Has climate change jeopardized the ESA?
Now that Al Gore won an Oscar, debates over climate change rage. But what, exactly, does climate charge portend for the Endangered Species Act? According to the Christian Science Monitor, the designation of critical habitat for elkhorn and staghorn coral could represent a "powerful new legal weapon" to fight global warming.
Image of staghorn coral from National Marine Fisheries Service.
Others, such as Slate.com, have pointed to the listing of the polar bear as a tool to combat global warming (although many folks acknowledge that the ESA "is ill-equipped to deal with the individual decisions that are responsible for a large proportion of U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions.")
Image of polar bear from U.S. Dept. of Interior.
Sadly, even if coral critical habitat, polar bears, and dozens of other species listings could indeed serve as canaries in the coal mine -- indicators of global climate change that could provide guidance for better management of our planet -- the reality may be that an ESA listing could spawn tremendous activity... signifying nothing. Consider, for example, the gastric brooding frog.. In his remarkable book, The Weather Makers, (see NPR discussion), Tim Flannery (a senior science advisor for the Australian government and a former-critic-turned-believer in global climate change) argued that this frog may have been Australia's first victim of climate change. Adapted to breed tadpoles in its own stomach, this frog possessed remarkable genetics, and an ability to change the acidity of its own organs (and thereby breeding hope among researchers investigating all sorts of gastric ailments.) Alas, this species disappeared from the planet in the 1980s. Other frogs, especially those adapted to changing mountainous climates, have already suffered, or may soon suffer, similar fates. BBC News reported Costa Rica's golden toad as another such victim. Indeed, as climate change triggers temperature shifts, and as cold-adapted mountaintop environments and ecotones disappear, so too must the mountain residents, and especially, the toads and frogs.
Image of the gastric brooding frog from The Australian Government.
For the Endangered Species Act, climate change presents a near insurmountable problem. The ESA is a statute predicated on the notion that awareness and management actions can help save threatened and endangered species. In other words, for the many groups seeking species listings, hope springs eternal. But climate change represents a relentless enemy, and there is a lag time between today's CO2 levels and tomorrow's rising temperatures.. Yes, worldwide action may prevent the worst-case scenarios for humanity, but for some species, their fate is already decided. For the frogs at the mountaintop, even a few degrees of temperature change could spell doom. None of the tools in the ESA -- listing, designation of critical habitat, recovery planning, take prohibitions, or habitat conservation planning -- can prevent the wholescale changes to habitat that could result from global climate change.