New tool to fight global warming: Endangered Species Act?
A recent deal to protect the habitat of endangered coral may offer US environmentalists new leverage.
Environmentalists may have gained a powerful new legal weapon to fight global warming: the Endangered Species Act.Skip to next paragraph
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That's the fallout some expect from a settlement last week between environmentalists and the National Marine Fisheries Service. The government agency agreed to protect the "critical habitat" of elkhorn and staghorn coral, the first species to be recognized as threatened by global warming.
By protecting habitat, not just species, the federal government could be in a position to fight any threats to that habitat, including possibly, global warming, some environmentalists say. While no one expects the US to stop, say, a coal-fired power plant in the Midwest to save Florida coral, the settlement does expand the leverage of the 1973 law that protects species from extinction.
"We think this victory on coral critical habitat actually moves the entire Endangered Species Act [ESA] onto a firm legal foundation for challenging global-warming pollution," says Kieran Suckling, policy director of the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group based in Tucson, Ariz., that filed both coral suits.
Indeed, the coral-protection victory may be just the beginning of a push to use the ESA to fight global warming, he and other environmentalists suggest.
The pair of coral species are struggling to survive because Florida's and the Caribbean's waters have become warmer and more acidic. Many scientists attribute the change to global warming.
Protected coral gets habitat safeguards
The elkhorn and staghorn coral won protected status under the ESA in May 2006. But it took a second legal battle to win a preservation of the corals' "critical habitat," part of last week's settlement between environmentalists and the US fisheries service.
The act's leverage will grow, environmentalists say, as climate change becomes recognized as a factor in species' decline. The number of species-recovery plans that cite global warming as a damaging factor has gone from zero as recently as 1990 to 141 today – with most of the growth since 2000.
While that's still just 9 percent of the 1,494 species listed at one time or another, the increase suggests that a large group of species still awaiting listing will have global warming cited as a major cause in their decline. The polar bear, 12 species of penguins, and the Kittlitz's Murrelet, an Alaskan bird that nests on the edges of glaciers, are all candidates, Mr. Suckling says.