Polar bear's impact on people is felt

May 19, 2008 5:55:33 AM PDT

The Arctic bear facing extinction because of global warming is bringing home the consequences of cheap energy and - until recently - the need for little sacrifice.

It also reminds us that a choice soon may come between accepting higher electricity and transportation costs and reducing the pollution that is raising the earth's temperature.

In listing the bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, the Bush administration is taking pains to draw a line between protection of the majestic mammal and the origin of its plight - global warming.

"This listing should not open the door ... to regulating greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles, power plants and other sources," said Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, in line with views expressed by President Bush last month.

There is a reason for that. Business fears the bear.

But will the administration, in its final eight months in power, be able to maintain that firewall. The odds are it will not.

Environmentalists already are working on strategies for lawsuits challenging the limits that Kempthorne put on the polar bear listing. That includes assuming no relationship between greenhouse gas emissions from, for example, a Texas power plant, and melting sea ice, and that the bear should have no more protection from oil drilling than it now has.

In fact, those restrictions may not survive a new administration.

All three presidential candidates agree that mandatory restrictions on greenhouse gases are needed. An increasing number of businesses, including some oil companies and coal-burning utilities, and religious leaders are acknowledging the need to address global warming.

It is no wonder that some in the business world view the bear with trepidation.

The massive and powerful furry creature that lumbers across the Arctic ice may accomplish what 20 years of environmental activism has not done: force the issue that global warming already is having an effect and there is a price for both action and inaction.

This "puts a face on it, a polar bear face," said Bob Corell, director of the global change program at the Heinz Center for Science, Economics and the Environment.

Scientists long have talked of the visible damage that global warming has done to sea coral, for example, but it has escaped the notice of the average person.

The polar bear is different.

"This animal is big, it's charismatic and it's powerful. It's beautiful and it generates sympathy. If it blinks out, you'll notice," said Steven E. Sanderson, president of the Wildlife Conservation Society. It manages the Bronx Zoo and three other New York City zoos, the home for three polar bears.

"They are very popular personalities," he said. One of them, Gus, is now more than 20 years old at the Central Park Zoo, and once was declared one of New York City's most important personalities.

Sanderson said he welcomes the listing of the bear as threatened and that as a result it will get some additional protection. But he worries it might be too late for many of the 25,000 polar bears that roam the wild from Alaska to Greenland. "There's so much climate change inertia built into the system already," he says, making it likely the sea ice will continue to recede.

No one really knows how much influence the bear will have on the climate debate. But it is certain that there will be plenty of polar bear pictures on display in the Senate when lawmakers next month are expected to begin debating the cost of curbing greenhouse gases and the cost of doing nothing.

Legislation would, for the first time, impose mandatory limits on carbon dioxide, the leading heat trapping pollution, which comes from burning fossil fuels. Such limits, by all accounts, will mean that people will pay more for electricity, gasoline and other fossil energy.

But then there are other costs: the loss of an Arctic icon.