Culture of Life
Sometimes it's the seemingly small stories that tell us so much. Bush has been derided for his dishonest "culture of life" hypocrisy, and his callous unconcern for the people of New Orleans and Iraq is palpable. Similarly, he clearly doesn't care about the poor, the homeless, the ill, and the suffering. He's the boy in a bubble, surrounded by sycophants, always on vacation or playing video games or taking naps, leaving death and destruction in his blissfully oblivious wake. We've almost gotten used to it.
Two stories came out, last week, and neither is a surprise. First, from the Los Angeles Times:
President Bush on Wednesday moved to exempt Navy sonar training missions off Southern California from complying with key environmental laws, an effort designed to free the military from court-ordered restrictions aimed at protecting whales and dolphins.
The president's directive was designed to short-circuit a long-running battle in which environmental groups have won court victories that frustrated the Navy's preparations for nine training missions over the next year, the first one set to begin next week.
The battle pits concerns over injuries to marine mammals against troop readiness and national security. But with Bush's latest action, it took on overtones of a struggle between the administrative and judicial branches of government.
U.S. District Judge Florence-Marie Cooper in Los Angeles, who ordered the restrictions, has called the Navy's plans "grossly inadequate to protect marine mammals from debilitating levels of sonar exposure."
And then came this, from Salon:
By 2050, two-thirds of the world's polar bears will have vanished, as a result of global warming melting their icy habitat, according to scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey. There may no longer be any polar bears at all living in Alaska, their only home in the United States. Still, this stark prediction, revealed in September 2007, after a yearlong review of the impact of melting sea ice on the Alaskan bears, hasn't inspired the Bush administration to list the bear as even a threatened species, much less an endangered one, under the Endangered Species Act.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, responsible for listing mammals as threatened or endangered, has been one of the most politically compromised scientific divisions in the Bush administration. It didn't consider extending federal protections to polar bears until it was petitioned, and subsequently sued, to do so by a coalition of environmental groups back in 2005. Now it admits that polar bears are "likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future," and explained recent delays by citing the complexity of the decision: It has never before had to designate a species as threatened because of global warming.
But critics say that Fish and Wildlife hasn't made a ruling yet because another agency within the Department of Interior, the Minerals Management Service, is on the verge of handing out oil and gas leases in vast swaths of the polar bears' remaining habitat. The Endangered Species Act prevents the federal government from taking actions that harm protected species. "At the same time the administration is illegally delaying a decision on the polar bear listing, it is also racing to sell some of the polar bear's most important habitat in the Chukchi Sea for oil and gas development," said Andrew Wetzler, director of the Endangered Species Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Polar bears, dolphins, and whales. Symbols, now, of everything Bush doesn't stand for. Of course, Bush doesn't care. Of course he's going to side with the military and the oil and gas industries. Because Bush personifies a mode of thinking that values money and power above all forms of life. We know that. And we are only beginning to acknowledge the potential cost.
As Bryan Walsh reported, in Time Magazine:
"It seems that every time there is a choice between extraction and extinction in this administration, extraction wins," said Rep. Ed Markey, the chairman of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, at a hearing on the issue held Thursday.
Speaking at the hearing, MMS Director Randall Luthi defended the lease sale, arguing that developing fossil fuels in the Arctic needn't hurt the polar bear — although an Interior Department study indicates there's a 33% to 51% chance of an accidental oil spill in the area. At the conclusion of the hearing, Markey introduced legislation that would force the Bush Administration to protect the polar bear before it allows further oil drilling in Alaska, setting up a showdown later this month.
But the fate of the polar bear goes beyond a single oil and gas project. If the species is declared threatened, FWS will have responsibilities under the Endangered Species Act to protect the bears from their main danger — in this case, climate change. That means the government could be challenged legally for anything that increases carbon dioxide emissions — like a new coal power plant — on the grounds that further climate change would further endanger the polar bear. "It would be the first time that the Bush Administration would recognize that global warming had a significant and specific impact on a living being," says Eben Burnham-Snyder, a spokesperson for Markey. "This could have a wide-ranging effect on the energy and environmental policies of this country."
That's a positive spin, but the reality is that FWS will only have limited ability to deal with global warming — and the polar bear is the only first of countless millions of species that could be forced into extinction because of rising temperatures. Conservationists are facing the depressing possibility that all the effort of the past several decades to save endangered species — controlling poaching, creating wildlife reserves, banning animal trade — may be for naught if climate change continues unchecked. In a drastically warmer world, habitats for many species — like the polar bear — could simply disappear, taking the animals with them. Nearly one-third of the world's animals are already under the threat of extinction, and the current rate of species loss is 10,000 times the natural rate. "Global warming has such far-reaching implications [for conservation] that it's very depressing," says Kert Davies, research director for Greenpeace. "Those are the thoughts that send me to the bar." It could start with polar bears, but if we can't get a handle on climate change, one more species might end up threatened: us.