Under pressure from courts, public opinion, Feds list polar bear as threatened

The Department of the Interior explains:

Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne today announced that he is accepting the recommendation of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dale Hall to list the polar bear as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The listing is based on the best available science, which shows that loss of sea ice threatens and will likely continue to threaten polar bear habitat. This loss of habitat puts polar bears at risk of becoming endangered in the foreseeable future, the standard established by the ESA for designating a threatened species.

The press release goes on to explain that, even though the threat to the bears comes from rapidly melting Arctic ice, and that fossil fuel production is responsible for that threat, this will not allow changes in petroleum extraction or carbon emissions. Kempthorne explains, "While the legal standards under the ESA 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. Any real solution requires action by all major economies for it to be effective. That is why I am taking administrative and regulatory action to make certain the ESA isn’t abused to make global warming policies."

The logic here is fairly tortured. Global warming threatens polar bears, and the US government acknowledges that it has to take steps to control that threat. But since every other country hasn't taken steps to control carbon dioxide emissions, no steps can be taken to block that threat.

It isn't that Kempthorne is wrong to say that "The ESA is not the right tool to set U.S. climate policy," the problem is that all other paths to setting climate policy have been closed off. When EPA staffers recommended allowing California to regulate carbon dioxide, political officials overruled them, denying California's request.

Similarly, when the Supreme Court ruled that the EPA could not duck a lawsuit demanding regulations of carbon dioxide, the administration responded by scuttling its internal rulemaking process. Last December, EPA administrator Stephen Johnson "ordered staff to stop work on the federal greenhouse gas proposal, said two sources inside and outside the agency."

In that Supreme Court case, the administration argued that ongoing international negotiations and actions in other governmental agencies precluded the EPA from taking action on carbon emissions. As I said at the time, "The [Court's] majority ruled that the agency could not refuse to regulate carbon dioxide simply because of policy objections, or because of unrelated actions being taken (or not taken) by other parts of the government."

Addressing claims that ongoing action in the international arena, Congress and other agencies mitigated EPA's responsibility to act on carbon emissions, the Court held:

EPA overstates its case in arguing that its decision not to regulate contributes so insignificantly to petitioners’ injuries that it cannot be haled into federal court, and that there is no realistic possibility that the relief sought would mitigate global climate change and remedy petitioners’ injuries, especially since predicted increases in emissions from China, India, and other developing nations will likely offset any marginal domestic decrease EPA regulation could bring about. Agencies, like legislatures, do not generally resolve massive problems in one fell swoop, but instead whittle away over time, refining their approach as circumstances change and they develop a more nuanced understanding of how bestto proceed. That a first step might be tentative does not by itself negate federal-court jurisdiction.

Whether that ruling would apply to the Endangered Species Act as well is unclear, but the principle still applies. The Department of the Interior could take measures to reduce global warming, and it may be that, despite Kempthorne's "administrative and regulatory action to make certain the ESA isn’t abused to make global warming policies," courts will still require action from that agency.

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DaPrez, I think you misspeeeeled "Professor Armstrong doesn't have a clue," or perhaps "business school professors shouldn't be expected to have a clue about population ecology modeling." Or maybe you misspeellled "Prof. Armstrong's argument is blatantly flawed, since he assumes a static environment when we know conditions are changing rapidly."

HTH. I'm happy to fix those typos for you if you like.

No Josh.. no misspellings. I figured you would start lobbing ad-hom bombs about Dr. Armstrong's position as a professor at Wharton. Cheap shot.
Dr. Armstrong's paper is an audit of government Polar Bear studies to assess whether they were consistent with forecasting principles. Forecasting principals apply to all kinds models, population ecology or election forecasting. The paper does not assume a static environment but it does assume you can use statistic theory to evaluate forecasting models.
Apparently you would rather have Al Gore, who received a D in his Natural Sciences class (Man's Place in Nature), audit the government studies of PB's.

How is "Prof. Armstrong's argument is blatantly flawed, since he assumes a static environment when we know conditions are changing rapidly" ad hominem? From your link: "Assuming these restrictions remain, the most appropriate forecast is to assume that the upward trend would continue for a few years, then level off." In other words, they assume constant conditions, and ignore climate change.

Why would they do that? Why would the State of Alaska hire a business school professor to assess ecology (it isn't like there aren't lots of ecologists who model endangered species population dynamics)? Perhaps its because of this:

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.�

A $2 million program funded with little debate by the Legislature last month calls for using state money to fund an "academic based" conference that highlights contrarian scientific research on global warming. 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.�

"We want to have the money to hire scientists to answer the Interior (Department) scientists," House Speaker John Harris, R-Valdez, said last week.

The $2 million is also to be used for a national public relations campaign to promote the findings of the conference.

Critics say it's a waste of state money because all the hard scientific research points in the other direction.

"This truly is the conference to nowhere," said University of Alaska researcher Rick Steiner, who has pressed the Palin administration unsuccessfully for five months to release any scientific backup for its position opposing the federal polar bear listing. �

But the point is not to seek some non-biased measure of scientific truth. The point, said Harris, is to provide a forum for scientists whose views back Alaska's interests.

So a cherrypicked nonspecialist says everything's hunkydory. Sure, specialists at the Interior Department have concluded once and again that shrinking sea ice threatens polar bear populations, that rates of cannibalism and hybridization with grizzly bears are rising, and that the species is threatened. But you'd rather ignore the relevant experts, pretending that Al Gore has anything at all to do with this process. And you'd prefer to pretend that Armstrong was selected through some unbiased and scientifically appropriate process. He wasn't. He was hired as a shill for the state's bogus claims.

I've read his report, and he does, in fact, assume a constant environment. There's no other way to justify his demand that studies "mov[e] forecasts towards 'no change' or, in cases that exhibit a well established long-term trend and where there is no reason to expect the trend to change, being conservative means moving forecasts toward the trend line." He is ignorant of basic polar bear biology (or feigns such ignorance), he quotes blog posts to justify his climate change denialism (probably because published studies all or nearly all support the IPCC consensus about future climate change), and he applies forecasting standards he developed for election models and financial forecasts to ecology, a science which has been successfully developing and testing models since before he was born. He cites no standard works on ecology, or on endangered species management or modeling. I wouldn't mind, except that the experience of his industry with forecasting elections and financial markets is a lot worse than the experience of ecologists projecting ecological models forward.

And you don't have problem with the projecting ecological models forward while only applying 15% of the relevant forecasting principals? The IPCC consensus is anything but scientific and the global climate computer models that underpin the whole thing is a house of cards. Anyone that stands up and says so gets labelled as a "denialist." Asking for good scientific research and analysis isn't denial but it is demanding.

I've studied ecological modeling for a long time. I've got extensive training in statistics. I've taken and taught classes in ecological modeling. I've never heard of Armstrong or his "forecasting principles," and in looking at the website for his Handbook, I fail to see the relevance of these principles, nor do I agree with his personal assessment of how certain situations should be handled (claims supported by citing his own work, which does not increase my confidence that he is laying out some sort of general consensus in his field). It's OK by me that his principles seem totally distinct from how ecologists build and test models, since his handbook seems not to address ecological modeling.

The relevant principles of ecological modeling include an accurate understanding of demography, and knowing how a changing environment changes demography. He doesn't address those issues, nor does he cite basic literature in that field. His background and writing are irrelevant, so it isn't surprising that his analysis is deeply and obviously flawed.

A lesser man than I would toss your own words back at you, saying that Armstrong's work is "a shining example of no matter what hard working professionals do there is always someone in the peanut gallery talking stupid smack." But I'm not that petty.

Just because you have never heard of Prof. Armstrong or of the Principles of Forecasting does not invalidate them. Nevermind the 40 peer reviewers cited on the forecasting webpage plus additional 100 other colleagues that have worked to develop the principles over the last 40 years. His analysis evaluates the forecasting principles applied by the authors of the USGS papers that promote the view of that polar bears are threatened. He is not proposing an alternative ecological model but rather is critiquing the models that were used and demonstrates that they are seriously lacking any credible forecasting capability.
These principles are widely regarded as having merit for evaluating a wide range of academic research that involves forecasting. Yet you imply that for some reason they do not apply to the niche of ecological modeling. Very interesting...

Widely regarded by whom as having merit? I've never heard of the guy. The book says nothing (so far as I can tell) about ecology. He has, so far as I can tell, zero experience in ecology. He is not critiquing the ecology, because he doesn't know anything about it. He's an ideologue, hand-picked to give a predetermined answer about a field he knows nothing about.

I don't know what sort of peer review this guy's book went through, nor do I know what people do in his field. I know he's a business school professor who writes about predicting election results, and not about ecology.

The peer review supporting the decision to list the polar bears was extensive, as is the literature on ecological modeling and endangered species management. People have been building mathematical models in ecology since the 1920s, and have been improving them rapidly. This guy sails in with no knowledge, and declares by fiat that forecasts should always be conservative, and that this means they should always be biased toward "no change" or toward a long-term trend. But that's bull. A prediction that is biased towards no change is bogus and useless.

A prediction should aim toward the expected outcome, and give a clear sense of the range of variability inherent in the system. In a system which is known to be changing, it is flat-out wrong to assume that the system will trend toward the long-term trend.

Furthermore, it is appropriate in many situations to weight outcomes according to their "costs" (cost in terms of utility, not just financial costs but costs in social good, etc.). If one does that, you apply greater weight to high-risk events, even if they happen to be low probability. Furthermore, when some outcomes are irreversible, those risks have to be given special consideration.

These are standard parts of an introductory course in policy-making. I don't know if Armstrong has taken such a course, or if he would agree with standard textbooks in that field. But it's one thing to make a forecast, perhaps another to make a prediction, and certainly another to make a policy recommendation. Having read his paper, I'm not convinced that Armstrong is qualified to do any of the above.

By the standards you laid out, extensive peer-review, long-standing traditions and results in relevant scientific fields, etc., the USGS assessment is far superior. I don't know why you accept his review uncritically, but niggle over the ecological science. It strikes me as intellectually dishonest. I'm all for open debate, but not for double-standards. The USGS assessment was forced by a lawsuit from a deeply anti-environmental administration. If they could have softpedaled or watered down these assessments, don't you think they would have? They knew, based on the data at hand, that there was no way to claim that these studies were bogus. The State of Alaska commissioned a report under the condition that it tell them what they wanted to hear. If Armstrong wanted his money, he had no choice in his conclusion, only in how he justified it. Is that how you think this process should work?

Josh,
You want to dismiss Prof. Armstrong because he is not an ecologist and totally disregard the point he makes in his paper. Prof. Armstrong specializes in forecasting and auditing forecasts. His cadre have been applying rigor and scientific methodology to analyzing ALL types of forecasts for over 40 years. And not just the ones that have to do with elections or what the price of IBM stock will be in six months. The grounds you are applying to dismiss a critique by an expert in the field of forecasting is intellectually dishonest. Like it or not, when academic research proclaims a forecast result it will be evaluated by researchers that study all types of forecasting methodologies. And why should any research that proclaims a forecast not be subject to this type of scrutiny?
The issue here is you want to set aside ecology forecasting as a niche that is immune to this type of scrutiny. How is that intellectually honest?

How is it intellectually honest for him to have conformed his results to those predetermined by the Alaska legislature? I keep raising that point, that he and his results were cherry-picked for political, not scientific, reason, but you ignore it. You also ignore the substantive critiques I've offered of his paper, which are just the tip of the iceberg of what I could say.