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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.

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Specific effects of warming speculative

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Right now, any bid to fight the construction of a power plant by arguing that emissions might harm a species would probably be thrown out of court, because such climate-change effects remain speculative, Mr. Suckling concedes.

But in the next few years, if evidence of the threat of global warming on endangered species grows, so could the legal argument that the ESA be considered when a power plant or other carbon-intensive project is proposed, he adds.

Others are far less sure about that. Even some environmentalists are skeptical.

It is, for instance, unlikely that any judge will halt a power plant project just because its emissions contribute to a huge pool of global emissions that collectively harm coral, says Michael Bean, senior attorney at Environmental Defense, a Washington-based environmental group.

"The list of endangered species will in the future include many species threatened by global warming," he says. "But I'm skeptical that the [ESA] itself will be the source of any new restrictions on greenhouse-gas emissions. I think those will come from new legislation."

While winning a place on the endangered species list is always a big step – it's only the first. Habitat loss is the primary cause of species loss.

But only about 38 percent of the 1,367 species on the federal endangered species list actually have the much tougher protection that mandates critical habitat protection. Under the law, no area designated as critical habitat can be destroyed or adversely modified.

Those legal protections have played a major role in limiting development in key areas of the country. Critical-habitat designations covering 80 million acres along the West Coast have sharply reduced fishing in the breeding grounds of the Steller Sea Lion, a move many credit for the recent rebound in the population.

First listed as "threatened" in May 2006, the two coral species have declined 80 to 98 percent across their range. This spring a study found that 10 percent of the Caribbean's 62 reef building corals were threatened, including elkhorn and staghorn corals that used to be prominent.

Scientists studying the decline of coral that used to be the dominant reef-builders off the Florida coast are cheering the new settlement. They say they hope the critical-habitat designation will restrict access to the last remaining coral stands – and help win the legal fight on global warming.

"It's pretty exciting to find that a lowly marine invertebrate might actually someday be the legal catalyst for rulings against greenhouse-gas emissions," says Andrew Baker, a University of Miami marine biologist specializing on climate change impact on coral. "It's like getting Al Capone for tax evasion."