Global warming’s poster cubs

CONSIDER THE humble polar bear: Ursus maritimus to the scientists who admire it for its intelligence. Now consider President Bush, who might be classified as Executum obstreperum by the thousands of scientists who say his administration fails to appreciate the gravity of global warming. Is it possible that the polar bear can do what the scientists cannot?

What the polar bear could do, essentially, is force the administration to take steps to curb global warming. With its proposal, announced Wednesday, to list polar bears as a threatened species, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the first time acknowledged that global warming is the driving force behind an animal’s potential extinction. If the polar bear is listed as endangered, then the U.S. government would be bound by law to protect it — and protecting it may require regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In the polar bear, the administration may have met its match. This isn’t just any animal — it is a creature at once majestic and cuddly, the star attraction at countless zoos and featured in so many TV commercials it practically qualifies for a SAG card. If that’s not enough, the same type of habitat loss threatening the bears’ survival also endangers the penguin, which had a better year at the box office than all but a few humans.

Less popular is the administration’s stance on global warming. Bush has acknowledged the phenomenon, but he’s reluctant to require industry to cut greenhouse gas emissions. If the polar bear is listed as an endangered species, would the government have to crack down on the carbon emissions that are threatening its existence?

Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne passed the buck on that question, saying such regulations fall to other departments. That’s arguable; Fish and Wildlife is the lead agency charged with protecting species from the effects of pollution. If nothing else, a listing for the polar bear would expose Fish and Wildlife to lawsuits from environmentalists similar to the one against the Environmental Protection Agency that is now before the Supreme Court; a dozen states, including California, say the agency is ignoring its duty to protect public health by not regulating greenhouse gases.

The bear complicates administration policy on another issue as well: drilling for oil in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Polar bears spend most of their lives on sea ice, which is rapidly melting as the oceans get warmer, but pregnant females retreat to dens on land (including in the refuge) to give birth. If the bears are listed as threatened, it would certainly complicate oil companies’ efforts to operate in the refuge.

It will be a year before a decision is made on listing the polar bear. If the administration wants to avoid more than a few legal and political headaches, it should use the time to revisit its antiscientific approach to the world’s most pressing environmental problem.