WASHINGTON (AP) – A US judge on Thursday backed a finding by government scientists that global warming is threatening the survival of the polar bear.
U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan ruled that a May 2008 decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to place the bear on the endangered species list as threatened because of melting sea ice was rational given the facts and best available science.
Environmental groups had sued, saying the polar bear needed more protection under the Endangered Species Act. The state of Alaska, under the leadership of then-Gov. Sarah Palin, and hunting groups argued that the listing was unnecessary. They say the bear is protected by other laws and that the scientific case is shaky when it comes to predicting global warming’s toll on the mammal.
In a 116-page opinion, Sullivan dismissed both arguments as “nothing more than competing views about policy and science.”
“According to some plaintiffs, mainstream climate science shows that the polar bear is already irretrievably headed toward extinction throughout its range. According to others, climate science is too uncertain to support any reliable predictions about the future of polar bears,” Sullivan wrote. “This Court is not empowered to choose among these competing views. That is particularly true where, as here, the agency is operating at the frontiers of science.”
The polar bear is unique among species protected under the Endangered Species Act because it is the first to be designated as threatened because of global warming.
That means that while the bear has healthy populations now – some 25,000 can be found across the Arctic region from Alaska to Greenland – scientists had to project what would happen in coming decades. Their conclusion: An estimated 15,000 bears would be lost as rising temperatures caused by the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere melted the sea ice on which the bears depend.
Another complication was what under the law would be restricted, given that global warming is caused by pollution released far from where the bears live.
When the bear was designated as threatened in 2008, the Bush administration made clear that finding could not be used as a backdoor way to control greenhouse gases. The Obama administration agreed a year later, saying activities outside of the bear’s home – such as emissions from a power plant – could not be controlled using the Endangered Species Act.