There is more to protecting the environment than mitigating climate change.
You wouldn’t know that just from listening to the campaign speeches we’ve all heard over the last few months. The one environmental topic that ever got brought up was climate change. Reducing our dependence on oil, supporting renewable energy, pushing for emissions standards and hybrid tech, energy conservation, that kind of thing. All of them laudable goals, all of them crucial.
But we’ve heard nothing, during this season, of the mass extinction in progress, though it is possibly — in terms of the sheer number of species eradicated so far — already the worst one in Earth’s history. (The end-Permian extinction still holds the crown for percentage of species wiped out, but life has gotten more diverse since that one happened 250 million years ago. There are more species to wipe out now.)
Climate change would certainly aggravate that mass extinction. Quite a few threatened species — the one I’ve studied intensively for a decade being just one example — are likely to be done in by warming temperatures.
But stabilizing the climate won’t reverse all the causes of that mass extinction. We could become carbon-neutral overnight. We could ban all fossil-fuel-burning vehicles. We could replace every last incandescent light bulb with LEDs that use 1/100th the power, put photovoltaic panels on every rooftop and sequester thousands of tons of carbon in salt mines and subduction zones. We could get the partial pressure of atmospheric CO2 back down to pre-industrial levels and still lose species after species as the living systems of the world unravel.
John Muir famously said that when you try to pick one thing out by itself, you find it hitched to everything in the universe. There are few ecosystems not already partly affected by changing climate, few environmental issues not closely interwoven with our bad habit of putting carbon in the air. But we could stabilize the climate and still use the chemical pesticides implicated in the frightening die-off of amphibians. We could stabilize the climate and still trawl the ocean floors, a practice roughly equivalent to clearcutting old-growth forests so you can eat the animals that lived there. We could stabilize the climate and still introduce invasive species to wetlands and estuaries and deserts, still plow under mile after square mile of grassland or forest for monocultured organic crops.
If there is a root cause of this extinction, it is habitat destruction: the conversion of more and more of the Earth’s surface area and biological productivity to human use.
And many of the measures proposed to combat climate change would actually accelerate the pace of habitat destruction. In the desert, we’re faced with projects from concentrating solar generating stations — paving the desert with mirrors — to new transmission lines greenwashed as routes for “renewable energy,” to massive windfarms. There’s renewed interest in fish-killing hydroelectric dams. People still seriously study the feasibility of projects like staggeringly large plantations of fast-growing trees or seeding the ocean with iron dust to promote phytoplankton bloom and consequently boost CO2 uptake. Developers promote new “sustainably-designed,” human-scaled, pedestrian-friendly towns built on what was once undeveloped land.
And it seems, to this observer, like an increasing number of putative environmentalists are ready to sacrifice habitat in the name of “green” energy generation. Some cloak their dismissal of habitat protection in concern-trolling over NIMBYism, while others, for instance some of the commenters in this thread over at Pharyngula, pretty much come out and say “we’re facing Peak Oil, and if the bighorn have to go extinct so that we can meet our energy needs, then that’s the way it is.”
What did our President-Elect say about habitat destruction during the campaign? Not a whole lot, at least not during the debates and major speeches.
The Obama-Biden campaign did release an Energy and Environment policy brief, an honestly wonderful document that does address some major habitat-related issues: restoring the Great Lakes, Gulf Coast, and other wetlands; protecting National Parks and National Forests, and rationalizing water use in the arid West, praiseworthy initiatives all.
The document also details plans to protect and restore clean air and water, has an environmental justice plank more far-reaching than Bill Clinton’s, and speaks in support of sustainable agriculture. It’s a great document and I support its implementation in full, as should you.
It’s also a woefully incomplete document.
It mentions the Endangered Species Act not once.
It doesn’t even mention endangered species. The word “endangered” does appear once in the nine-page document, on page eight:
Barack Obama is also an original cosponsor of the  Combat Illegal Logging Act, which would prohibit the importation of illegally harvested wood products. This would make foreign companies much less likely to engage in massive, illegal deforestation in other countries. Saving these endangered forests preserves a major source of carbon sequestration.
The Combat Illegal Logging Act is an important law, finally passed this year as an amendment to the Farm Bill, written by a coalition of environmentalists, organized labor, and representatives of the domestic wood products industry, which extends the scope of the Lacey Act to include regulating timber imports. Though there’s argument over its effectiveness, it probably will help protect forests in the Amazon, Siberia and Southeast Asia. It’s also a done deal, and the Obama-Biden campaign document offers no expansion, strengthening, or extension of it, merely reporting a past co-sponsorship of a bill that failed to pass in its original form.
The omission of any mention, in the Obama-Biden campaign’s environmental policy document of the US’s keystone species-and habitat-protection law is disappointing in the extreme, but it doesn’t mean the President-Elect hasn’t gone on record as regards ESA. In a March, 2006 letter to a constituent who wrote to support strengthening the ESA, Obama replied:
“The goal of the Endangered Species Act of 1973 is to conserve and protect both the species that are threatened or in danger of extinction and the ecosystems upon which they depend. It currently protects more than 1,200 animal and plant species, of which approximately 25 are found in Illinois. The law can become controversial, however, when projects that may conflict with the ecosystem of species listed as threatened or endangered are proposed in a particular area.
I strongly support the goals of the Endangered Species Act, which has paved the way for a number of species — such as the bald eagle — to return from the brink of extinction. However, during the past 30 years the Endangered Species Act has not always worked perfectly. With all of its accomplishments, we have learned not only what works, but also what is ineffective. Consequently, the Endangered Species Act needs to be updated and improved. And that means moving past rigid ideological positions so that we can reach consensus on the right solutions.
This concord-flavored language may appear reasonable at first reading, but there is nothing in those paragraphs that would be out of place in a speech by former Representative Richard Pombo of California, the worst enemy the ESA ever had. The law becomes controversial when actually enforced against developers of the kind of projects that prompted the passage of the law in the first place, and we must therefore “improve” the Act so that all voices and interests are reflected, not just those of the rigidly ideological wildlife biologists with their non-economically based scientific study and data and such. Language like this has been used to cover over every single weakening of the ESA since its inception, from the development of the Habitat Conservation Plan and Multiple Species Conservation Plan compromises, to the erosion of the Critical Habitat process, and the Executive Branch decisions to impede the listing process.
It’s the wildlife biology equivalent of the creationists’ “Teach the Controversy” line: an apparent compromise that cedes ground in only one direction, and not the direction we want.
The environmental website Grist reports that in the landmark issue of northwestern salmon protection, a dire extinction crisis if ever there was one, Obama has pledged to make sure the interests of agriculture were represented in any solution. It is the interests of agriculture that have put the salmon in the vulnerable position they currently enjoy: federally subsidized dams and diversions for crop irrigation have devastated salmon populations by destroying their spawning habitat.
On the other hand, says Grist, in the public discussion these last weeks of the lame duck Bush administration’s eleventh-hour attacks on ESA, the President-Elect vowed to “fight to maintain the strong protections of the Endangered Species Act and undo this proposal from President Bush.”
The Obama administration’s actual policy toward ESA will likely be determined, to a significant extent, by his Cabinet picks. ESA is mainly administered by the Fish and Wildlife Service, part of the Interior Department, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a division of the Department of Commerce. The President-Elect’s choices for the Interior and Commerce Secretary positions will signal his intent toward the law, if any, and give us a taste of what lies in store for endangered species in the US over the next four years. Clinton-era FWS director Jamie Rappaport Clark has been mentioned as a possible Interior Secretary, and though she’s publicly criticized Bush’s interference with wildlife science, she also presided over the implementation of the ruinous Safe Harbor program, a weakening of ESA under which landowners can disrupt endangered species habitat all they want if those species weren’t found on the property until after the paperwork is done. Montana governor Brian Schweitzer, a promoter of Big Coal and a gut-level libertarian, is another often mentioned as a likely nominee. We’d be better off with Clark, who would at least make wingnuts’ heads explode: she’s currently employed by Defenders of Wildlife, and probably wouldn’t be worse than Bruce Babbit was.
Whichever way Obama goes with his Cabinet picks, we need to start pushing him now to strengthen the Endangered Species Act, the single most useful tool we have to slow down the extinction crisis in the US. The Center for Biological Diversity, probably the most effective (and not coincidentally most uncompromising) organization working on endangered species issues, has spent the last eight years suing the Bush administration to force it to obey the ESA, and they’ve adopted a tone of cautious optimism as regards working with Obama’s administration. You should sign up for their online activist bulletins and join them or donate or both..