Thursday, May 15, 2008

Update: Alaska State Legislature and Polar Bears

Last Tuesday, I wrote about the Alaska state legislature looking for a few scientists to sign off on its already-formed conclusions regarding polar bears.

The state Legislature is looking to hire a few good polar bear scientists. The conclusions have already been agreed upon -- researchers just have to fill in the science part.


Legislators hope to undermine the public perception of a widespread consensus among polar bear researchers that warming global temperatures and melting Arctic ice threaten the polar bears' survival.

Well, today, the government filled in the science for them:

Polar bears were listed on Wednesday as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act because their sea ice habitat is melting away.

In other words, precisely the opposite conclusion the Alaska legislators are shopping around.

This is not to suggest that Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, who announced the classification, isn't on the same side as the Alaskan lawmakers. His announcement came with plenty of qualifiers, such as "While the legal standards under the Endangered Species Act compel me to list the polar bear as threatened, I want to make clear that this listing will not stop global climate change or prevent any sea ice from melting."

That the announcement was years in the making and released only upon court order suggests further sympathies. I suppose one difference between the two is that one--Alaska--is inviting scientists to shun ethics of their own volition, while the other--the EPA--has engaged in perpetual war on scientists. In essence, the government is stuck with the scientists they've got, and they can't get rid of the science when it's inconvenient, so obstructing the scientists is the next best thing.

The delay in classification, and the appended qualifiers make one thing clear: What is important to Kempthorne is the economics of the decision, not the science. Whether or not you share that view is immaterial to the irrefutable nature of it, as Kempthorne's statements made exceedingly clear. In one statement, he called "the Endangered Species Act 'one of the most inflexible' pieces of legislation because it didn’t allow him to consider whether protecting species like the polar bear from extinction would cost too much."

It is clear that the announcement changes nothing, but it does indicate what the Alaska state legislature is up against in its quest for scientists less clingy to the Scientific Method. Kempthorne clearly detested having to make the announcement he did today, but sometimes even 3 years isn't enough time to make up the science you want.

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