The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is nearly a month overdue in making a decision on whether to list the polar bear as a threatened species. Though there's reason to view the delay with cynicism -- it gave the government time to lease prime polar-bear habitat for oil exploration -- this is a decision with far-reaching and potentially unintended consequences.
The polar bear would become the first species listed as a result of global warming rather than direct causes, such as construction in critical habitat, hunting or exposure to toxic substances. Beyond that, the bear doesn't appear remotely threatened at first glance. Its population has increased markedly in recent decades, after hunting laws were tightened, and is estimated at up to 25,000 worldwide, with perhaps 5,000 in Alaska. There's no evidence that the bear's numbers are declining precipitously now, the usual trigger for listing a species. It certainly wouldn't qualify as "endangered" -- on the brink of extinction.
"Threatened" is another matter, requiring only a finding that if conditions don't change, an animal (or plant) is in danger of eventually sliding toward extinction. For this, the evidence is solid. Polar bears spend much of their time not on land but on ice floes, where they hunt and raise their young. The ice has been melting, and polar bears are showing signs of distress as they make longer swims. Three years ago, scientists found that some bears had probably drowned after swimming long distances, unable to find a nearby sheet of ice. At the current rate, the prediction is that 80% of the summertime ice floes will disappear within 20 years.
But if the reasons behind the polar bear's possible inclusion on the threatened list are indirect and complex, so are many of the possible ramifications. Drilling for oil in the bear's hunting waters would appear an obvious problem. But what about the motorists, thousands of miles away, using that oil to drive to work, emitting greenhouse gases as they go? A coal plant, a housing subdivision ... to put it straightforwardly, simply being human and alive contributes to carbon emissions.
The question of how far to go to protect the polar bear quickly becomes a debate about how much we should change our habits to slow the pace of climate change. Reports of diminished glaciers and shifting weather patterns -- for all that they could cause worldwide disaster -- haven't grabbed the public's imagination. A snowy white teddy bear is another matter. The polar bear gives us a tangible reason to recognize that global warming is real and that it matters. Let the conversation begin.