Interior Secretary misrepresented agency report deeming polar bears threatened

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In discussing his department’s proposed designation of the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, Secretary of the Interior Kempthorne said to reporters: (1) that the conclusion in the report by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientists that the threat to the polar bear’s survival due to loss of critical sea ice habitat is not related to analysis of the causes of climate change; and (2) that sea ice loss was the sole “factor” leading to the designation of the polar bear as threatened.  Neither of these assertions is accurate. This is another example of why, in order to get past Administration spin, Congress and the media need to be able to talk directly with federal scientists.   

See our previous posts on this story:
December 28, 2006—Interior Dept. proposal to list polar bear as threatened due to loss of sea ice
December 29, 2006—Polar Bears, Pt 2: “Habitat loss and inadequate regulatory mechanisms to address sea ice recession”

The Interior Department news release on the department’s proposed listing of the polar bear as threatened includes the following:

While the proposal to list the species as threatened cites the threat of receding sea ice, it does not include a scientific analysis of the causes of climate change. That analysis is beyond the scope of the Endangered Species Act review process, which focuses on information about the polar bear and its habitat conditions, including reduced sea ice.

The text of the Interior Department’s Federal Register notice draws no explicit connection between greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.  The word “greenhouse” is not mentioned in the notice, nor is carbon dioxide.

The New York Times reported:

Agency Proposes to List Polar Bears as Threatened

By FELICITY BARRINGER and ANDREW C. REVKIN
December 28, 2006

The Interior Department proposed Wednesday to designate polar bears as a threatened species, saying that the accelerating loss of the Arctic ice that is the bears hunting platform has led biologists to believe that bear populations will decline, perhaps sharply, in the coming decades….

But in a conference call with reporters, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said that although his decision to seek protection for polar bears acknowledged the melting of the Arctic ice, his department was not taking a position on why the ice was melting or what to do about it….

Wait a minute, Secretary Kempthorne.  As Barringer and Revkin noted:

The scientific analysis in the proposal itself, however, did assess the cause of melting ice. Most of the studies on the Arctic climate and ice trends cited to support the proposed listing assumed that the buildup of heat-trapping gases was probably contributing to the loss of sea ice, or that the continued buildup of these gases, left unchecked, could create ice-free Arctic summers later this century, and possibly in as little as three decades….

Kassie Siegel, the lawyer for the Center for Biological Diversity, a group based in Arizona that took the lead in the lawsuit calling on the department to list the polar bear, added, “I dont see how even this administration can write this proposal without acknowledging that the primary threat to polar bears is global warming and without acknowledging the science of global warming.”…

Our December 29 post includes the full text of the section of the Interior Department’s Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) polar bear threat designation report that discusses observed and projected changes in Arctic sea ice cover. The report cites the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment (ACIA), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Third Assessment Report, and other climate studies as the basis for its statement that all climate models project continued Arctic warming and decreases in sea ice cover. The discussion in the FWS report doesn’t go into detail about the climate models, but the modeling projections are driven by scenarios of future greenhouse-gas emissions, i.e., the Fish and Wildlife Service analysis of projected impacts of sea ice loss on polar bears, and thus of how the polar bear is a threatened species, is underpinned by scenario-based projective modeling premised on human activity as a driver of global climate change. How else would FWS draw a conclusion, looking 45 years out (three generations of polar bears, in their analysis—the foreseeable future), that the polar bear is likely during that time frame to become endangered with extinction, except by projective modeling from scenarios?

The FWS report directly attributes past and future reductions in ice to climate change and cites the appropriate literature, including ACIA. The ACIA report says “the strength and patterns of change that have emerged in recent decades indicate that human influences, resulting primarily from increased emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, have now become the dominant factor.” (p. 8, ACIA Overview).

According to the just-released FY2007 edition of Our Changing Planet, the annual report of the U.S. Climate Change Science Program:  “Models driven by projected increases in greenhouse gases project a decrease in summer sea ice of more than 50% over the 21st century…” The Interior Department is a CCSP participating agency and signed off on this report. 

Thus, Interior has, in fact, acknowledged the connection between greenhouse-gas emissions, human-induced warming, consequent observed and projected future loss of Arctic sea ice, and the resulting threat to the polar bear’s existence. They have taken a position on why the sea ice is melting. Secretary Kempthorne’s failure to give a straight answer—to “connect the dots,” as Jim Hansen would say—is yet another example of Administration political officials spinning climate science-related communication in order to disconnect climate research from its policy implications. Kempthorne wasn’t exactly lying, perhaps—he was just being evasive on a key connection.   

But wait, there’s more—

From the transcript of an interview with Secretary Kempthorne on the PBS NewHour with Jim Lehrer:

U.S. Weighs Declaring Polar Bears ‘Threatened’ Species
aired December 27

GWEN IFILL: So why are the polar bears and why may the polar bears be threatened?

DIRK KEMPTHORNE: When the Fish and Wildlife Service went through the process of the Endangered Species Act, they’re required to look at five different factors. And there was only one factor, and that was the habitat, that is being diminished, and that is because of melting sea ice.

They specifically looked at a variety of other things—for example, the harvest of the polar bear by native Alaskans. That was not a threat. They looked at oil and gas, energy development in the North Slope in Alaska. That was not a threat. It is one single issue, and that is melting ice, acknowledging that that trend is now taking place.

Hold on there, Secretary Kempthorne. That’s another example of what Stephen Colbert would call “truthiness.”

From the FAQ link associated with the Interior Department’s news release:

What are the criteria for listing a species as threatened or endangered under the ESA?

The ESA requires that a species be listed if it is imperiled by one or more of the following five criteria:

—Present or threatened destruction, modification or curtailment of its habitat or range;
—Overutilization for commercial, recreational, scientific or educational purposes;
—Disease or predation;
—Inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms; or
—Other natural or manmade factors affecting its continued existence.

Thus identification of any one of these factors as a threat to a species can require the listing of the species under the ESA…. 

Which of these ESA criteria is judged to be most important to the future status of the polar bear?

In the case of polar bears, the decision to propose this listing as Threatened is based on the future effect of the continued expected modification or curtailment of its habitat or range, specifically from receding sea ice, and the absence of any known regulatory mechanisms at the national or international level effectively addressing this threat to polar bear habitat.

Pages 128-133 of the Fish and Wildlife Service polar bear report present the conclusions, the formal “Finding” of the analysis. This section includes the following, on the basis of the report’s analysis of existing regulatory mechanisms: 

Under Factor D (“Inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms”) we find that the regulatory mechanisms in place at the national and international level are effective in addressing the short-term, site-specific threats to polar bears from direct take, disturbance by humans, and incidental or harassment take. These factors are, for the most part, adequately addressed through range state laws, statutes, and other regulatory mechanisms for polar bears. The ultimate threat to the species is loss of habitat, however, is not currently addressed at the national or international level [sic]. We conclude that inadequate regulatory mechanisms to address sea ice recession are a factor that threatens the species throughout all or a significant portion of its range.

Secretary Kempthorne avoided mentioning this finding of the inadequacy of existing regulatory mechanisms at the national or international level to effectively address this threat to polar bear habitat—which itself is, under the Endangered Species Act, a factor sufficient for designating the polar bear as threatened. More evasiveness about telling the story truthfully.

The interview continued:

GWEN IFILL: When you say “that trend is now taking place,” are you acknowledging that there is, indeed, global warming which is causing this to happen?

DIRK KEMPTHORNE: Yes. I don’t think anybody would dispute that we’re seeing a warming of the Earth. President Bush has acknowledged that climate change is occurring;…

Well, looking into Interior’s FAQ material again, we find this on what the President has “acknowledged:”

What President Bush Has Said About Climate Change:

We—first of all, there is—the globe is warming.  The fundamental debate:  Is it manmade or natural….

In other words, the same old misrepresenting of the intelligence on anthropogenic global warming that we have commented on it the past.  Nothing new here.

And we’ll conclude with this bit of double-talk:

GWEN IFILL: How do you decide what can and should be done if you don’t know the causes for the melting or you don’t examine the causes for the melting or the warming itself?

DIRK KEMPTHORNE: …We’ve been through five different ice ages. We’ve been through five different phases where there was warming. Are we now in that again? Man is a contributing factor to that, but to what extent? And, again, that’s beyond the realm of what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will be able to determine in this 12-month period. But what about the animal itself? How adaptive is it to that sort of environment where there may be changes to it. It is a very adaptive animal….

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