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Polar bears and climate change: A polarizing issue

Environmentalists and global-warming naysayers shifted into high gear Wednesday in response to news that the Interior Department will hold public hearings on a Bush administration proposal to list the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

polar bear
Citing comments by an unnamed Interior Department official, The Washington Post reported that studies focusing on how the bears deal with shrinking Arctic sea ice, which they need for hunting, are prompting the department to submit the proposal Wednesday for publication in the Federal Register. The period for public comment on the proposal is 90 days after its publication.

Under pressure from environmental groups, the Interior Department has been examining the bears' response to climate change in some regions for the past two years. The issue is politically charged because the Bush administration has so far been reluctant to acknowledge that concerns about global warming, which scientists say is driven by power-plant and vehicle emissions, are based on solid scientific evidence. As the Post points out, acknowledging that polar bears--the world's largest bears--may be afflicted by climate change "raises the legal question of whether the government would be required to compel U.S. industries to curb their carbon dioxide output."

One problem caused by warming in the western part of Canada's Hudson Bay: sea ice, which the bears use as a platform for hunting, melts away two and a half weeks earlier than it did 30years ago, shortening the bears' hunting season and leaving them to get by on less body fat until hunting season resumes eight months later. Skinnier bears mean leaner cubs and, very likely, a lower survival rate.

Bloggers around the Web mostly praised the administration's move, although responses on the Post's comments page were mixed.

"Global warming is not a fantasy and it is not just polar bears that are threatened but ALL living things," wrote one reader. "Nature will adapt to change like it has in the past even if adaptation means extinction. Its even more disappointing that a good president like Bush is starting to fall into the global warming cult," wrote another.

Nothing like vindication and denial to heat up a debate.

Blog community response:

"Pushing to list the polar bear as an endangered species. It's an immensely smart backdoor entry to engage this issue."
--Disfarmer on Takenasread

"I could be wrong, but I tend to think we've passed the 'tipping point' on global warming, and it's too late to do much of anything except prepare for the worst."
--Bush Bites on Americablog

"The monarch family should be on the list of endangered species instead of polar bears."
--Quy Tran on Truthdig