species list solely because of threats from global warming, following a petition by the Center. The bears depend on sea ice for hunting and other essential behaviors. But the new regulation’s main purpose is to exempt the greenhouse gas emissions melting that ice from the Act’s reach. The rule also reduces the protections the bears would otherwise receive in Alaska from oil-industry activities in their habitat.
The special rule comes just days after a new report from 12 leading polar bear researchers urging governments to begin planning for rapid ecosystem changes that could send key bear populations into abrupt decline. Without help, more than two-thirds of the planet’s polar bears, including all the bears in Alaska, will likely be gone by 2050.
Sea-ice extent across the Arctic reached a record low last year, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center. On Sept. 16 the sea ice reached its summer minimum, at just 1.32 million square miles — half the average size of summer ice between 1979 and 2000 and the lowest since satellite record-keeping began in 1979.
“The Obama administration’s strong climate rhetoric is completely at odds with this weak decision not to protect polar bears from carbon pollution,” Cummings said. “Global warming is triggering an Arctic meltdown that threatens the bear’s place on the planet. These amazing animals need the Endangered Species Act’s full protection — not this hollow half-measure that ignores the mortal danger that polar bears are in from greenhouse gas emissions.”