What's Endangered is Honest Debate

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorApr 26, 2011 7:51 AM


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I'm having a flashback. It's been triggered by all these bobble heads at the NYT discussing the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Amazingly, not one of these very smart bobble heads is an actual conservation biologist, who would, if he or she was given truth serum, have said that our most noble, high-minded environmental law is an unmitigated failure. And will remain a tragic failure until environmentalists feel they have no choice but to trust that their efforts to reform the law won't instead be exploited by Republicans to strangle it dead. You thought the politics of climate change was ugly? Sheesh, the bitter fights over the ESA were the warm-up act. Now, let's party like it's 1999, when I wrote this passage in a feature story, entitled "Vanishing Act," 12 years ago in The Sciences (now defunct, sadly):

Of the 1,200 or so species that have received special attention, only eleven have recovered; seven have gone extinct. But no one--not politicians, not biologists, not property-rights advocates--seems to know how to fix the ESA, which has engendered so much resentment that some landowners have resorted to killing potentially protected species before the legal hammer could come down. Many Democrats and environmentalists are reluctant to acknowledge the law's all-too-obvious weaknesses, lest Republican critics use those admissions as further ammunition for trashing the law altogether. The result is a contentious, stalled mess, and the ESA, which wields the legal force of a thousand-pound gorilla, is ecologically about as effective as a paper tiger.

And this was before global warming came into the mix. Today, there's hardly mention of endangered species and biodiversity in the mainstream media. Climate change gets all the attention. And it's the global warming angle that prompts the bobble headed debate at the Times, under this headline, "Saving species as the climate changes," and this subhead, "Regulators say they are overwhelmed by lawsuits to save flora and fauna endangered by global warming. What's the answer?" Of course, none of the commentators have any answers. But Steven Hayward of the American Enterprise Institute explains why the whole discussion is a futile exercise:

Candid environmentalists know the act works poorly, but are unwilling to support possible reform for fear that Congress will gut the act completely -- better something that works poorly than nothing at all. Perhaps they are right in this calculation.

One of these days I'm going to get around to discussing the very interesting parallels between the once upon a time, hotly contested, politicized debate over the Endangered Species Act and our toxic, politicized climate debate. In the meantime, anyone want to have a go at it?

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