Let's Not Ignorantly Debate The Endangered Species Act

A nonpartisan scientific commission should assess risks

NO issue better illustrates the need for the nonpartisan intellectual integrity that voters are demanding of Congress and the president than does the future of the Endangered Species Act. The ESA has the distinction of being at once the nation's most praised and most maligned environmental law. The promise made by key members of Congress to emasculate the ESA in the first six months of this congressional session is made credible by the fact that some committees have already approved wholesale rollbacks in all kinds of environmental regulations without even analyzing the ultimate effects on human welfare.

This purely political perspective ignores what should drive discourse about the ESA: science.

ESA supporters contend that the loss of habitat and the accelerating rate of extinction of species are two of the world's biggest environmental problems and that together they doom an ever larger portion of the planet's biological diversity. They emphasize that biological diversity provides not only new sources of food and medicine, but also the basic support systems for all life. Opponents deny there is a serious problem, claiming the ESA is the quintessential example of government unacceptably burdening private citizens to promote the welfare of mostly trivial species. Both sides claim expert support for their positions. Yet both can't be right.

Nail down the facts first

Before we legislate on the ESA, the public needs a baloney detector. The political and economic debates that have raged until now cannot provide it. Only science can.

The ``right'' outcome for the ESA should be determined by a thorough evaluation of pro-ESA and anti-ESA positions. This assessment should seek to nail down the extent to which we are losing species and biodiversity and the risk to humanity because of that loss. Yet incredibly, there has never been such an assessment.

The closest we have come was during the Bush administration, when the Environmental Protection Agency's 39-member independent Science Advisory Board identified what it considered the world's most serious environmental problems. The board cited a strong scientific consensus that human-caused species and habitat losses pose high-risk threats to the environment and human welfare. But the report received little attention. It is likely that the Bush White House perceived that shining a public spotlight on the report would be politically dangerous because it challenged the widespread assumption that our living natural resources are largely immune to damage from humans.

Some suppose that whatever harm might come from biodiversity loss will be canceled out by scientific advances. But if that comfortable assumption is wrong, major natural resource policies will need alteration, which powerful special interests would fiercely resist. It is a rare politician who does not recognize and play to the public's need to believe that America's combination of abundant resources, technological ability, and entrepreneurial spirit can solve all environmental problems before they inflict serious penalties.

A young science

One cannot expect a scientific assessment to answer every pertinent question with absolute accuracy. The science of conservation biology is still young, and challenges continue to be directed at important tenets. And biodiversity loss impacts the environment primarily in ways that even ESA proponents say can become dangerous only through cumulative effects over decades or longer. Yet the world's biological future is not inscrutable. It is too risky to wait for some scientific Godot to reveal all knowledge on the subject.

To ensure a credible assessment, it should be conducted by a special commission whose co-chairmen are named by the president and the National Academy of Sciences, and whose membership is appointed by the relevant professional scientific societies and the House and Senate leaderships of both parties.

To ensure its conclusions are objective, the commission should also take care to solicit expert dissenting evidence and opinion. Because the primary purpose of the commission should be to inject a meaningful consideration of scientific knowledge into the debate over saving endangered species, membership should be limited to qualified scientists and its mission should be restricted to reporting on the status of scientific evidence and its implications.

In the 22 years since the ESA was first enacted, no consensus has emerged among elected policymakers regarding the seriousness of species extinction. Normal special-interest politics will tend to keep it that way. But with credible scientists around the globe claiming that biodiversity loss portends dire consequences for our children and grandchildren, don't we have a moral obligation to evaluate the evidence and assess the risk objectively? The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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