Bearing Global Warming

You've seen them looking a little too skinny in recent photos, lumbering around with their skin sort of sliding on their frames. Now, environmental groups are fighting for their future: three groups filed a lawsuit last week to protect polar bears under the Endangered Species Act. Polar bears are in trouble due to melting sea ice in their Arctic homes. The bears depend on sea ice to hunt.

A study released last week found that four polar bears drowned in 2004 in Alaska, when a normally frozen area melted into ocean.

The lawsuit — filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Greenpeace — asks the Interior Department to list the bears as “threatened,” a designation that carries federal protection and means the species could become “endangered” in the near future if nothing is done to help save it.

When species are listed under the ESA, measures must be taken to preserve their habitat (though a revised version of the ESA, recently passed by the House and awaiting Senate consideration, would significantly change this part of the law). Because polar bear habitat is dwindling as a result of global warming, attempting to protect their habitat — Arctic sea ice — would entail sweeping policy changes to curb emissions and otherwise halt climate change. It seems highly unlikely the Endangered Species Act could be used as a tool to force the U.S. government into action on climate change, but it's certainly an interesting move on the part of the conservation community.

The groups originally petitioned the Interior Department back in February to list the bears, but had no reply from the agency despite the fact that it is meant to respond within 90 days.

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