Photo credit: Lars K. Jensen via Flickr/CC BY
To his credit, Bush listed polar bears as threatened due to the species' melting habitat. But since protecting that melting habitat meant fighting global warming--and that meant doing inconvenient stuff like cutting carbon and imposing regulations--Bush then approved a special rule that limited the use of the Endangered Species Act to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. Which rendered the polar bears' listing rather pointless. Now, Obama is on the verge of overturning the rule--making polar bears' vanishing homes a valid reason to shut down coal plants, put the kibosh on new home developments, and limit highway expansion. However, it seems that recently Obama and his Interior Secretary Ken Salazar haven't been too keen on overturning Bush rules regarding endangered species, and the deadline to overturn the rule is approaching fast. According to Greenwire:
The Interior Department has until Saturday to throw out the contested polar bear rule, a move that could open the door to scrutinizing the potential emissions of greenhouse gases of a wide range of projects -- from power plant proposals to new housing developments and interstate highway expansions -- as threats to polar-bear habitat.
And the tricky business begins.
Foes of "big government" will no doubt take issue with using the protection of polar bear habitats as rationale for putting limits on industry in any way--right wing pundits would certainly have a field day (I can just picture the Drudge Report headlines and the Glenn Beck segments now: "Americans lose jobs so polar bears can have more ice to lie on, etc"). And admittedly, of all of the ways to impose emissions regulations, doing so through the Endangered Species Act seems the most tenuous (even though the threat to animal habitats is very real) and most unlikely to gain widespread traction.
But those in favor of abolishing the Bush rule point to the fact that the Endangered Species Act has a mandate that says we must "adopt all measures necessary for the conservation of threatened species." And in this case, scientific consensus says that climate change is robbing polar bears of their habitats, and is the greatest threat to their survival. Thus, we must do what we can to conserve them (i.e. regulating greenhouse gas emissions).
Regardless of whether or not the Obama administration throws out the rule, it seems unlikely that it would be used as to impose climate regulations, just as the EPA is unlikely to actually start regulating greenhouse gases anytime soon. Instead, like the EPA ruling, it could be used as even more leverage to prod Congress into action.
So we probably won't see polar bears shutting down any coal fired power plants in the near future. But they could help.